Let’s start with one premise: Most women (hell, most men) do not have naturally red lips. Or perfectly sculpted eyebrows. Or darkly-lined eyes. Or blue-gray shaded eyelids.
There is a very funny scene in the premiere episode of upcoming Netflix series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (which I’m very much looking forward to, btw). Our heroine goes to bed, waits until her recently-wed husband is asleep, and then tiptoes to the bathroom. She puts her hair in curlers, removes her makeup, douses her face in cold cream and then goes back to bed. She wakes about half an hour before the alarm, removes the cold cream, brushes out her hair, applies her makeup (lipstick and all), and then goes back to bed and pretends to be asleep until the alarm goes off, and her husband “wakes” his fabulous-looking wife.
For me, it was a wonderful setup of a popular movie trope: That beautiful women always look perfectly cosmeticized. Women in most films — especially before the last decade or so — always have artfully placed hair, red lips and carefully detailed eyes. It doesn’t matter if they’ve just gotten out of bed or just finished cooking a five-course dinner. It doesn’t matter if they’ve been dumped in the river or a pool, spent hours trudging through a jungle, carried around by a monster, saved from a fire, pulled onto a horse, — except for an artfully placed smudge, their makeup is always perfect.
(And yes, I’m aware that everybody actually wears makeup in movies. But except for silents and early talkies — have you seen how much lipstick Bing Crosby wears in some of his earliest films? — men’s faces are carefully made up so they don’t look like they’re wearing cosmetics. But women always do — at least, to those of us who know what women look like without makeup.)
I have to admit, as somebody who has never been at all good at (or all that interested in) makeup, I harbor a bit of secret resentment about that. When I was young and inexperienced at looking for love, I was told by several young men that they preferred their women to be “natural.” I took them at their word — until I noticed that, for the most part, the women they asked out were the ones who knew how to use cosmetics to enhance their faces without looking made up. Not having that skill, I was never able to come up to their expectations of what natural should look like in a woman. Natural wasn’t what real women looked like without makeup. Natural was what the women on movies and TV looked like.
More recently, though, many women’s faces on screen have become a little more realistic. When they’re supposed to be just out of bed, or just spent two days running from evil would-be world dominators, their lips and eyes often look plainer and more natural; their hair becomes tousled and even, god help us, truly messy. I love that. I’d love more of it.
Which finally has me coming to what inspired this rant. One of the latest Netflix series to attract attention is a Western called Godless, which is about a town that is inhabited mostly by women who were widowed by the violent deaths of their husbands.
I’ve only been able to watch half of the first episode so far. It’s obviously well written and well acted. So far, it seems to be more about the male protagonists than the women, so my expectations were a little disappointed, but okay — it still could be a fine series.
However (and yes, this is petty, but screw it, I deserve to be occasionally petty if I want to) the cosmetics on the woman who plays Alice Fletcher, what looks to be the lead female role, annoyed the hell out of me.
Most of the other women up until then — the ones without too many lines — appeared to be sturdy, attractive-without-being-fashion-models characters. But Alice is different. She lives with her Paiute mother-in-law and her young son on a remote ranch where the nearest neighbor is probably several miles away. She has had a tough life. She knows how to use a gun to protect herself. She cares for a corral full of horses. The family works hard to provide for themselves.
And this down-home, hard-working, 19th-century Western woman is walking around her ranch wearing red lipstick and blue-gray eye shadow, perfectly manicured eyebrows and carefully applied eyeliner. In contrast to her mother-in-law (who is older and not a love-interest and therefore doesn’t count), she obviously spends considerable time each morning — perhaps before she feeds the horses and chops the wood and cooks the breakfast — touching up her face in case any interesting strangers show up at the old homestead.
Which, I’m sorry to say, hit one of my “oh, please!” buttons and kept pushing me out of the otherwise interesting plotline. So I’ll just let my totally personal rant ends with this: Can we please, please, please make sure our tough, hard-working heroines look like normally attractive women rather than fashion models? Can we try to remember that it takes time and effort to look preternaturally gorgeous rather than try to make us believe that some women have naturally bright red lips and blue-gray eyelids?