Theatre review: Skinhouse

Skinhouse


Mar 23 – Apr 3

Wed, Fri, Sun 8:30pm / Thu, Sat 6:30pm; extra show on Sunday 3rd April at 4.30pm.

La Mama Theatre, 205 Faraday Street Carlton

Full $25 / $15 Concession

Facebook event page

There’s something almost disconcertingly delicate about Skinhouse. The fifty-five minute play with music, written and performed by Kristina Benton and Fleur Kilpatrick, is so finely balanced, so compact and precisely executed and human and fleeting, that it feels as if it might float or melt away like a sliver of ice on skin.

It’s a play about Kristina’s experiences in sex work, or at least that’s the most headline-grabbing way to describe it. Really, it’s about the relationship between two friends, their home together, old memories, little tendernesses and growing fears and frustrations, viewed through the lens of two storytellers grappling with an industry that threatens to seduce one of them into permanent entanglement. The performances of the two leads, combined with the work of director Danny Delahunty, create a sense of casual, uncontrived, honest intimacy between Fleur and Kristina that’s rare and incredibly difficult to conjure on stage. They travel back and forth between the world of the brothel and the world of their apartment until the two places meld together as Kristina brings the stresses and recollections of work into her home. This blending is exquisitely enhanced by Rob Sowinski’s set, where a living room couch and dressmaker’s mannequin sit in surprising concordance beside hollow plastic female torsos with glowing incandescent hearts and red-lit hanging lights and lamps. The lighting seems nearly alive, growing and pulsing and fading as the emotional landscape changes; soft and inviting for home, rich and dark and parodying sexiness for the brothel, and everything in between for memory and reflection. The music, too, shifts and evolves, but with constant undertones of melancholy and sweetness; Adrian Sergovich’s incidental music and Kristina’s “In Our Living Room” are particular highlights, and Fleur’s gorgeous, clear soprano is just soft enough to make you lean forward in your seat, not wanting to miss a note.

Sometimes I’m frustrated by how ephemeral theatre is. The shows I’ve loved over the years can never exist again in their past form; even if the script is taken up by new people with new perspectives and they create something entirely apart from the original, nothing can recapture a production once it’s over, save for a pale imitation in the form of a recording. Catch this production before it melts away.

Disney, for once, brings you the best relationship advice you will ever receive

There are, obviously, ways to tell the truth that are more empathetic or more kind or more effective. But in the end, if you want emotional intimacy and genuine friendship with a partner, it all comes down to that.

(Crossposted.)

Gunwitch and the adversarial relationship model: Sondheim knows what’s up

This is a crosspost from the tumblr, and I have no doubt that it’s going to be the first of many posts on this subject. As the name of the blog (inspired by the Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus book series) suggests, I have a special interest in relationship advice, good, bad and ugly. The advice I refer to in this post is definitely ugly.

There is a lot of conversation going on right now in relation to the Arizona shooting and the use of violent, inciting rhetoric in politics. There’s been discussion of the need both for a less combative, violent, adversarial language in politics and for resources to help the mentally ill. This dovetails really well with something I have wanted to talk about for a long time.

When people talk about dating and relationships as a battle, as a game of pursuer and pursued, when they talk about the “battle of the sexes” and “getting the upper hand”, of being endlessly persistent in the face of rejection and of women as “targets”, as both the enemy and the spoils won by the victors, I wonder if they realise how seriously some people are taking that ideology.

Basically, this:

One of the pickup artist “gurus” cited in Neil Strauss’ bestselling memoir The Game has just been arrested, allegedly for shooting a woman in the face. (She has, thankfully, survived the incident.)

His nickname, the name by which he marketed his materials online, was Gunwitch, and he advocated a method which could be accurately summarised, and has been summarised by him, as “make the ho say no”, where a man is meant to pursue a woman basically until she tells you in no uncertain terms to fuck off. This was the logo on one of his audiotapes, “The Way of Gun”:

That was his image of aspiration, of success.

Even if it transpires that the shooting was a result of mere poor gun safety and impaired judgment due to drug/alcohol use, I still think this is a good opportunity for reflection.

