Putting on makeup in the movies: Why characters in Paris is Burning

Why Movie Characters Drop Wisdom While Putting on Makeup

Why Movie Characters Drop Wisdom While Putting on Makeup

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Slate's Culture Blog
July 16 2012 3:10 PM

Dropping Wisdom While Applying Makeup: A Brief History

Nicki Minaj, applying makeup and dropping wisdom.


In a video clip that made the rounds last week, a pink-beehive-wigged Nicki Minaj is shown applying customarily heavy eye makeup—but a mascara brush isn’t the only weapon she’s wielding. Over the course of the two-and-a-half minute video, Minaj offers a striking (if not exactly novel) critique of sexist double-standards in the entertainment industry. Describing how support staffers respond to her supposedly “masculine” management style, she observes that “when I’m assertive, I’m a bitch; when a man is assertive, he’s a boss.”

The argument is not the only thing that feels familiar: The video immediately brought to mind another famous scene of wisdom dropped amidst a cloud of foundation powder. In Jennie Livingston’s famous drag-ball documentary Paris is Burning, performer Dorian Corey, in what is perhaps the most world-weary speech in cinematic history, explains why one must lower one’s expectations for success with age:  “If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high, hooray for you.”


Corey’s speech is far from the only example of makeup-application-as-occasion-for-sagacity. Early in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, for instance, Holly Golightly puts on her face while delivering a characteristically charm-coated stinger on the way men treat women: “You could always tell what kind of a person a man thinks you are by the earrings he gives you. I must say, the mind reels.” A tour-de-force of this kind of scene occurs in the 2007 Aaron Sorkin-written picture Charlie Wilson’s War. Julia Roberts plays a hard-nosed Southern socialite who in addition to being the “sexiest woman alive” has political smarts to match.

So what explains the magical pairing of painting and pondering? Believe it or not, a scene from Burlesque, the much-maligned Cher/Christina Aguilera vehicle, might contain the answer. As Cher’s character gently applies eye-liner and lip stain to Aguilera’s dewy skin, she ruminates on how putting on one’s makeup is a lot like painting—she who holds the brush is the artist, and the artist, at least within the confines of her medium (be it canvas or face), controls the universe.

It’s not a coincidence that many of the films in this list are also members of the camp canon: The notion that artifice (as embodied, for example, in drag) may be the way to truth rather than an escape from it is a key tenet of the aesthete’s philosophy. But such scenes also serve a slightly subversive purpose, providing otherwise objectified women, in the fluid moment before they’re “finished” and consumable, a chance to comment on themselves and their situation. When the contrivance of beauty is fully on display, other seemingly solid assumptions may start to shimmer and run, too.

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate associate editor and the editor of Outward. He covers life, culture, and LGBTQ issues.