By Heather Babcock, 2021
Red lipstick made me do it.
The sleek, white plastic tube of flame-orange wax called out to me from the bowels of the Zellers’ cosmetic aisle.
The year was 1988 and I was ten years old. At home, a large poster of Madonna, in character for Who’s That Girl (1987), hung over my bed: clad in fishnets, a leather jacket and fingerless gloves. More intimidating than the revolver in her hands was the stark red lipstick on her face. Fierce. Fabulous. I didn’t understand why the other girls at my school didn’t like her. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to wear lipstick too.
Every Saturday, my mother would go grocery shopping at the Kipling Queensway Mall and my dad would give my sister and I a dollar each to buy either trash or a treat at the mall’s dollar store or Zellers. But this Saturday, I didn’t feel like a chocolate bar or a bag of chips. I didn’t need another whoopee cushion or copy of Tiger Beat magazine.
I wanted that lipstick.
It didn’t matter that it cost a little more than the dollar my dad had given me. To my ten-year-old mind, that was an unfairness that could be easily corrected. And so, taking advantage of my then-mousy invisibility, I quietly slipped the coveted tube into the pocket of my Levi’s. I don’t remember feeling nervous or even giddy about it and I certainly didn’t feel guilty – that red lipstick belonged to me. It was mine. I did however make the colossal mistake of boasting to my sister about the steal, in proud whispers, on the ride home.
“Hey Daaaa-dddd,” she called out smugly. “Heather stole a lipstick!“
And so, before I knew it, I was back in the Zellers department store, handing over my swag and stammering out an apology to the bored teenage clerk whose only response to my foray into crime was a glassy-eyed shrug.
Movie starlets have almost always been associated with lush red lips, although in the days of b&w film, black lipstick was often used instead of pink or red since it photographed better. The application of lipstick in the movies is often used to symbolize a leading lady’s internal feelings or motivators. “Hand me my purse, will you darling?” a crestfallen Audrey Hepburn asks George Peppard, after receiving a “Dear Jane” letter from her finance in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). “A girl just can’t read that sort of thing without her lipstick.” In Dishonored (1931), captured spy Marlene Dietrich uses a soldier’s sword to reapply her lipstick before bravely facing a firing squad. Red lipstick transforms abusive mom Vivian (Ann Dvorak) into a martyr in the Pre-Code melodrama Three on a Match (1932): in the film’s shocking ending, she uses the cosmetic to rescue her kidnapped son from her shady boyfriend and his gangster pals. Writing out her child’s name and location on her nightie in lipstick, she then throws herself out the window of a high-rise tenement building. One of my favorite “lipstick movie moments” happens in Thelma and Louise (1991). On the run from the law after shooting a rapist, Louise (Susan Sarandon) pulls a lipstick out of her bag and proceeds to apply it in her rearview mirror when she spots two older women watching her with curiosity from the dusty window of a decrepit diner. Do they know who she is or is she just being paranoid? Despondent, Louise tosses the lipstick away, her head falling into her hands. In this short scene, free of any dialogue, her disposal of the lipstick symbolizes Louise’s abandonment of hope. She’s not giving in, but emotionally she’s giving up.
Spies, criminals, general bad girls: the movies proved that lipstick wasn’t just for pinups. Even the cosmetic itself resembles a weapon with its bullet-like shape. Not coincidentally, the modern lipstick, in metal tubed form, is believed to have made its first appearance in 1915, during World War I. During the second World War, lipstick was considered an essential item, with cosmetic brands giving their products names such as “Fighting Red” and “Victory Red”. Whether it be during war, a Depression or the Covid-19 pandemic, lipstick has always been seen as an inexpensive pick-me-up: I know I am not the only person who wears red lipstick under my mask (pandemic beauty tip: matte lipstick creates less mask mess than gloss). Since March 2020, there has never been a day when the beauty section at my local Shoppers Drug Mart has been roped off – not even during Ontario’s “Stay at Home Order”, when stores were prohibited from selling “non-essential” goods. Just as during WWII, lipstick is still considered an essential item.
Queen Elizabeth I believed that red lip rouge warded off the Devil. For me, I use it to ward off misogynists. After my shoplifting fail, I finally saved up my weekly loonies (that’s the Canadian name for dollar coins, for my international readers) and bought my first red lipstick. “Hey Heather, are your lips bleeding?” my junior high school principal sarcastically asked me before demanding that I take it off. I responded in the way I always do when a man tries to tell me what to do: I smiled politely and completely ignored him.