I began this post with a link to a song by Stephen Sondheim because it provides such a perfect image of what is essentially an adversarial, rather than co-operative, relationship model, in which it is both “terrible” and “glorious” to be a woman, in which there is a constant struggle over control of one’s partner, a constant paranoia over having the upper hand.

Maybe it’s the woman who “plays hard to get”, fearing that admitting genuine attraction will make her look weak, will allow the man to stomp all over her. Maybe it’s the man who pretends aloofness, believing that no woman is attracted to a man who shows genuine affection, that women only want “bad boys” and niceness is the enemy, so he’d better treat her mean.

The worst members of the pickup artist community – and I recognise that there are people who call themselves pickup artists and do not advocate this tripe – know all too well how to “win” this “game”, through vicious emotional manipulation [trigger warnings for more than a passing resemblance to emotional abuse at the link], and they think this is what women secretly crave, what they believe to be right. This is in no way a new attitude, the idea that women only want a man who can control them; it’s been passed down reverently through the generations like some sort of genuine pearl of wisdom.

It’s easy to say that Gunwitch was a “lone crazy”, but he exists on a continuum; he both perpetuated and was influenced by a culture that promotes the model of adversarial relationships, where someone must always dominate, where a partner’s independence is seen as a threat and control is the ideal, where it is better to be a harasser or an emotional manipulator than a decent human being. We need to be presenting an alternate narrative of relationship success, a co-operative model in which mutual respect and desire win the day, in which there is no “upper hand” to be won, in which we recognise that niceness genuinely is a virtue and thuggishness, assholishness and amorality are not desirable traits in a human, that partners are not faceless targets to be hit, games to be won and mastered.

And, in addition to making mental health resources more generally accessible, we need to be looking out for people within our communities who are struggling with interpersonal relationships, and trying to give them help, access to good resources and good advice, so that they don’t sink into the mire of the adversarial relationship model and end up hating or resenting the objects of their affections. We can’t let these things slide. There are lives riding on this.

Modify

We have this really unfortunate problem, humans, where we think we are always insufficient. We are disturbingly good at developing tools to legitimise that fear, to keep ourselves in a panic about our faces and our bodies especially. This is a tool that offers the deceptive glimmer of freedom from scrutiny – “You can make yourself flawless!” – but encourages us to believe we must continue to strive for perfection, since of course we will never be free from scrutiny, not really.

The girl on the left looks like she’s in the midst of puberty, judging from that little pimple by her lower lip, a place where my skin tends to rebel often. Her cheeks are the bright red of sunburn, exertion or rosacea, or all three, and freckles dust her face. She looks like she’s been enjoying an Australian summer. The set of her lips, her steady dark brows and the determination in her slightly tired, striking eyes conjures the impression of a tough, cheery country girl who’s seen the effects of a drought up close, who’s sat by animals as they are put down out of necessity, but maybe that’s just my cultural baggage trailing along behind me. I don’t have any idea who she is, really, but there are things written on her face, and they may not mean what I have arbitrarily decided that they mean, but to her, they mean something; to her family, they mean or meant something; to her friends, they mean something; to her high school teachers, they meant something. Something both incredibly superficial and informed by deep intimacy and experience. A thousand different somethings.

The girl on the right is beautiful, and enhanced, and diluted. Ruddy cheeks and freckles are not acceptable; the appropriate response to sun is a tan. Pimples are not acceptable; you may look young in the sense of dewy skin and a lack of wrinkes – and the lines beneath her eyes have indeed been softened – but the imperfections of youth are unacceptable. Her brows have been curved, lengthening, very slightly, the space between brow and upper eyelid, for the greater appearance of naivete and eagerness. Even the planes, peaks and valleys of her face have been smoothed – the indentation above her cupid’s bow; the points of cartilage shaping the tip of her nose. Her eyes were apparently not bright enough. Where once they were inscrutable, old and cheeky, perhaps guarded, now they invite you in, unambiguously, and yet are empty, the same expression you’ve seen so many times before that it has ceased to mean anything, the endless invitation. Her skin has no pores.

There was nothing wrong with her. She didn’t need correcting. I don’t know that she would agree.

