Tag Archives: Capitalism

The Rougeoisie Part 4: Brands and Influencers Are Not Your Friends

Being a discussion of how you shouldn’t stan for brands and influencers.

“Women are complicated. Women are multifaceted. Not because women are crazy. But because people are crazy, and women happen to be people.”

— Tavi Gevinson

Hello and welcome to The Feminist Lipstique. I’m your hostess; today you can call me Cray Cray Gevinson. I’m a feminist in my early 30s who recently became obsessed with makeup, and is kind of freaked out by makeup stans.

So repeat after me:

Brands are not people and Influencers are not our friends.

Brands are not people and influencers are not our friends.

Brands are not people and influencers are not our friends.

Brands are not people and influencers are not our friends.

That should hopefully do it. Just make sure you repeat that to yourself basically every time you dip your toe into the makeup world. It’s important to keep this in mind, as that’s the best way to avoid a parasocial relationship.

Parasocial relationships have become kind of trendy to talk about. Philosophy Tube discussed it in terms of his own experiences and fandom in general, Whitney Hedrick and Julia Mazzucato both beat me to talking about it in the beauty industry by a few months, damnit. But the first (and still definitive) voice on the idea is Shannon Strucci. Her multi-video series on parasocial relationships is a deep dive into parasocial relationships with both fictional characters and real people.

Now this post is going to get kind of in-depth and wide-ranging, so I’m going to start with a quick FAQ for those who want the tl;dr.

Q: What is a parasocial relationship?

A: According to the psychologists that coined the term in 1956, Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl, it is a one-sided relationship that media users form as a result of exposure to media personas.

Q: Okay… what exactly does that mean?

A: It means that viewers form a one-sided relationship with media figures like movie stars, YouTubers, or even personalized brands, where they start to feel as if they know the figure/persona, and start behaving, for good or for ill, that they are real friends. The persona may try to cultivate this feeling for social or financial profit by trying to seem more “authentic,” by calling their followers by a communal pet name, or by emphasizing how close they feel to their fans.

Q: Is that a bad thing?

A: It definitely can be. For the viewer, it makes them a lot more susceptible to manipulation and exploitation by the persona. For the persona, it increases the likelihood that their fans will ignore boundaries and start behaving in inappropriate ways, including stalking, sexual harassment, and hate mobbing.

Q: But Cray Cray Gevinson, don’t you have to try to cultivate parasocial relationships in order to get readers?

A: I absolutely do! Parasocial relationships are a pretty inevitable aspect of interacting with any sort of media. But there are better and worse ways to handle them, which we’ll talk about soon!

The Longer Version: YouTube Influencers

YouTube is basically tailor made for developing parasocial relationships. Influencers are speaking directly into a camera– they’re talking to you. They are responding to comments, answering messages, opening gifts from followers– you can almost reach out and touch them. They have chatty vlogs where they talk about their lives. And they’re so “authentic” and “relatable.” they’re super real people, just like us! You watch them almost every day. You have constant access to hundreds or even thousands of hours of their content. You know their likes and dislikes, you know what products make them happiest. You watch them so often you’re certain that you know them, that you would get along so well if you met them in real life. You might even decide to send them gifts, or buy products if they do a collab, or use their affiliate codes.

These parasocial relationships would develop on their own by the nature of YouTube. But YouTube works hard to make sure that these parasocial relationships develop. And that they are monetized. YouTube works off of a mysterious formula known as the Algorithm– the way that YouTube uses data to decide what videos to support, what videos to hide, what videos to monetize, etc. The main purpose of YouTube is to make people watch more YouTube. So they want creators to make that happen. They reward constant content, and constant engagement. Thus they create mechanisms to get that– creators ask for you to like, comment, and subscribe– all signs of engagement and consistent watching, and all things that viewers are more likely to do if they have a parasocial relationship with the creator.

So, as Shannon Strucci points out, YouTube encourages influencers through the steps of curating parasocial relationships in their creator lessons, including telling influencers to make their audience feel loved and to use special lingo or names for their audiences to make them feel like part of an “in-group.” It’s why James Charles calls followers “Sisters” (and there is a whole ‘nother level of discussion of gender identity and appropriation and gender stereotyping going on there that I don’t have time to talk about right now). You see this in general fandom as well– it’s why we end up with group names like “Trekkies” or “The Beyhive,” why catchphrases end up on merch. It’s a way to form a group identity based on a mutual appreciation of a figure. You’re now part of an in group. You get the jokes. You’re cool.

The Longer Version: Brands and Companies

The whole parasocial relationship thing gets even weirder and more fraught when it comes to brands and companies. Because no matter what Citizens United tries to say, corporations aren’t people. But they work really hard to pretend to be. Brands want that sweet, sweet loyalty and cash the same way influencers do, so they do the same things. They interact with fans and consumers, they try to have a human-like social media presence (Wendy’s dunking on people). They even develop a brand ethos or company reputation that essentially serves as their “personality.” Maybe they’re the chill, bohemian, all-natural brand. Maybe they’re the sweet, ultra-girly brand. Maybe they’re the super cool punk rock brand. Depending on the market share they’re trying to corner, they’ll pose themselves in different ways. The intention each time is to get consumers to view the brand as an enlarged individual, rather than a faceless entity. They want potential buyers to ascribe motives and intentions to the brand’s actions that are more pure and good than “making lots and lots of money.” (Which is their primary motivation, no matter what other intentions they also have.) YouTuber Amandabb has a really good video on how makeup brands in particular try to humanize themselves, as well as the ways they utilize the energy of fans to essentially do PR for them.

