‘Fetish of cosmetics’ bred by social relations under capitalism
Below is an excerpt from Cosmetics, Fashions, and the Exploitation of Women, one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for March. The selection is from an article titled “The Fetish of Cosmetics,” written in 1954 by Joseph Hansen (1910-79), a leader of the Socialist Workers Party. Copyright © 1986 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.
BY JOSEPH HANSEN
Long ago in analyzing the strange powers of money, Marx called attention to this projection by which human beings see their relations not as relations but as things which they endow with remarkable powers. Indicating the parallel to certain magic objects in primitive beliefs and religions he called it fetishism. What we have in cosmetics is a fetish, a particular fetish in the general fetishism that exists in the world of commodities. The special power that cosmetics have derives from the fact that in addition to economic relations, sexual relations attach to them. That is the real source of the “beauty” both men and women see in cosmetics. …
At a certain age, girls—sometime very young ones—begin trying out lipstick, powder, and rouge. In almost every case, this either causes or is associated with a sharpening of relations with their parents. At the same time they often seem to leap ahead of their age group so far as their former boy associates are concerned. If they can get away with it, they go out with youths considerably older than they are. The reason such girls use cosmetics is to facilitate this by appearing older than they are.
What they seek to say is quite obvious. Through the magic of cosmetics they express their wish to cut short their childhood and youth and achieve the most desirable thing in the world—adulthood. Why they want to be adults can be surmised in the light of how capitalist society treats its youth.
Precisely at the age when the sexual drives begin to appear and an intense need is felt for both knowledge and experience, capitalist society denies both of them. Just when the developing human being must set out to establish normal relations with the opposite sex, capitalist society through the family intervenes and attempts to suppress the urge.
The relation with the other sex thus tends to become distorted and the interest that belongs to the relation shifts to a considerable degree to a symbol. The powers and allure of the relation—some at least—are likewise transferred to the symbol. Lipstick, for instance, comes to signify adulthood; that is, the adult capacity and freedom to engage in activities forbidden to children. By smearing her lips the child says, this gives me the power to do what I want.
Naturally it’s only a wish and an imaginary satisfaction—or at least that’s what most parents imagine it to be or wish to rate it as, and the real power of the drive toward relations with the opposite sex, disguised by the fetish, is not always recognized. The symbol becomes beautiful or ugly, beneficent or malignant. In Antoinette Konikow’s youth [1880s], for instance, lipstick was “indecent.” Today it is a “must.”
This interesting alternation in time of the aesthetics of cosmetics is accompanied by an even more striking duality in its powers. To a child, as we have noted, cosmetics are a means of hiding and disguising youth, a means of appearing to be at the age when it is socially acceptable to gratify the urge for knowledge and especially experience in sexual relations.
Thus the same fetish displays opposite powers at one and the same time—the power to make old women young and young women old. Mother uses cosmetics to hide her age and bring out her youth by covering up the dark circles under her eyes. Daughter uses them to hide her youth and even touches up her eyes with blue shading to bring out her adult beauty.
Now what shall we say of children who use cosmetics because of the social necessity to look old: Shall they be denied that right? My inclination would be to go ahead and use cosmetics if they feel like it. At the same time I would be strongly tempted to explain what a fetish is, how it comes to be constructed, what is really behind it and how this particular society we live in denies youth the most elementary right of all—the right to grow naturally into a normal sexual relationship—and gives them instead the fetish of cosmetics as an appropriate companion to the fetish of money.
The application of Marxist method has thus forced cosmetics to yield two important results. We find ourselves touching two problems of utmost moment in capitalist society—the interrelation of men and women and the interrelation of youth and adults; that is, the whole problem of the family. In addition, we have discovered that these interrelations as shaped by capitalist society are bad, for it is from the lack of harmony and freedom in them that the fetish of cosmetics arises.
Existence of the fetish, in turn, helps maintain the current form of interrelations by creating a diversionary channel and an illusory palliative. Thus we have uncovered a vicious cycle. Bad interrelations feeds the fetish of cosmetics; the fetish of cosmetics feeds bad interrelations.
Our application of Marxist method has given us even more. If we deny that beauty is inherent in a thing, then it must be found in a human relation; or at least its source must be found in such a relation. Doesn’t that mean that the beauty associated with sex is at bottom the beauty not of a thing but of a relation? If we want to understand that beauty we must seek it first in the truth of the relation; that is, through science.
Is it really so difficult to see that in the society of the future, the society of socialism where all fetishes are correctly viewed as barbaric, that beauty will be sought in human relationships and that after science has turned its light into the depths that seem so dark to us—the depths of the mind—the great new arts will be developed in those virgin fields?