30: Kathy Peiss’ Hope in a Jar

Some books on feminism and women’s culture make me really psyched to be a lady.  Some make me feel like a grumpy old stick in the mud, grousing about too-short skirts and a lack of self-respect among the younger generation.  Unfortunately, Hope in a Jar belongs in the latter category.

I’m not trying to say that it’s an unnecessary or uninteresting book – it’s quite the opposite, actually.  Hope in a Jar is a history of the American cosmetics industry “from the bottom up,” and Peiss takes pains to show how women and minorities actively participated in and shaped beauty culture and the cosmetics industry that grew out of it.  It’s the first book to take this industry seriously by looking at it from this perspective; even better, Peiss is an American Studies scholar, so she does that thing where she tells you a lot about both her little slice of life and about its impact on American culture as a whole.  Accordingly, Elizabeth Arden, Madame C.J. Walker and Mary Kay, among others, are portrayed as both intimately connected to the all-female networks, grassroots marketing strategies, and white-focused beauty standards developed in Americas beauty culture and savvy businesswomen who brought fresh ideas into American business culture.  Therefore, after WWI, when the beauty business mushroomed (along with the rest of the economy) into a male-operated, mass-media behemoth, it was instrumental in bringing both female consumers and female businesswomen into the mass market, thus empowering women in the interwar economy.

Women were also empowered in those interwar years by the application of makeup itself.  Rather than succumb to sedate mass-market beauty prescriptions, women followed the lead of their favorite actresses and painted up; bobbed hair, short skirts, and rouged lips and cheeks defied authority and emphasized women’s sex appeal.  How better to celebrate their new status as equals in the marketplace than by asserting their physical presence and personal autonomy?

Right.  Here’s where my inner grump comes in: even if makeup can be seen as liberatory (which, hey, in the 1920s it probably was), it still focuses the attention on a woman’s body, on appearances, on sexuality.  At the risk of sounding like a generation-late Andrea Dworkin or a watered-down Maureen Dowd, women are always already seen as sexualized bodies, so emphasizing those bodies isn’t particularly subversive.  And anyway, the slide back from subversive subject to sexualized object is just too easy when both take the female body as their reference point.

But I digress.  That kind of feminism definitely had its place, and Peiss’ book is good at exploring its empowering intersections with mainstream beauty culture.

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