We really do hate ourselves, don’t we?

Crossposted here, at the tumblr.

What we talk about when we talk about the bad -isms

This is a follow-up to something short I posted on tumblr. (It should be noted that the wordpress and the tumblr really do work as companions to one another – here, I post things that are quite long and/or mostly my writing; there, I tend to reblog short things from others with commentary.) Sorry about the seemingly enormous paragraphs lower down – for some reason, the line breaks I’ve inserted refuse to appear. Shall be fixed asap.)

In that post, I quoted Harriet J of Fugitivus, who wrote, from an American perspective, about realising that the dominant media representations of people, and narratives about people, are about white people, and how an awareness of that may affect the way you see the world. The part I quoted was:

If you are white and you think you are pretty aware of race and racism, ask yourself this: do you feel comfortable in all-white spaces? Do you feel comfortable reading books without more than one non-white character? Or watching movies where there are never more than two black people (and if there are, in a modified Bechdel test, do they speak to each other?) Do you feel comfortable in stores or restaurants with all-white staff, all-white employees, all-white posters, all-white products? Do you feel comfortable when every banner ad on Amazon shows you a white person, unless you search for products with the words “african-american” in them?

The whole entry can be read here.

A friend messaged me, wanting to discuss this particular post; the friend is on board with most of the things I tend to post there, but had some issues with this one. Our conversation is reproduced here with his permission, because I think it exemplifies the reason people get so confused about the purpose of the Bechdel test (which is explained with depth and aplomb in the link within the quote, so you should read it there rather than here):

P: I’m a little confused as to the point of this one – is a work automatically discriminatory if it doesn’t feature black people? I mean, even in America, given the statistical racial demographics, a work would have to feature a core cast of about twenty characters just in order for it to pass that modified Bechdel test. I guess my position comes down to, “being comfortable around white people does not entail being uncomfortable around everyone else. And it certainly doesn’t make you unaware of racism”.

Me: The point wasn’t meant to be that every work should be able to pass the modified test – and it could easily be passed with a cast of two if you’re just saying “any character who isn’t white”, which is the standard I’m looking at – but that an enormously small number of works do. It’s the cumulative effect of hundreds and hundreds of movies that don’t pass, and the overall atmosphere that it creates. It would be unfair to say that each individual movie is deliberately racist, because I doubt most casting directors or writers even think about these things, but the cumulative effect is a media environment that says, “White people are the main characters, almost always.”

Re uncomfortableness – you know how once you notice an optical illusion in an image, it’s hard to ignore it again? Being aware of this kind of thing, I think, is like that. It’s not that you automatically become uncomfortable around white people and white-dominated media – it’s more that you can’t unsee it once you’re aware of it, and if racism’s a thing that’s important to you, it can start to grate a little. Hopefully, that awareness leads to change if the “you” in this situation is a creator of media, or even a consumer.

P: Unless of course it’s an issue movie!

Hm, I see what you mean though. I’m just still not sure I agree – there DO exist plenty of works in the world in which members of such minority groups are given main roles without the story being about the fact that they’re a minority. Maybe not enough to bridge the gap between what you’d expect from a real world sampling and what you get in a Hollywood sampling, but we’re making progress, and the gap gets smaller everyday.
Me: Absolutely, we are making progress, and especially in the fringes of media which may eventually spread to the mainstream. And I know it’s troubling to look at it the way I’m framing it, because it seems so pessimistic, and somewhat dismissive of the non-mainstream works that are more diverse. But if you look at the media that the majority of the population who aren’t into theatre or Literature or indie movies are consuming… 

Ok, game:
Think of ten mainstream (something you can see in any Village cinema, not a festival movie) movies with a single main protagonist (not a duo or a strong ensemble, specifically has to be a “this movie is primarily about one person – think Jerry Maguire or I Am Legend) who is a straight white man, not a biopic.

Same thing with a straight white female.

Then same with any straight nonwhite male.

Then with a straight nonwhite female (biopic rule still in place, non-festival rule still in place).

