Features Lifestyle

Colour-Coded Villainy

6 minutes to read

Whenever I feel the need to be bold, I put on one of two things:

  • A pair of high heels (because I like the height); or
  • Red lipstick – bright, and usually called something like Legendary or Flame.

Most of the time it’s the lipstick that wins. It feels like a universal ‘fuck you’ to every man who has ever looked at me like I was irrelevant or stupid. At the same time it feels like a symbol of female power and sexuality. I wear red lipstick because it was worn and popularised by queens, it was condemned by the Catholic church because they thought that women who wore red lipstick would lead men into sin, and now it’s become an icon of not one but two different Taylor Swift eras.

Taylor Swift is often seen wearing red lipstick (source)

So how did we get from condemnation to empowerment with only one colour (and admittedly, a few thousand years)?

Cleopatra, famed queen of Egypt – who was equally famed for her beauty – wore lipstick made from crushed bugs, though historians believe that the practice originated with the men and women of Ancient Sumeria, who crushed gemstones to use as decoration on both the lips and around the eyes. Egyptian culture used lip colouring to denote status, and in the 16th Century red lips were popularised by Queen Elizabeth I, though the practice was still confined to the upper class and the theatrical.

red lipstick
Queen Elizabeth I popularised red lipstick in the 16th century (source)

From there the social perception maligned lipstick, and other make-up, for use by the lesser respected denizens of Western Society. This stigma didn’t change until the 1920s when the popular flapper culture used make-up as an expression of independence.

By the time Elizabeth Taylor was wearing red lips in photoshoots in the 1950s, the colour and the practice of applying make-up were normalised. You too could look like a polished movie star with the careful application of powder, blush, and that most important red gloss across your lips. This was despite the opposing social perception in which women were told that to attract the attention of man it was preferable to don a ‘natural’ look. This simultaneously perpetuated the false idea that a woman who wore red was likely to be sexually loose, and perhaps even engaged in sex work – a practise that is still heavily penalised by a society that also perpetuates the overt sexualisation of women. It demands sexual availability and conformity while encouraging the toxic masculinity that leads to the behaviours currently being contested by institutions. This includes the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, as well as longer running organisations such as Red My Lips.

red lipstick
Elizabeth Taylor became known for her red lipstick during the 1950’s (source)

When I undertook a brief survey on social media to ask my friends what sort of image they think bright red lipstick represents, the answers were primarily related to confidence and self-empowerment. Like me, many of my peers attribute red lipstick to empowerment and assertive action, though 2% of the small pool of voters thought that red lipstick was representative of sexual immorality. 18% chose the slightly tongue in cheek ‘witchcraft’, 9% voted for female empowerment, and the remaining 71% chose confidence. Of all of these options there is only one that doesn’t suggest a positive response in modern society, and while there is a distinct gendering element to ideas of female empowerment, it was the gender neutral ‘confidence’ option that won the day.

A lot of women, including myself, choose the confidence-inspiring option because we feel threatened by the social consequences of our gender identity. According to a report given by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2016, the highest recorded number of sexual assaults occurred in 2016, with 20 677 victims. Of this number, 83% of victims were female, and 60% of victims were under the age of 19. Women in positions of power are still represented in popular media as being uptight and emotionless, as are women with political power, who are simultaneously derided for being unattractive or bombarded with sexually charged comments threatening assault.

The ideal woman according to 19th century literature was white-skinned, dark haired, and red lipped – sound familiar? She was constantly obedient to male authority and she was the victim of the bad woman – the one who was beautiful but who was unrestrained by men and consequently ran rampant with wicked acts. Despite Snow White’s naivety, the modern woman – derided along with the anti-heteronormative man and those who do not identify within the traditional gender binary – is villainised by her choices, no matter what they are, and is at constant risk of being another statistic.

Happy Snow White GIF by Disney
Red lips became part of the ‘ideal woman’ in the 19th century literature (source)

I wear red lipstick to be bold, but I also wear it because I know it signifies a confidence that I don’t always have. I wear it because no person should be penalised for what they do or wear. Snow White was the one who had lips as red as blood but she played by the patriarchal rules and didn’t complain when a strange man took possession of her, unlike real world examples such as Queen Elizabeth I, who wore it as a symbol of power. If the sense of confidence that comes with red lipstick is still on par with the perceptions of feared and powerful queens (evil or otherwise), then I for one will wear the association with pride.