In response to the Satan’s Jacuzzi piece Gendered Fluids, graphic design wunderkind Maddie Valley reached out to discuss makeup, privilege, capitalism, femininity, and reclamation. [~2,000 words.]
I hope I’m not being too aggressively supportive re: your makeup journey, but it’s bringing me a lot of vicarious joy.
Makeup has made me very happy over the years, and it’s hard to really articulate in a non-Kardashian way. But I have such immense respect for the ritual of it and the history of it and the meditative process of application and it’s such a weird niche interest of mine.
That’s really sweet! I have definitely found ritual in makeup. It’s almost too powerful a relationship with trickery or deception sometimes. But there’s a lot to be said for the societal connotations between queerness/femininity and villainy, especially in the media. It helps that a whole part of my journey has been, to borrow a term, leaning in to demonization.
Ha! I love that. I mean I’m coming from a very (mostly) straight, cis-girl place here, but the deception angle is so interesting, isn’t it? I’ve found the same with the whole selfie trend–trying to control your own image is somehow trickery? That seems like a theory you’d come up with if you’d never had your image stolen or controlled by someone else.
Exactly! Or if your image wasn’t an inherent measure of your worth.
To me, makeup has always been such a historically feminine thing. It always freaked out my second-wave feminist mother that I loved it so much, but I found a lot of power in wearing my gender as a deliberate performance. Like I’m getting consumed either way might as well control what they’re consuming.
Eh–that’s a bleak way to look at it. I mean there’s more to it, but that’s an aspect.
Oh, yeah. Performance and reception are a huge part of it. If “all the world’s a stage,” all cosmetics are stage makeup.
And the consumption angle is scary to tease out, but no less fascinating. I think a lot of my struggle is with the fact that cosmetics is such an industry. It makes it feel a bit dirty. But, for me, the power of the product overcomes the abuses inherent in the means of production.
There is a certain ironical clown of a man in my performance, which I view as an extension of the production. That sad, tragic clown is not who I am or how I identify, but it’s an archetype I’m willing to play to if people can learn something from it.
The separate meanings of production have me drooling here.
Hahaha! Yes, but the sheer capitalism of it all is so intertwined with the ritual, isn’t it? Every once in a while, I find a brand that I love due to its own merit. But a lot of the time, it’s that really sexy classic packaging that draws me in. Maybe femininity has been so commodified that there’s no embracing one without the other?
I think that, like it is with so many other things, capitalism is a parasite on femininity. Femininity will always be something that can exist without it, but it is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins because the parasite has left its mark.
Yeah, fair. (Although lately, TheBalm.com is owning my heart and soul for sheer creaminess and color payoff, and they don’t seem too evil yettttt so…)
Lol. That’s kind of my point, I guess. Capitalism doesn’t inherently ruin everything it touches, it just seems to have an innate capacity to make everything worse while acting like it’s better. Which is why when good things do come through the assembly line, they’re truly wonderful.
Yeah, I totally agree. Maybe it’s better to be a Kardashian and just start out fake from the beginning…
Yeah, I think there’s something to be said for a media-savvy fakeness. Sometimes, I think it saved Caitlyn‘s life. But it’s just not a world most of us have access to.
Yeah, I could see that. And yes, agreed. I just had a convo with my cousin about how we should’ve been born into a rich family and then we’d have no problems. Obviously an oversimplification but…is it, though?
Lol. I think privilege is as relative as anything else. The more of it you have, the smaller every individual piece of it seems. Like our repeating cultural myth of the wealthy addict who can’t find what they’re looking for speaks from Jay Gatsby to Lindsay Lohan.
To bring it back around to a more personal scale, I have my own conflicts with a lot of second wavers. I think critical thought is as susceptible to hype as any Los Angeles family. Hype grants power and authority in determining norms. The way you and your mom don’t see eye-to-eye-shadow speaks to me of that.
Like I wish I had been born with a body that society recognized as female. Lacking that (which I personally would’ve considered a privilege), I’m left to make do–or makeup as it were. It’s horribly complicated.
Do you find that cosmetics complicate your identity?
I think cosmetics almost simplify my identity in some ways. I mean I was given a body that was overwhelmingly womanly for me when I was a kid–like these tits have only ever belonged to porn stars or matronly nurses. And while it comes with privileges, it’s a conscious decision every time I put on lipstick that I’m really GOING there. I’m doing the whole busty, made-up face thing. A lot of people make assumptions about that. I’ve been propositioned by lots of married coworkers.
I see it as a reclamation of femininity every time someone underestimates me and then I fuck their shit up on a conference call, but I won’t pretend it’s without consequences or it doesn’t feel shitty sometimes. And I mean the image of femininity that I represent to these gross old dudes is probably dying out soon anyway, right?? So is it really worth it?