I played this with a friend the other day, and it was what inspired the post. It’s actually doable, though it takes a fair while when you get to nonwhite woman. (It becomes completely impossible when you try to do it with a non-straight character.)

[I need to check whether the friend with the game would like to be credited; I'll edit him in if he would. Update: he would indeed. He's Peter C. Hayward, and he has quite the internet presence.]
I know that I’m extremely lucky to have friends who want to have a chat about this kind of thing just because the opportunity is available, and especially friends willing to let their conversations with me become blog fodder, so thank you muchly, P.
Sometimes someone, often an activist, will say that they find some aspect of the media to be racist or sexist/misogynist/misandrist or homophobic/anti-gay or transphobic/anti-trans. And someone else will hear this and find it absurd; they’ll say, “But that’s not deliberate; it’s not fair of you to accuse them of __ism just for something small like that! They don’t actually hate women/gay people/trans people etc, so how dare you apply that label!” There is absolutely a perception that in order to be problematic you need to be deliberately __ist – that the only real homophobes are the people who shout slurs, the only real misogynists are the people who tell their wives to get back in the kitchen with no trace of irony. Most people bristle when you suggest that their work contains an element of a negative __ism, because they don’t see themselves as one of those awful deliberate __ists, and they think that’s what you’re accusing them of.
In fact, though, we’re often talking about accidental, incidental, background noise sort of __isms, the kind one barely notices because they’re so subtle and insidious as part of a general background of culture – which is the very reason that they need to be explicitly discussed, because otherwise they would go unnoticed. When, say, you can watch a sampling of twenty movies released to a broad audience in the last year, and find that most of them don’t pass the original Bechdel test, and many of those that do only feature women talking to each other about men or dating, it’s reasonable to suggest that there is a kind of unconscious sexism going on. That doesn’t mean that every writer has twirled their evil moustache and thought to themselves, “Hm, how can I best ensure that my female characters aren’t represented as fully as my male characters?” When people point out that Pixar, one of my favourite film companies of all time, has yet to produce a movie with a female primary lead (something that’s about to change when their upcoming film Brave is released) we’re not saying, “Pixar are vicious sexists”. We’re saying, “That’s possibly because of sexism that exists on a background sort of level, that influences one’s writing and directing without even being aware of it.” It wouldn’t really make a difference to the quality of the overall narrative if Marlin or Nemo had been female, or if Sully or Mike had been female, or if Remy or Linguini had been female; it’s just that they happen not to be, over and over again.
At this point, I want to ask you, if you grew up as a boy, whether any of your favourite books from childhood or adolescence put a female protagonist in the starring role – the character that you, the viewer, are meant to identify with and care about most, the Harry Potter of the tale. Any of your favourite movies? How many would you say had a male protagonist in comparison? Did your parents often choose to buy you books with female leads, or take you to see movies with female leads? Did you often choose those books or movies yourself?
I ask because there are a pile of books on my childhood bookshelf with male protagonists that I adore, and a roughly equal selection with female protagonists – but that’s because people felt quite comfortable buying me, a girl, “boy books” and “girl books”. “Girl books” included sci fi and fantasy action adventures, like Tamora Pierce’s Lioness and Protector of the Small series or Diana Wynne Jones’ Hexwood and Black Maria. They included complex coming-of-age narratives relatable to members of any gender, like John Marsden’s Letters from the Inside. They included older, more quaint narratives about strong-willed children who embarrassed and confused their adults, like Anne of Green Gables, and tales of broken families and confused children trying to create their own private safety, like… well, everything Jacqueline Wilson has ever written. These are not books that boys would find dull by any stretch, but they feature female protagonists in a very definite lead, so parents and friends will often see them in a bookshop and dismiss them as an option for a boy to read, thinking that a boy can’t relate to them – that a boy could enjoy reading about a spaceship or a pirate vessel or a wizard school, but if the lead is a girl, it somehow ceases to be relatable, becomes a girl book just for girls. (Girls, of course, may not be given books about rough and tumble action unless they request it, but female bookworms almost certainly have a few tomes on their childhood shelves with male protagonists. I do wonder whether Harry Potter would have blown up with boys in the same way if it had been Harriet Potter and nearly nothing else about the character had changed.)
In adulthood, it’s not always quite as visible, until… well, how many men are even willing to give Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters a go, even though they’ll happily slave through a Dickens of additional girth and sometimes less adventure, or a Shakespeare with similar subject matter? Pfft, those are girl books about marriage and stuff. Because no man has ever found a love story compelling, obviously.
Now apply the same thing to non-white-centred books, movies, toys. As an Australian, if you are white (hell, even if you’re not) how many books have you read centred around an Aboriginal lead, or an immigrant lead, or really anyone who isn’t white, compared to anyone who is? How many did you read as a kid? The odds are good that mostly the stories you were given just happened to focus on white people, just sort of accidentally, unless you read a lot of sci fi in which case race sometimes left the building and the solar system. Or, if you were straight, how many books featured a gay character as the lead, and without making the whole book about their sexuality, just a lead who happened to be gay, just ‘cos, in the same way a lead might happen to be tall or red-haired or sarcastic or shy? Probably in school, you were assigned one or two ‘issue Books’. Apart from those, what are the comparative percentages? How much media starring a non-white or non-straight person do you reckon your white, straight peers consumed if they weren’t bookworms who would just read anything they could get their hands on?
When I say this is an issue of __isms, I’m not saying, “Each of these authors is a dirty filthy __ist who is doing this deliberately! How dare they choose the protagonists they want to write about? Your parents and the people who bought you gifts, they were deliberate __ists too! How dare they shy away from books that weren’t marketed at your demographic, or take recommendations from friends?” I’m saying that this is one of those times when an __ism is too big to see, so that it ends up influencing the way you see the world without even noticing, the way poblishers market books and production companies create movies and ultimately the way people think, because the media you consume is such a huge chunk of how you process the world (which is how things like this end up happening). You are the fish in contaminated water and you don’t notice because, as Melissa McEwan so aptly puts it, all your life you’ve been swimming in it.

