The Telegraph’s highly controversial article ‘Why Kamala Harris is the modern beauty icon the world needs’ reignited the beauty debate among feminists. Whether you believe makeup is intrinsically oppressive or empowering, you cannot deny the article was laughable for its characterisation of Harris’ simplistic makeup as a political tool or as the sign of a beauty icon.
Feminist theory and discourse have centred around the implications of makeup for heterosexual, cis women for far too long. The true beauty icons have always resided in the queer community where political power is radically reclaimed through cosmetics.
Kamala Harris and the feminist beauty debate
The infamous Telegraph article depicted Kamala Harris’ makeup as an empowering choice. It employed combative language, explicitly referring to makeup as “war paint”. This is not rare, feminists who err on the side of weaponised femininity can be heard exclaiming ‘eyeliner wings so sharp they could kill a man’ or ‘lipstick as red as the blood of my enemies’. They find power in the reclaiming of cosmetics, believing that the confidence makeup brings them is a suit of armour on the battlefields of patriarchy.
Those feminists who disagree cannot separate makeup from its historical purpose: re-enforcing patriarchal standards of beauty. From Mary Wollstonecraft to Susan Bordo, makeup has been problematised in feminist theory, seen as a hindrance to the aims of social and political equality. Such thinkers critiqued the Harris article for being reductive, demeaning her political achievements, and engaging in media sexism.
Queer erasure in makeup academia
What both lines of argument ignore is the radical presence of the LGBTQ+ community and the revolutionary way they use makeup. The ‘for’ feminists overstress the ‘feminine’ power of makeup, which can result in prolonging the myth in mainstream culture that makeup =power =female. A prominent mainstream MUA Scott Barnes declared that “all women have the ability to use beauty as a tool. A man can’t work a skirt, mascara and blowout to light up a room the way a woman can”. Which, frankly, is bullshit. I mean, have you seen the Harry Styles’ Vogue cover?!
The ‘against’ feminists fail to acknowledge how makeup has directly advanced commercial for queer people. They choose instead to stare narrowly at the murky reflections of female faces, subscribing to compulsory heterosexuality and believing that wearing makeup =attracting men = patriarchal. Queer people engaging with cosmetics is intrinsically political because the truth is: “absolutely any interaction with makeup is radical when we use it in ways that don’t fit with how society believes our gender should behave”.
Personally, I find the idea that Harris uses makeup as a radical political move derisive. The Telegraph risks celebrating choice-feminism as they do not realise or interrogate the cultural pressures that make it difficult for women to opt-out of beauty culture. For example, makeup is known to increase a woman’s likability and competence in the world of work and can make women appear less threatening to male colleagues. Thus, I doubt she had much of a choice in her makeup – Harris’ ‘relaxed, approachable style’ is sadly required for a female professional.
For this reason, Kamala Harris’ makeup is hardly radical, nor should The Telegraph proclaim her a “modern beauty icon” who “legions of women and girls” should look up too. Rather, it is time to celebrate queer icons and their radical makeup, who women and men and non-binary people alike should look up to, those icons who have been ignored by feminist academia and mainstream media for too long.
Boundary-breaking ballrooms and drag
Historically, ballroom culture and drag marked the first modern use of makeup by the community to declare protest and defiance. An underground subculture established mainly by Black and Latino members was born in cities like New York.
As early as the 1920s in New York, balls were safe places for ‘Houses’ (surrogate LGBTQ+ families) to compete and celebrate their ‘transgressive’ identities. Through makeup, clothes, and dance, contestants entered categories which parody heterosexuality in categories such as ‘Butch Queen’ and ‘Femme Realness’. High fashion, extravagance and boldness dominated ballroom culture, giving birth to the term ‘black glam’. Then there’s drag makeup, which is typically exaggerated and bold, with stark colours, contour, flashy eyelashes and sharp lines.
In Paris Is Burning, Dorian Corey, a legendary trans figure, applies her makeup while talking about ball culture. She states “in a ballroom you can be anything you want”, that in many categories and walks “you are showing the straight world [you] can be an executive … if I had the opportunity I could be” one. The political nature lies both in the application of loud, unafraid makeup and in the creation of a world in which LGBTQ people have social autonomy, freedom and opportunity.
In this environment, makeup was worn for the categories, for the culture, for the celebration. A form of self-expression which explicitly defies boundaries of gender or sexuality. Queer makeup is intrinsically boundary-pushing – the colours, glitter, loudness and aesthetic freedom. It sets a precedent of makeup that refuses to play by the rules, refusing to conform to expectations of what constitutes ‘too much’, ‘too bold’, or ‘too feminine’.
Glitter, politics and pride
The makeup tool of glitter gets its own section, because of its role in the advancement of political and social equality in the queer community. Glitter is an identity marker among the LGBTQ+ community. Celebratory by nature, it is tied to euphoria, performance, protest and defiance.
Glitter has always been associated with transgressive fringe cultures. Glam rockers like T. Rex, Roxy Music, and David Bowie used it as a method of blurring gender boundaries, portraying androgyny and sexual ambiguity. Intimately entwined with drag and queer performance, glitter is a form of beauty defiance. With its unapologetic colours and light-catching qualities, it demands to be seen. An article published by online beauty magazine Byrdie states “glitter decides where your gaze stops and starts, where your line of vision lands and where it sneaks off to. It takes up visual space and tells you where to look”.
Glitter is notoriously hard to get rid of and activists have used it for decades, for example in ‘glitter bombing’. This involves throwing glitter on people at public events or protests; mainly homophobic politicians are drenched in sparkles, amid shouts for LGBTQ rights. Though other notable figures like Germaine Greer have been glitter bombed, for her unrepentant transphobia.
A political tool for visibility and self-expression that began in drag history has now found its way firmly into mainstream youth culture, a sign of social equality and acceptance. HBO show Euphoria which made headlines for its transgressive, boundary-pushing makeup revolved around a wlw relationship and a trans love interest. Protagonist Rue, who is in love with her best friend Jules, is rarely seen without her trademark glitter.
The internet and Gen Z, queer MUAs
Over the past few years, the beauty industry has been revolutionised by the internet and, more specifically, social media. Queer kids who began by doing makeup tutorials from their bedrooms have become the faces of modern makeup. YouTube gave a platform to LGBTQ+ self-taught MUAs and beauty gurus in abundance, including Antonia Garza (17), James Charles (21), Bretman Rock (22), and Nikita Dragun (24). Many of these MUAs now front mainstream brands and dominate the industry with their own makeup lines. Both Charles and Dragun have made history, the former as the first male ambassador for CoverGirl and the latter by launching the first major beauty label owned by a trans woman.
Such success has rarely been afforded to LGBTQ+ people in the past. If only Dorian Corey could see that queer icons are running the show now, that her actions in the ballrooms paved the way for their opportunities to be made-up executives in the straight world.
So, given the inextricability of queerness from the weaponisation of makeup; given the political and social advancement of the LGBTQ community through cosmetics; given the young, queer beauty icons who dominate commercial success and social consciousness; why does feminist theory still ignore radical queer makeup?
Graphic courtesy of Nahal Sheikh