The star's image flickers into view in the dark space of the theater. Her face is white, cosmetically enhanced, and overexposed to such an extent that it glimmers across the screen rather than suggesting solid flesh. The faces of makeup tutorial producers fill smaller computer screens and flicker because of YouTube's low resolution and sometimes-staccato delivery. Mary Ann Doane suggests that close-ups generate “fascination, love, horror, empathy, pain, unease.”1 Close-ups also convey beauty practices. Richard Dyer describes how light beautifies Lillian Gish, “bringing out the fairness of her hair; the use of make-up too gives her face a seamless white glow.”2 Dyer links this lightness to the articulation of whiteness and goodness, a topic that is picked up in considerations of the relationship between beauty culture, lightness, whiteness, and racial norms.
Studies of the development of lighting and cinematography, including Patrick Keating's work, indicate the ways in which binary gendered white subjects are produced within films.3 In the 1930s, these techniques helped constitute the glamorous white star as beautiful. Carol Dyhouse traces the relationship between beauty and film industries and glamour.4 Anne Helen Petersen argues that film stars were “made to look glamorous via numerous takes, hours in makeup, and few demands of spontaneity,” whereas television stars appeared “with poor lighting and in poor-quality transmission.”5 These notions of beauty also inform more recent conceptions of makeovers and the ways women's feminine masquerades foreground women's construction and performance as image.
Women in the mid-twentieth century, according to Jackie Stacey, employed makeup and clothing to take up film stars’ more ideal femininities.6 Stacey relates film spectatorship and consumerism, including extra-cinematic identification, to women's use of fashion and makeup to conceptualize their identities. In Elizabeth Affuso's study of cosmetic tie-ins to science fiction and comic book brands, she considers the ways contemporary fan cultures recognize women as subjects and reproduce stereotypes about women's gendered interests, consumerism, and aesthetic appearance.7 Hilary Radner analyzes how cosmetic advertising invokes feminine positions where women are the subjects of their own pleasures.8 Feminist media studies scholars locate such pleasures in film viewing, feminine practices, and feminist resistance.
As the above examples suggest, beauty culture studies is a form of feminist media studies. It is also somewhat unnamed and without a specific disciplinary affiliation. Beauty culture studies, as my account indicates, tends to address media forms, including film, television, print culture, and the internet. It also focuses on representations, especially the ways women are rendered as visual and made up. In addition, beauty culture studies addresses the technologies and social practices through which women and femininity are manufactured and made legible, including conceptions of transformation. While beauty culture encapsulates many technologies of the body and gender, my focus will be on cosmetics, transformations, and masquerades.
Susan Brownmiller indicates that feminist resistance to women's objectification and recognition of women's reasons for wearing cosmetics have produced one of the most difficult to resolve conflicts in the women's movement.9 Cosmetic applications have been understood as regulating scripts, ways of negotiating cultural expectations, pleasurable creative practices, and shared experiences. According to Susan Bordo, women spend a great deal of time anxiously working on their bodies. Women become “docile bodies”; are “habituated to external regulation, subjection, transformation, ‘improvement’”; and identify beauty as self-defining.10 Women's cosmetic applications result in what Sandra L. Bartky identifies as the production of similar self-portraits.11 Kathy Davis's research is more sympathetic to cosmetic practices, indicating that cosmetic surgery procedures provide women with methods of working within cultural limitations.12 Sociologist Paula Black's study of women's pleasurable experiences in salons references Davis's assertion that feminist beauty research should be grounded in everyday practices.13 Miliann Kang and Sarah Maslin Nir identify the ambivalent relationships between workers and patrons, unhealthy conditions, and racism in nail salons.14 Ana Sofia Elias, Rosalind Gill, and Christina Scharff also emphasize aesthetic labor.15
Kobena Mercer critiques the ways women's whiteness is the beauty standard.16 As Tracey Owens Patton indicates, differences in “body image, skin color, and hair haunt the existence and psychology of Black women.”17 Margaret Hunter describes this as a “beauty queue” where lighter-skinned women garner more privilege.18 Early modern English women used cosmetics, as Kimberly Poitevin indicates, to distinguish themselves from foreigners and darker-skinned individuals.19 Yet women who used these easily applied products exposed color as an unreliable marker and the constructed aspects of gender and race.