What’s the difference between a ten-year-old and the Australian media?

Today I was talking to my half-brother about his class elections. He and two other kids were running for a spot on the school’s environmental issues committee, and he won the spot. He’s ten years old, and the elections aren’t very serious, as you can imagine.

Him: I was actually surprised I won. There was only one girl running and two boys, so I thought all the girls would vote for the girl.

Me: …would you automatically vote for a boy just because he was a boy?

Him: No… but it’s different with girls.

Me: Why do you say that?

Him: …dunno.

Me: We vote for the people we think are best, just like you.

At his age, the way voting works, he could have had a point. His class friendship groups are, to a great extent, segregated into boys and girls; all his best friends are boys. And since kids’ elections are often popularity contests, sometimes friends will just vote for friends, and if all the girls were closer to the girl candidate and none of them are close to either of the boy candidates, well, the election could have been a shoe-in for her.

Perhaps she was unpopular, or the classes aren’t as segregated as they seem to be; either’s pretty plausible. I would, just quietly, be surprised if my half-brother were the most popular kid in the category, though he has plenty of friends, but it’s possible. Or perhaps the kids listened to the speeches and voted for the best speech or the kid they consider smartest or most responsible. I don’t think we give kids enough credit that way; I know that’s what my class tended to do when I was at school, but I have no idea whether we were unusual in that respect, because we were unusual in plenty of other ways.

It scared me, though, that he’d just sort of accepted this – girls vote for girls, full stop, no idea why, they just do, even though he’s never really seen any evidence of it. It also reminded me a great deal of the coverage of our last federal election, where every battle of the sexes cliche was trotted out and whipped long past demise by the Australian media. Maybe that’s where he got the idea?

There are some excellent reasons, in the real world, for women to want women representing them in government and advisory bodies – women are more likely to understand the pressures and needs of women, having been more likely to live in the world as a woman, in the same way that in Australia it makes sense to have rural residents representing the needs of rural residents, or people who have experienced poverty, or people from an Indigenous background. Government is meant to represent the needs of the people, and therefore it must contain people who understand those needs intimately – and since we have an abundance of straight white men from a wealthy background in every branch of government, many people feel the need to vote for someone who doesn’t fit that description, just to ensure that diverse needs are being represented.