That said, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a little 13-year-old Maddie inside me who’s pumped every time a guy gives me attention. And I’m sure that plays a part. There’s so much of this stuff that’s trained into us. Femininity has been defined by male approval for so long. Like we were saying about capitalism earlier, it’s impossible to separate the two sometimes.
Absolutely. To me, it is–again–almost parasitic and certainly a control mechanism.
I really relate to what you said about simplification. I find a lot of power in making a statement with my face in order to cut off questions.
A huge strain of trans theory right now is the idea that there’s no wrong way to be trans, which plays out as there being no wrong way to express your gender. Trans girls shouldn’t be expected to always shave and trans guys shouldn’t be expected to never wear a dress. But that extends to cis people as well. A huge daily solace for me is the idea that we can strip the gendering out of some of our world.
Re: reclamation, I think a lot of identities that have any experience of disadvantage are complicated because it often feels like the only way to assert those identities is to reclaim the toxic shit. And I think that might be an essential and healthy part of creating healthy models of these identities in the culture–that is, by tearing down the bad representations, we can replace them with new ones.
My point being that if being the busty girl with bomb-ass make up is how you’ve found a way to survive, that’s more important and meaningful than anything else–partially because of our cultural notions of femininity’s value and how revolutionary your stance is in regards to that, but also because you matter and it’s good that you exist.
Right. And there’s something to be said for playing with the line between discovering new methods of expression and reclaiming the old ones. Ideally, you could go back into the old feminine expressions and fuck with them a little–that’s the sweet spot for me anyway.
I think a lot of people I know take the personal-is-political thing to an extent that makes their own lives uncomfortable when it’s really about doing what feels good, as simple as that sounds. I mean a cis woman who’s out and about really feeling herself in ANY outfit is still a little bit revolutionary, double that if she’s fat, if she’s not white, if she’s queer, and like quadruple that if she’s trans.
Feeling good in your own skin is such amazing revenge. Which, like, easier said than done to feel good about yourself on demand when the world wants you to hide or conform, but it’s something to try and facilitate.
Exactly. So much of the capitalist machine is predicated on making us feel like we’re incomplete, flawed, or broken because people are selling completions, corrections, or fixes. That’s why happy people who are in touch with the gender, their sexuality, their race, their size, their ability or lack thereof, their socioeconomic status–all of these privileges and disadvantages that intersect in so many ways–happy people are revolutionaries in a system that profits from our misery & feelings of inadequacy.
When you mentioned fucking with the old conventions of femininity, I think of a woman like Amy Winehouse. While maybe not really a revolutionarily happy person, her style was a huge touchstone for me when it came to what feminine expression could be, could mean in the world.
Twists on the old classics like hers, like yours–they really draw me in because there are parts of conventional femininity I really identify with despite being able to recognize them as having problematic implications in certain contexts. But, to the larger point, throwing those things out because they have been and are used to subjugate some people defeats the process of reclamation before it starts.
Lately I’ve also been getting into this reclamation of girlhood thing–like Lisa Frank and pastel colors and jelly sandals. It’s a different type of reclamation, but the same sort of idea that girlhood doesn’t have to equal weakness.
Exactly! Like, self-expression should obviously be self-conscious; otherwise, you end up with white folks in headdresses and bindis. But assuming that someone takes the cultural appropriation/appreciation issues into account, the idea that a woman’s value is more or less depending on whether or not she wears makeup is outdated on every scale.
Like, obvs the work of the 2nd wave to prove that you don’t need makeup to be femme was hugely important. But just as important is the 3rd wave idea that you don’t have to avoid makeup to be a feminist. Like, the whole point of feminism to me is liberation, so people should be free to express themselves.
Yeah. Exactly. I found this article a while back that I cite like every two days. It was about how, yes, there’s a lot wrong with the fashion and beauty industries, but they are industries nonetheless and deserve to be taken seriously. And one of the reasons they’re not taken seriously is that they have always catered to and been run by women, gender non-conforming people, trans people, femmes in general.
For sure! The repeated and constant equation of any kind of femininity with triviality, excess, waste, or indulgence is SO frustrating. Like I had a hard enough time conceptualizing myself as a trans femme without having to evolve my entire ethics of capitalism as well. It’s crazy how misogyny generally–and often trans misogyny especially–have these kinds of broad level effects on attitudes.
Maddie Valley is a graphic designer and maker of things knitted, drawn, painted, filmed, and ironically cross-stitched. You can find her @madvalthegreat on Instagram and check her work out on her website, MadeleineIndia.com.