Life as a woman in this world is difficult. So very difficult. We’re forced to deal with everything from societal gaslighting to rape culture and systematically sexist policies. Since the world can feel like a battlefield — and women are socialized from birth to believe we’re too weak to defend ourselves with traditional means — many have turned the “feminine” accoutrements left to us as armor. A shining example of this is makeup, a shield countless women use to create the version of themselves they want the world to see. That’s why, as Wednesday night’s American Crime Story episode proved, there’s no more revealing a television scene than the moment a female character removes all of that protection.
The latest episode of The Assassination of Gianni Versace, “A Random Killing,” gives us two such looks at Marilyn Miglin (Judith Light), home shopping beauty mogul and wife of Andrew Cunanan's (Darren Criss) third victim, Lee Miglin (Mike Farrell). The first quietly reveals all of the work Marilyn puts in to remain a conventionally beautiful woman, and how important that status is for her. Off goes the pinky-red lipstick. Then the false eyelashes. Eventually, the defined eyeshadow disappears. It’s messy work, but, in Marilyn’s mind, necessary work.
The final step in her process is meant to subtly highlight the tragedy of the character. Once all of Marilyn’s makeup is gone, she puts a few drops of what appears to be perfume on her neck and then down her décolletage. It’s a purposefully sexual move, one a woman only enacts if she hopes someone — like, say, her husband — will be close enough to her cleavage to take a deep, arousing whiff. Yet, viewers know no such seduction is possible since Marilyn’s spouse is a closeted gay man counting down the hours until his male escort arrives; it doesn't matter how appealing Marilyn’s chest is, Lee isn't interested. But, at least she can hope, right?
Unlike most Ryan Murphy-Brad Fulchuck set pieces, we don’t learn all of these details through dazzling colors and camp. Rather, the scene is completely silent, and it still manages to tell us everything we need to know about this proud, hopeful, image-obsessed woman. That’s because these are the moments where, in front of a mirror and surrounded by cosmetics, the manufactured version of a woman collides with the true one and her idealized dream.
This is what makes the second time we see Marilyn remove her makeup so powerful. First, she tries to contain her composure following Lee’s murder by applying even more cosmetics. “I know what they’re saying about me,” see says, steely as ever while swiping what looks like a second coat of blush on her cheeks. “‘How could a woman who cares so much about appearance appear not to care?’” Continuing to fiddle with the contents of her cosmetics bag to battle back the grief, Marilyn details her and Lee’s love story from her own point of view.
Finally the emotional dam breaks, and Marilyn’s first instinct is to ruin her perfectly-done eye makeup. “I loved him,” she says between sobs. “I loved him very much.” Overcome, she then absentmindedly dabs at her mouth, slightly smearing her pink lipstick. In her most powerful moment, Marilyn growls, “There, is that better? Am I a real wife now?” All of this occurs because Marilyn is forced to confront her faux-calm exterior and devastated interior in front of that mirror.
Although Marilyn’s makeup-free appearance on TV is the latest one to quietly — or sometimes not-so-quietly, considering that much-needed meltdown — plunge the depths of steadfast women, it’s certainly not the first. The greatest modern example of this trend still hails from How To Get Away With Murder’s “Let’s Get To Scooping,” when Annalise Keating (The Great Viola Davis) removes every last stitch of makeup amid the chaos of finding out her husband’s nudes are on the cellphone of a murdered college student. Where Marilyn’s scenes explore her own self image and grief, HTGAWM gets to the heart of what it means to be a powerful, dark-skinned Black woman in a white world.
The findings of that investigation is it's an exhausting uphill battle. In the now-iconic closing scene, we see Annalise remove her wig to reveal her cropped natural hair, pull off her fake lashes, and wipe away a full face of makeup. If you look closely, you’ll notice Annalise’s foundation is markedly lighter than her actual skin tone. But, that’s just another way to get by. Plus, it’s unlikely she could find the appropriate shade in the wealthy neighborhoods of Philadelphia. This is Annalise at both the end of her rope and at her most real. Finally, at her most honest, she's ready to ask her husband why his penis is on a dead girl's iPhone.
The biggest cosmetics strip down after Annalise's arrived three years later with the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel pilot, when we find out the titular marvelous Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) goes to sleep every night in a full face of makeup. She then wakes in the middle of the night to remove it, falls asleep, and wakes once more with the sun to re-apply. This way, her husband of nearly half a decade only sees Midge at her radiant best.
Although this nightly routine already says a lot about the character’s relationship with gender roles, it takes on even greater significance when we find out Midge’s mother Rose Weissman (Marin Hinkle) has been doing the exact same thing for decades. Now the ritual isn’t simply about the beauty standards of the 1950s — it’s about the neuroses, fears, and insecurities women pass down through the generations. And we figure all of this out without a single character saying a word.
So, whether the women of television are battling grief, devastation, or lifetimes of self-doubt, ditching makeup can unveil it all. No wonder it’s called war paint.
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