However, it also needs people who are intelligent, skilled, empathetic and generally suited to the job, and I think most clever voters of both genders recognise this. If you’re a thinking voter, every election is about weighing what you know about each candidate, deciding which is going to be a better representative for the things you feel need representing in your local area, or state, or country. Sometimes – often – people will weigh their options and decide that the candidate who is most similar to them is not the most equipped to do the job and represent the things they want represented. Sometimes – often – people will vote for other reasons, like finding one candidate charming or repugnant on the basis of appearance (I heard someone announce that they’d vote Abbott because they didn’t much care for politics but thought he looked cute in a Speedo) or mannerism, or because they always vote according to a particular party with policies that most appeal to them. It seems that a lot of reporters thought that when women voted, their thought process stopped short of considering any factor other than gender if there was a woman on the ballot ticket.

If women always voted for women, every free election with one male and one female candidate would go to the woman, presuming a roughly equal population of voting men and women (not necessarily a fair assumption, and this does get more complex as the matter of electorates is examined – topic for another post, hopefully), and presuming that not every man voted for the male candidate (and given the number of my male friends who would rather have polkaed with Pauline Hanson than give Tony Abbott their vote just recently, I know that some men do vote for women when they consider the woman to be the better option). I know that at least one woman in Australia didn’t vote for Gillard, because I heard her call up a talk-back radio show to announce that women just weren’t suited to leadership, and her vote would be going to Abbott accordingly. I know that when the American Democrats were selecting a presidential candidate, plenty of women publicly announced their intention to support Obama rather than Clinton. And I would be very surprised if every woman in Thatcher-era England thought Maggie was the right choice just because she happened to be female.

My half-brother, being ten and inexperienced and raised in a culture that supports the statement he made, has an excellent excuse for not knowing any better than to presume that girls vote for girls. What excuse do the experienced, adult reporters who covered the Australian 2010 Federal Election have?

Make up

Boys Can Wear Make-up by *humon on deviantART found via sexisnottheenemy (a brilliant, but very NSFW, tumblr)

The young lad here reminds me a little, with his dark skin, chubby face, tentatively hopeful look, and the glee with which he takes to lipstick, of Clarence Bell and his alter-ego Clarisse from Boston Legal. For the unfamiliar, Clarence (played by Gary Anthony Williams) is a timid paralegal who feels bravest when he assumes the persona of loud, brash, stereotypically sassy, take-no-shit “Clarisse”.

By the series’ end, he’s working toward integrating himself with the character, harnessing the confidence that he gains when wearing the Clarisse mask so that he can be just as brave when in his own skin.

The two characters, placed side by side, make me wonder about makeup and masks, both restrictive and empowering.

My grandfather is wont to declare that makeup’s purpose is advertised clearly in its name – it’s designed to “make up” for one’s flaws, a thin film of powder and cream to hide behind. He’s not a fan, in principle; he thinks when I wear it, I’m declaring that I need to be improved somehow, that I am not enough.

We’ve hit that point now, where people are so very used to seeing women in media, advertising, and all around them wearing makeup all the time, just a little here and there to brighten the lips and cheeks, enhance the eyes – it’s almost the default state. We probably don’t really think that much about the fact that an actress playing the ingenue girl-next-door in a big-budget romantic comedy is wearing a thick layer of makeup to make her eyes look bright and captivating, her lips look soft and rouged and inviting, her skin look flawless. She looks normal. But you certainly notice when she appears on screen without enhancing makeup, because in the language of cinema that signals a problem – grief or ill health. The only women who can get away with looking like they’re wearing none (apart from the base layer of stage makeup we use just to make all actors look human on camera) are the aged and the populations of indie films.

In many professional circles, a woman isn’t considered neat and ‘put together’ unless she’s wearing ‘natural-looking’ makeup; where, for a man, a scrubbed face is quite sufficient, a scrubbed woman is perceived as being a little washed out, a little unhealthy looking. So, for women whose eyes don’t naturally pop and whose lips don’t naturally look the right shade of blushing nude, makeup is often expected, in office-based professional contexts at the very least, and often in the after hours. But god forbid that you get it wrong – there’s an elaborate subconscious dress and makeup code and it is not to be broken, as certain professionals have discovered. You must be wearing precisely the right mask if you’re going to perform the role of professional competency well.

