The Rise Of The Male Makeup Master And The Strange Power Of Artifice

By Callie Little

You may not have seen it coming — your eyes have been on a different horizon, perhaps — but the rise of the male makeup master has been upon us for some time. These makeup aficionados have taken social media by storm, pouting, primping, blushing, boasting, lip-smacking, contouring across YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook; they teach their devoted fans the art of an au natural glow or the glower of a glamorous minx.

And increasingly, these models are going mainstream. From Tom Ford to Benefit to Maybelline, more beauty brands are incorporating oh-so-fresh, non-femme faces into their ad campaigns. In August, L’Oreal introduced their newest model, 26-year-old Gary Thompson AKA The Plastic Boy, who officially became the first-ever male makeup campaign model.

Most recently, CoverGirl announced its first-ever male spokesmodel, or CoverBoy — James Charles, a high school senior who made his viral debut on many Facebook feeds in September when he brought his own ring light to his senior photo shoot in an effort to make his outstanding makeup pop. Ever the keen eye for talent, CoverGirl snagged the young makeup artist just a few weeks after the pictures were retaken and posted across social media.

As men have increasingly joined the mainstream makeup fray, they’ve surfaced complicated questions about femininity, and the strange power of artifice, which has haunted women for centuries. Indeed, for many, this movement has proven to be one worthy of contempt.

In a recent Mic article that discusses the dawning ubiquity of male make-up models, an Instagram post by Maybelline was featured not just for the most glorious red pout on the planet, but for the hateful outcry in its comments section. The Instagram post in question featured Manny Gutierrez, a YouTube and Instagram beauty star known as Manny Mua, who boasts 2.7 million followers and regularly dishes on his journey from Mormon boy to man in makeup. This month he was also named “One to Watch” in People magazine’s annual shortlist of rising stars.

Courtesy of Instagram

But not surprisingly, his red-lip post was met with homophobic, vitriolic, gender-reductive garbage . . . amid glowing praise like, “You’re slayin’ my fuckin’ whole life!!! YOU SLAY BITCHHH.”

While makeup mega-brands and millions are undeniably embracing the movement — after all, 2.7 million devoted followers is nothing to sniff at — the sheer volume of reactions to a shift in cultural paradigms (both positive and negative) speaks volumes about our society as a whole.

In her recent New York Times article, “Those lips! Those Eyes! That Stubble! The Transformative Power of Men in Makeup,” Amanda Hess elucidates some of the tangles we’re all snagging ourselves upon vis a vis gender expectations and feminism:

“Maybelline’s mantra — ‘Maybe she’s born with it. Maybe it’s Maybelline.’ — called on women to fix their flaws with makeup tricks and to present as natural beauties. Male beauty gurus deconstruct that illusion. They recast makeup not as a supplement for natural deficiencies, but as a form of joyful creation . . . While watching female beauty gurus do their thing, it can be hard to turn off that destructive part of my brain that is always poking at me to compare myself physically with other women. And it’s tricky to untangle genuine enthusiasm for the art of makeup from the toxic beauty standards that encourage women to spend tons of money on their looks.”

For some, the concept of men–or anyone who isn’t both cisgender and femme–being involved in the culture of makeup complicates the enormously fraught relationship it has with women. Makeup has become a much-debated woman-centric feminist issue in recent years, raising questions like: Is it really a choice at all? Do we wear it for ourselves or for others? What about the pink tax that forces women, who earn less, to pay more for their beauty products?

For those who debate makeup as a uniquely feminist issue, it may difficult to make room for men. But excluding any gender from the makeup movement fails the very foundation that intersectional feminism is predicated on.

As Lux Alptraum wrote for Quartz:

“ . . .strides towards gender equality aside, we’re still a pretty misogynistic society. Men who embrace femininity are much more likely to be mocked than, say, a woman who’s a ‘tomboy.’ After all, gender stereotypes, which are designed primarily to create arbitrary and binary power rankings, affect men as well as women. This nasty bit of sexism holds both men and women back by creating arbitrary societal standards of beauty and gender. At the same time, it discourages men from an activity that can be fun, empowering, and a great source of personal expression for men, regardless of their sexual orientation.”

When we expect a certain range of characteristics to be true across the board for an entire group of highly diverse people, we limit not just the other, but also ourselves. Makeup may be seen by some as a modern-day women’s issue, but in reality, it has been used by men routinely throughout history; our lingering aversion to beautifully made-up men highlights the toxic masculinity that still plagues us.

“Somehow our society decided that only women should wear makeup,” Jake-Jamie Ward, a U.K.-based makeup artist, told Mic. “We often hear phrases like ‘manning up,’ ‘getting on with it’ and being ‘strong and silent,’ and this has left men little space to reposition or redefine themselves in society.”

Cosmetics are not just part of feminine history, but part of human history; our great Egyptian ancestors wore dark eye makeup and rich oils to protect their bodies from the sun and desert wind. Of course, ornamentation has always appealed to cultures far and wide, and the ancient Egyptians are still commonly known for their decorative flair.

Lesser-known perhaps is the fact that the ornamentation wasn’t just stylish, but also deeply rooted in the Egyptian culture; eye protection became the beautiful, intricate kohl eyeliner we now associate with their history, but for those who wore it all those thousands of years ago, it was also intended to serve as protection from The Evil Eye curse.

Jumping ahead a few eras and across the pond to the United Kingdom, Queen Victoria declared makeup to be improper and vulgar, stating that its only proper use was for the purpose of acting. Neither of these schools of thought — wearing it to avoid a metaphorical Evil Eye, or finding it to be offensive — is terribly unlike some of the ways we view makeup today.

Wearing makeup is part of human culture, and so is rejecting it. Perhaps the only thing new is the hashtag.

And as for the history of men and makeup? Some of the earliest recorded uses of makeup were by men and women alike in ancient China, where staining one’s fingernails signaled social status. Pictish men are thought to have tinted themselves a blue color, perhaps before battle, while ancient Roman men used dye to accentuate their hairlines and wigs to replace their lost locks.

Still today, many men who may very well not identify with wearing makeup do choose to wear face paint to sporting events — suggesting it protects their eyes from the sun (sound familiar?) — while others wear it for team solidarity or to appear more menacing to opposing teams. While this specific type of decorative face doesn’t receive shocked reactions in today’s society, our first male make-up models are so newsworthy, it’s worthy of critique.

We see face paint as an entirely different substance from the makeup found at Sephora. It’s almost as though we believe makeup is femininity; that womanhood resides in a compact.

Men wearing makeup highlights how feminism is for everyone, not just those who are female-identifying, or who self-describe as feminine. The movement is embracing a creative medium that is not inherently, but societally, gendered.

By assigning any expectation to any gender, we’re drastically reducing the fullness of our identities; why shouldn’t we welcome men or non-binary folks to join us at the MAC counter? Is there something shameful about makeup as an artistic and self-affirming medium? Who says lipstick isn’t battle gear, but that blue dye is?

“Led by a cohort of millennial-and-younger beauty writers and icons, maybe we’ll have a future where no one’s held back by gendered expectations, in makeup or any other facet of our lives,” wrote Phoebe Maltz Bovy for Forward.

When we reject any form of self-expression, we strip away our own autonomy, opportunity, experience, and self-discovery. Feminism is rooted in championing bodily autonomy; feminism is not policing what we believe is feminine.

That would, after all, be exactly what we’re fighting against.


Lead Image courtesy of Plastic Boy’s Instagram

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