Lipsticks should be like Sharpies: psychologically indelible. I like newness, but not trends. And in lipsticking more than any other body-fashioning cosmetic process, it is important to find a shade-brand-texture so your “own” that it feels like, as Maybelline says, you were born with it. Lipstick as permanent marker for your brain: the color can be wiped off at night so you don’t stain your pillow, but the feeling that it produces when you see yourself in the mirror should cohere to the girl in your brain. You and your lipstick ought to be inseparable, even if the lipstick is unworn and just doing timeshare in your handbag.
This is how I feel about black lipstick. I love a good red, but a good, uncompromising black is my other lover. A few weeks ago, at the Shu Uemura store in the Fillmore in San Francisco, I admiringly picked up their black lipstick BK 099, which is not dark plum, not brown, not brick, but straight-up Sharpie-black. Immediately, my friend Claudelle scrunched her face disapprovingly and exclaimed, “Ooooh! Joon!” The “Oooh” slipping into “EWWWWW.” I didn’t tell Claudelle that I already owned this lipstick. Instead, I just dabbed some on my finger and put it on my mouth. It surprised her: “That’s pretty,” she said. I looked in the mirror and agreed. I love the way a black mouth looks on me, but I hadn’t quite gotten a handle on the goth-hippie look it produces on my body (Although the look is worth exploring and working on, I think). But that afternoon in the Shu store, I hadn’t caked on the black. The meek fingertip application produced the look that results at the end of a day’s wearing a single swipe of black lipstick without retouching. After leaving black imprints on cup-rims, lunch forks, fried-chicken-greased finger, napkin, back of antsy hand, collars of t-shirts pulled over and under my head, and if I’m lucky, boys’ lips, my lips bear just the trace of black. The pigments of the black lipstick pressed into the cracks and crevices of my lips rather than its flesh.
It kinda looks as though I’d spent the whole day drinking red wine. But to me, this look is not so much cabernet-mouth as it is ink-mouth. Drinking ink along with wine is appropriate because Fall signals my return to teaching after a lazy summer. Fall for me is not a season to recharge my makeup colors, but to read (and teach) again Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, whose heroine, Emma Bovary, is the original inkmouth.
(Isabelle Huppert as Emma Bovary in Claude Chabrol’s 1991 film)
Overcome with shopping-debt that she can’t repay, Emma Bovary impulsively shoves a handful of arsenic into her mouth. Her subsequent death is excruciatingly protracted over the last thirty pages of the novel. As she lies dying, her lips are dyed black by the poison—her mouth is described as a “black hole”—and eventually, “black liquid, like vomit, flowed from her mouth.”
A woman’s death by overactive imagination, swollen sense of romance, and rampant shopaholism: it seems like a misogynist’s idea of a woman’s death sentence. Yet Flaubert, who famously cried: “Emma Bovary, c’est moi! (I’m Emma Bovary!),” has a radically different motivation for killing off his heroine. He tells us that as her mouth is lined by the black residue of arsenic, a “taste of ink persisted.” Moralists can think Emma’s death is punishment; for Flaubert, her death is liberation. It is the transsexual liberation of both Emma Bovary and Flaubert himself. Emma’s body begins producing the very ink that was used to make the novel. In this, she leaves the two-dimensionality of her fictional world—the very provinciality that would drive her to death and fate worse than death (bourgeois marriage and motherhood)—and makes her true flight to freedom into the third dimensionality of us, her readers. Black-inkmouthed, Emma realizes her true identity: novel. Emma Bovary is neither man nor woman, but book. She is a book trapped inside a woman’s body. Writing the death scene allowed Flaubert to make sense of his own inhibited transsexualism. His male flesh made thick and uncomfortable padding around the “Emma Bovary” that he felt himself to truly be, an “Emma Bovary” whose spine is not made of female vertabrae but glued and stitched sheafs of printed prose. In this same way, I may finally be realizing my own true sexual orientation as girl: I’m a book. (Probably more a short-story collection than a novel, though.)If we feel ourselves to be objects trapped in the body of fleshly human beings, what are we to do? There is an alternative to suicide: to take up femininity, fully embracing all the toxic risks that such an existence will bring in a world which denigrates both objects and feminine beings.
Walking around with black shit coating the cracks and dead skin on my mouth while pretending to be Emma Bovary may be a bit mad, and a bit ugly, but it makes me feel like a freshly-wiped intaglio plate of femininity: I want to be a reproduceable agent of renegade femininity. Actually, I probably am more low-tech than intaglio printing. I’m more like a pencil rubbing. You know: you write a message on a pad of paper and tear the secret sheet away, forgetting about the fact that a sneaky reader can rub some pencil over the next blank page and discover where you’re off to, who you’re seeing, who you are. Wearing black lipstick as a pencil-rubbing gives the feeling of being marked by femininity, by the risks of being a woman in a patriarchal society. And marked in such a way that all the next gal has to do is rub some BK 099 over me to find out the secrets of my successes and failures.