Amica Lane, on The Professional Masquerade

When I started, I was treated by my manager to an introductory lecture about dress code. She presumed this would be sufficient to educate me in ‘professional’ and ‘non-professional’ work attire.

“Look glamorous, with immaculate hair and makeup and plenty of flirty smiles! But don’t come to work dressed as if you’re going to a club. Look sexy, but not slutty. Professional.”

[...]

I wore a black dress the next day with flats, as I figured that was pretty unassuming. How wrong I was.

Hauled into her office, I was told I looked like a whore and that my dress had caused complaints from male co-workers who insisted that I was ‘distracting’ them from work and they couldn’t focus with such an outfit in the office.

[...]

So the next day, I went into work wearing no makeup, trousers and a suit jacket.

Once again, I was called into my manager’s office.

“You can’t dress like this. You have no makeup on. You’re supposed to be the face of the company.”

“If the face of a multi-billion dollar hedge fund is a 21-year-old blonde from Hounslow, then the company has a bigger problem than the Lehman situation,” I replied, and was served promptly with a written warning.

“Sexy, not slutty,” became the mantra. “Sexy enough for the men to feel happy, but not too sexy as so to intimidate the other women.”

Things get even more complicated if you’re working in law, it seems.

The chorus of female attorneys added some caveats: make sure your suit is not too fitted, wear flats, wear minimal jewelry, wear minimal makeup, do not wear hair in a pony-tail, do not wear hair down in a distracting way, wear pantyhose, do not wear open-toe shoes (especially in front of a jury says Justice Goldgar), do not wear peep-toe shoes, and do not wear dark nail polish (avoid burgundy, cautioned Professor Collins). Wear a shirt under your suit that is not too tight, not low-cut, not bright colored, not patterned, not ruffle-y, and not too feminine. Finally, when going on a job interview, do not carry a recognizable brand-name handbag because you are trying to project the image that you need money. Oh, and do not wear your engagement ring if it is large because it may anger your women interviewers and cause jealousy (and perhaps rage).

There’s not much of a men’s dress code in comparison – shave, probably; wear a clean, neat, well-fitted shirt and pants, maybe a matching suit jacket and a tie with no cartoon characters on it (suited to the fashion of the times as far as breadth and pattern goes, never made of leather); non-scuffed formal shoes, and you’re set. It’s expensive, not strictly necessary for the purposes of doing your job, but it’s fairly comfortable and easy to put together if you have the funds.

Or, at least, you think there’s not much of a men’s dress code, until Clarisse walks into your office in a blonde wig and a plum suit with lip gloss to match, and you  (well, some of you; there are of course those who are all too painfully aware of the cultural taboos here) realise that it hasn’t even occurred to you that a man could ever want to wear makeup or other ‘feminine’ things – much less in the workplace. It just never entered your head. It’s weird, it’s … it’s inappropriate, isn’t it?

Why, though?

Expectation, mainly. Looking corporate is about looking ‘right’, reassuring, sensible and capable, conforming to the mask of competence. Turns out there are different masks of competence for men and women. (Have fun navigating that code if you’re transgendered and on the border of ‘passing’, or genderqueer, by the way. No nuance here, kids, we only deal in stark categorisations.)

There are women, though, who defy the expectation, who come in to work makeup-free in a masculinely cut suit, and still get the promotion, still get the respect.

Oh hey there, Prime Minister

As a woman, you can stretch that dress code much further in both directions than a man can. You can’t ignore it entirely; you can’t necessarily go so far as a cropped, practical men’s haircut, no makeup, a loose suit, men’s cut shirt, men’s shoes and a tie, but you can pull quite far on that leash (and so much further in less corporate white-collar professions, like academia or general cube work).

