"more pleasure than capitalism believes in."
radical love letter #74 | on beauty culture pt. 3
In preparation for my next book on radical Left approaches to debates around sex and gender, I have been getting lost in the comments section of a supposedly feminist, supposedly Marxist, reactionary Instagram account. The usual arguments are all alive and well there: porn is always already rape, sex work is always already rape, and trans women are always already predatory. That any of these takes could possibly be understood as “liberatory” is laughable, but the fact that these positions are being taken seriously (and touted) by supposed ‘revolutionaries’ should worry us; especially when the talking points start to match those of right-wing fascists. There is plenty written against SWERFs (sex work-exclusionary radical feminists) and TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists), so I won’t belabor those important rebuttals, but I see less attention given to the way that critiques of cosmetics (from lipstick to plastic surgery) are used as a tool to bolster these harmful ideologies.
In a post from a related “proletarian feminist” podcast, they share a Tik Tok of a young man arguing against men wearing makeup. “Don’t let the beauty industry expand their market by 50%!” the caption reads.
“Weaning myself off foundation at the moment,” one commenter responds.
“The minute men start wearing makeup, the beauty standards will be raised even more astronomically,” says another.
Being against corporate profit and mass consumption are reasonable stands for an anti-capitalist, of course. But in positioning themselves against the industry, they find a way to proclaim essentialist views of gender, as well as not-so-subtle heterosexism, cissexism, and misogyny.
This became more apparent when the same account, weeks later, came out as “gender critical,” the term now being used by anti-trans activists as a way to avoid the TERF label. In my quest to take seriously a variety of radical Left views of gender and sex, I found myself stumbling into some of the most vile takes, including but not limited to: that gender affirming hormones and surgeries are “eugenics”; consistent use of “he” pronouns for transwomen in posts that went on to accuse transwomen of being everything from psyops to dangers to children; the use of the term “softboi” for men who read Judith Butler (??); and arguments that women are more naturally emotional and get attached after sex in ways men can’t. I’m not going to link to all of those–some were Instagram stories that have since disappeared, I don’t want to boost their algorithm, and also I simply don’t want to subject folks to it.
It’s important to name that these views are absolutely not the norm for most Marxists, let alone most Marxist feminists. There are plenty of writers and activists doing anti-capitalist work with dialectical materialism as their guide, who find ways to be inclusive of sex workers, trans people, (who sometimes are both themselves), and who wear makeup without identifying as a dupe of the imperial core. And even though, as an anarchist, I don’t rely exclusively on a Marxist framework for my own approach to movement work, I still find a lot of value in this tradition.
It’s because of my respect for it that I want to interrogate some of the risks that go along with an ideology that has such clear potential to be at odds with the kind of sex and gender liberation so many of us imagine.
Just like today, historically, communists have varied in their response to queer and trans people. There are some examples of Marxist organizations being uniquely inclusive of gay men and women (for example, the communist-backed Marine Cooks and Stewards Union, one of the first racially integrated unions that also included many out gay men, or Workers World Party, who advocated early for LGBT libeartion, and counted Leslie Feinberg as a member and spokesperson). But these were the exceptions. A position paper released by a Maoist organization in the 1970s called homosexuality “bourgeois decadence” and a “symptom of capitalism.” Fidel Castro claimed gays could never be true revolutionaries (though he later recanted that before his death). Harry Hay was banned from the Communist Party for being gay before starting The Radical Faeries, and The Combahee River Collective started in part as a response to the homophobia, sexism, and racism in various communist groups in the 1970s.
That communist exclusion of queer people links to anti-beauty culture rhetoric seems evident to me given the above examples (e.g., men shouldn’t wear makeup, trans women getting hormones or surgery is eugenics), in addition to historical conversations around cosmetics. I found a Chicago Tribune article from 1987 called “Socialist Workers Have Trouble Making Marx and Mascara Mix.” The piece interviewed Marxist women who had varying views on their relationship to beauty, but one in particular stood out to me. Pat Grogan said “the fashion industry is a capitalist tool for keeping women submissive.” Grogan was later quoted in the article redefining beauty as the following: ''What is beautiful is leather-skinned pioneer women holding hoes, women miners with grime on their faces, women in South Africa with their fists in the air.”
…So makeup and trends are oppressive patriarchal tools, but colonial wage labor that literally destroys your bones and lungs is liberation? This same value is present in anti-sex work rhetoric: better for women to be unionized Amazon employees for $18/hour than sex workers for $300/hour. Anti-sex work rhetoric is always coded with anti-femme rhetoric, because sex workers look unapologetically like the sluts SWERFs, incels (who see makeup as a ‘fraud’), tradwives (who want to wear clothes that are “tight enough to show you’re a woman, loose enough to show you’re a lady,” ) etc. despise.
The other hole in Leftist arguments against makeup as a capitalist, Western tool of patriarchy is that pre-colonial/non-state cultures also used makeup! Cosmetics can be seen in ancient Egypt, on the early Romans, and in indigenous communities on Turtle Island. As I mentioned in my past two essays in this series, desire for adornment is often a deeply spiritual and collective ritual practice.
Whenever I read things like Gorgon’s take above, I think of adrienne maree brown’s Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good. The whole book is dedicated to the importance of the frivolous, the dangerous, the excess beyond work and sleep, found in things like sex, drugs, makeup and fashion, music, and more. “Pleasure activism asserts that we all need and deserve pleasure and that our social structures must reflect this,” brown says in the intro. “Pleasure is a natural, safe, and liberated part of life–and that we can offer each other tools and education to make sure sex, desire, drugs, connection, and other pleasures aren’t life-threatening or harming but life-enriching.”
The liberatory position on beauty culture shouldn’t parrot liberal choice feminism that argues everyone should do what they want to feel “empowered” – that position ignores the structural realities of patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism, and the harmful impact of cosmetic toxins to our body and the earth. But landing on the polar opposite side – that all beauty rituals are violent, harmful, a result of either being brainwashed or a predator – is obviously extremely dangerous.
I think ultimately this conundrum invites us to ask more questions: How might we continue to fight white supremacist, patriarchal beauty norms that fuel capitalist industry while also enjoying the pleasure of cosmetics? What could beauty culture mean on a truly thriving planet? What forms of adornment and ritual don’t require exploited labor? How can we support gender affirming care while also working towards a world without rigid, colonial sex/gender categories in the first place? How can our movements center pleasure and joy, and believe people when they tell them what offers it? How can we build worlds where those offerings are abundant? How can we, in the words of amb again, “expand our sensual awareness…so [we] can sense more pleasure than capitalism believes in”?