Feminist scholars indicate how makeover television and print magazines direct people, especially women, to take responsibility for and to work on their appearances. Beauty experts in the early twentieth century, according to Kathy Peiss's account of the industry, “proclaimed the mutual transformation of external appearance and inner well-being” and deployed before-and-after images.20 Brenda R. Weber notes that television makeovers are designed to resolve distinctions between “internal subjectivity and external signification of selfhood.”21 The goal of makeovers of women, as Weber argues, is to make her “appear as herself, only better.” Jack Z. Bratich highlights these operations when defining reality television as a “performative phenomenon that captures, modifies, reorganizes, and distributes powers of transformation.”22 The term “transformation” appears throughout the beauty culture literature but, as I suggest later in this essay, television studies scholars emphasize the ways women are directed to change their appearance for the better, while some YouTube beauty video bloggers, or vloggers, embrace transformations as ways of conveying multiple and changing selves.
Mary Ann Doane proposes that the excesses of feminine masquerades, including beauty practices, can enable women to destabilize normative and binary distinctions between object and subject positions that articulate women as passive. She indicates that the “masquerade, in flaunting femininity, holds it at a distance. Womanliness is a mask which can be worn or removed.”23 Aviva Briefel foregrounds some of Doane's concerns and argues that masquerades reproduce rather than resist heterosexual norms. Briefel chronicles how “nineteenth-century beauty manuals” describe the “dangers of putting on a face,” including poisoning from toxic materials.24 Llewellyn Negrin further argues that masquerades and related theories should challenge the “reduction of self-identity to image.”25 I understand masquerades as the excesses that are produced when people highlight women's production of femininity through such processes as cosmetic applications and attempt to stabilize related societal norms.
Men's masculine masquerades are less frequently considered, especially outside of gay camp performances, because heterosexual men are not inherently positioned as images and objects. In his analysis of masculine superhero masquerades, Friedrich Weltzien highlights an image of Superman ripping off his clothes and revealing his superhero suit. Weltzien argues, “No skin” is shown, only “layers of identity.”26 Some shifts in masculine identities are also produced by advertisements for men's grooming products that, as Claire Harrison demonstrates, make men more critical of their physiognomy while allowing them to maintain normative male standards.27 Harrison finds that men's makeup addresses health concerns rather than beauty matters. Rosalind Gill, Karen Henwood, and Carl McLean suggest that men must labor on their physiognomies while refuting any unsuitable engagement with their appearance.28 These tactics are adopted because reality television and other makeovers, as Weber indicates, challenge normative masculinity by depicting men in passive and feminine positions.29
Critical commentary on cosmetics also appears in feminist websites like Feministe and Jezebel. Jezebel's original mission was to challenge the ways women's magazines manipulate women's images.30 Jezebel's “PhotoShop of Horrors” series provides before-and-after photos from women's magazines, animated GIFs that demonstrate airbrushed or Photoshopped changes, and annotated versions of unretouched photos. Participants in these settings also consider the relationship between their position as feminists and their pleasure in and ambivalence about beauty practices. For instance, Emily Hauser addresses her own beauty work that she thinks feminists should not do, for instance not leaving the house without makeup and shaving.31
Makeup artists and enthusiasts also employ YouTube to promote feminist politics and beauty tutorials. These women's self-representations matter on YouTube, as Lindsey Wotanis and Laurie McMillan argue, because of their underrepresentation in this setting and the higher likelihood for women producers to experience negative commentary about their physical appearance.32 The makeup artist NikkieTutorials addresses such issues in her “The Power of MAKEUP!” video.33 Nikkie suggests that women are scorned for loving makeup because people believe that cosmetics are used to attract men and are a sign of insecurity. She proposes a counter to this where “it would be cool to show you the power of makeup” and a “transformation” of one side of her face. Thousands of beauty vloggers and bloggers responded to #thepowerofmakeup with visuals. As I suggest in other research, they use the term “transformation” to underscore varied applications and more fluid practices than reality television makeovers.34
Feminist media scholars may only consider beauty culture peripherally, but their addresses to close-ups, lighting, representations, the gaze, femininity, and consumerism suggest that beauty culture studies should be a vital analytical lens. Beauty culture studies could also further employ feminist media studies, including theories of masquerade and examinations of women's pleasure. In addition, wide-scale references to “transformation” encourage more detailed analysis of what the term means, its normalizing functions, and when transformations underscore morphed and multiple selves.