As a man, though, you have nearly no room to pull in the feminine direction. People are only just beginning to decide that it’s acceptable for men to pluck their monobrows or wear a pink shirt. You can’t come into your high powered corporate office as Clarisse and be respected; you’ve forfeited the mask of competence and become ridiculous. And whenever it looks like we might let men look more feminine, even outside that rarefied corporate environment – whenever there’s a move toward more skincare products for men, or an actor pops up on a red carpet wearing long, highlighted hair or eyeliner – people start yowling in the media about how there are no! more! real! men! It’s characterised as a crisis, a loss, instead of a broadening of freedom.

Harbringer of the downfall of masculinity, obviously

“Our men are turning into primping, mincing shadows of their former selves!” they cry. “They’re … pussies!”

And there it is.

At the heart of this tendency toward a short leash for men is the idea that a man should not, under any circumstances, be like a woman, should not want to do woman things. On a woman, makeup and a suit looks normal; on a man, makeup and a suit is unacceptable frippery and silliness.

Partly, I think, this is because power and competence are still subconsciously coded as masculine. When a woman puts on a suit and a starched collar, a uniform more traditionally worn by men, she’s read as saying, “Take me seriously. I know what I’m doing.” A woman who dresses masculinely is practicing upward mobility by clothing, and the less makeup and jewellery a woman wears as a female political candidate, the less likely people are to say she’s too frivolous for the job. That’s because feminine clothing and ornamentation is, in contrast, coded as weak, light, full of artifice. (Which, after all, made sense when upper class women wore impractical garments and elaborate coiffures to advertise their husbands’ wealth and their ability to sit idly all day. A woman who can wear a corset and a bustle clearly doesn’t need to pull her weight; a woman wearing fine fabrics isn’t doing housework in them. The finery was there to show off the ability to abandon hard work and luxuriate in leisure.) The less makeup a woman wears, the more serious and industrious she is, the more like a man she is. The more feminine a man looks, therefore, the more like a woman he is. And looking like a woman means you’re weakening yourself, and who wants to be weaker than they are, right?

Feminism has given women permission to become as powerful as men, should they so desire. But we still read signs of femininity as signs of weakness, even as we often demand that women perform femininity to some extent (Gillard got a new dye job in preparation for the election; Amica Lane was berated as much for her more masculine look as she was for her too-womanly dress). And we still haven’t liberated men to the extent that they can decide they’d like to be more feminine, that they’re allowed to look as ‘weak’ or as ‘superficial’ as women are allowed to look.

Makeup is, to some extent, about making yourself into an ornament, admitting that beauty, art and aesthetics are of interest to you, that you want people to look at your face and be captivated in some way. (That is, when makeup is a choice, rather than an obligation.) There is immense scope for variety when you basically have permission to change your face – or just to cover it up a little when you’re feeling imperfect and afraid (in a world that asks for perfection from you, especially if you’re a woman) and you want the armour of a flawless mask and a persona to match.

Perhaps giving men permission to wear makeup would stick them with many of the disadvantages of it – the obligation to look perfect, the challenge of trying to get it just right and being ridiculed for failing – but it would also give them the opportunity to experiment more with identity, to subvert expectations, to be their own canvas, to change faces as women can. The freedom to admit that one is concerned about one’s appearance, to want to play with femininity and masculinity, to revel in the wonder of being able to change one’s face just a little or transform it entirely, t0 want more everyday opportunities for art and play in your life, is a freedom worth desiring.

You know what I really love about that picture? There is a pure playful delight in it, a complete lack of self consciousness. It’s kids playing dress ups, just because they want to, just because they can. The boy is excited by his transformation, and the girl is cheerfully absorbed in the task of helping to effect it. So often, when a woman’s putting on makeup, it’s because she believes she has to; as my grandfather says, it’s “making up for something” – she believes she’s not enough without it (a problem, initially, shared by Clarence), or she must wear it because some dress code demands it. This picture has nothing to do with compensation or obligation. The person wearing makeup is doing it without all the cultural baggage women are carrying when they paint their faces, and without feeling lesser because he’s not conforming to a masculine ideal.

It’s about play, and exploration, and the wonderment of changing your face, for no real reason, for the beauty of transformation.

 

Modeling and makeup by Sammi Jones, cosmetic genius

Image source: here.