Monday, 30th October 2017

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Lipstick dipstick

Lipstick has always been complicated. It has been a measure of female subjugation as well as of empowerment at the same time, as in the year 1963

  • Published 22.03.19, 11:20 PM
  • Updated 27.03.19, 5:58 PM
  • 2 mins read
Edith teaches Arati to wear lipstick. Mahanagar, 1963.

Women have always painted their lips, as they have blackened their eyes. If a woman was thought to be overdoing this, she could be branded as having a moral flaw, though no one ever pointed a finger at Queen Elizabeth I. One who can chop off other heads can wear anything on hers.

Feminist fury

But lipstick would later be seen as a negation of power. By the 1960s, with the coming of the second wave of feminism (the first was about the suffragists), power, or the lack of it, and its relationship with sexuality became one of the major themes of feminist writing.

Feminine mystique

It was at this time, in 1963, that Betty Friedan wrote her book Feminine Mystique. She begins by talking about “the problem with no name”: an unhappiness women feel but cannot articulate. She describes this as a result of the “feminine mystique”: the creation of the idea through women’s magazines that women can only feel fulfilled as wives and mothers. But when women try to feel happy this way, they often don’t. Ouch!

Role of lipstick

Make-up was a tool for the creation of the feminine mystique. Second-wave feminism not only advocated the burning of bras, but also dropped make-up as 1) a means to please men; 2) a statement that meant a woman’s natural appearance was not good enough; 3) a tool to sexualise and subjugate women and turn them into mere bodies, or worse, into products.

Lipstick, the most visible make-up of all, bore the brunt.

But in this part of the world…

The same year that Friedan wrote her book, 1963, Satyajit Ray released his film Mahanagar. In one of the turning points in the film, Edith, the Anglo-Indian colleague of Arati (played by the actress Madhabi Mukherjee), gifts Arati a lipstick and shows her how to use it. It is a bold step for Arati, a transgression almost from her role as a young wife and a mother from an educated, Bengali Hindu middle-class family, who is only working in an office because her husband is jobless.


Arati gives up her job to protest against Edith’s humiliation and dismissal, something she hardly can afford to do. But she does it. “Such a big city. So many different jobs. Shouldn’t one of us get a job?” she asks her husband. Then tells him: “Jano aaj eto durdin (the times are hard), we just don’t know what lies ahead, but yet I feel so happy.”

Edith’s lipstick had something to do with Arati’s rebellion.

And now of course we have a lovely film called Lipstick Under My Burkha, where lipstick powers women’s rebellion, but subtly, and a brand of feminism itself called ‘Lipstick Feminism’! But that is another story.