Parasocial Relationships: How they can be Neutral or Good

It is very normal to form parasocial relationships with people and characters– in some ways, it is unavoidable just due to the nature of media. And they aren’t always a bad thing. Shannon Strucci uses the example of Bob Ross and Mr. Rogers, two of the most pure human beings to ever exist. Even if our relationship with them was one-sided, it was not manipulative or malicious– while they needed parasocial relationships in order to have viewers, they did not try to exploit that relationship. (Or at least no more than any media figure needs to in order to maintain a viewership.)

Parasocial relationships can also end up being rewarding in many ways, for both the persona and the fan. Many media figures talk about how much it means to them to have fans, and how much they appreciate their interactions with fans. Shannon Strucci points to John Cena and his literal hundreds of Make a Wish fulfillments to talk about how much a celebrity or media figure can mean to a person. And it isn’t unheard of for fans and creators to actually become friends with each other– though this needs to happen naturally with mutual respect and admiration, not creepily, through cyber-stalking a persona. (We’ll get to that.)

As I said in my Q&A, even I depend on some forms of parasocial relationship. I’m showing you a part of my personality, but not my whole personality. I’m showing you what I think will be most appealing to get you to keep reading. And sure, that contains part of my actual personality and opinions, but a very carefully selected part. And I am trying to make you feel connected to me– even though I don’t know who is reading my blog, or how many people are reading it at one time, I keep referring to you as, well, you. I am implicitly creating the illusion of a one-on-one relationship, as if I’m delivering my snarky commentary individually to each reader. Part of me being able to blog successfully depends on building a following of people who will continue to read my work. I’m genuinely hoping that this parasocial relationship will never turn exploitative, and honestly, I’m hoping my readers will let me know if it feels that way. (Please, please, please never give yourselves a follower nickname. I will cry.)

Parasocial Relationships: How They Can Be Very Bad

Oh boy. So many ways. Just so… so many ways.

Exploiting Loneliness

Let’s first look at who is most likely to form a parasocial relationship with a persona: a lonely person. Someone who does not have many “real world” connections is the most likely to be drawn in by a persona, and to blur the lines between viewership and friendship. They’re the least likely to have someone watching out for them to make sure they’re not sinking too deep, and they’re the most likely to be convinced to do things like buying products in order to earn approval from their “friends” who are telling them things online. But 99% of the time, they are not your friends. You are Butters, and they are the girls who work at Raisins. They are interested in making you feel good as long as you have money to spend. And when you’re not useful to them anymore, you are alone again.

Stan Culture

This, to me, is one of the big ones. If you’ve never heard of a “stan” before…. did you recently emerge from a time capsule, with no idea of internet culture?

The word stan comes to us kind of simultaneously as a mashup of the words “stalker” and “fan,” and as an homage to the Eminem song of the same name about a deranged fan who identifies way, way too hard with Eminem and decides to kill his pregnant girlfriend and then himself when Eminem won’t answer his fanmail. This gives us the basic idea of a “stan”– an obsessive fan who can alternately be beneficial or harmful to the object of their obsession. Saying someone is a stan carries a lot of connotations:

  1. That person will forgive their favorite persona for any indiscretion
  2. That person will constantly support their favorite persona emotionally and monetarily
  3. That person will connect a large part of their personal identity into their favorite persona
  4. That person will react very poorly to any criticism of their favorite persona
  5. That person will fight on behalf of the persona who probably doesn’t even know who they are.

The first three are the parts of stan culture that can arouse some actual sympathy and empathy, if not outright pity. (Also lots of frustration, but still.) No matter how scandal-prone a persona is, no matter how many horrible things they’ve done, no matter how much they show that they don’t care at all about their fans, a certain number of hardcore stans will still support them, and even work to re-integrate them into the larger popular culture. There is no single better proof of this than the fact that Trump’s approval ratings are not at 0. (I was formerly a politics and pop culture blogger, you can take the girl out of the blog, you can’t take the existential screaming out of the girl.) Stans will buy all the merch, all the collabs, all the products, from their favorites. They’ll pay hundreds of dollars for vaguely promised meet and greets. I’ve even seen stans give money in livestreams along with messages like, “This is my last five dollars but what you do means so much to me I want to give it to you!” It’s horrifying.

And of course, the more emotionally wrapped up in a persona a stan is, the more the persona’s ups and downs become the stan’s ups and downs. They are sad when their favorite persona is sad, or happy when their favorite persona is happy. They start caring, a lot, about the personal lives of their favorite persona– who they’re dating, where they’re living, what is happening with their children, etc. And they open themselves to immense amounts of disappointment and turmoil when something the persona does is disappointing. As Shannon Strucci puts it, “I would hate to be so emotionally tangled up in the lives of people I don’t know that their pain, or controversy, or racist opinions, had a significant impact on my emotional development or my psychological well-being.” (We’re going to talk a little bit more about this over-investment when I get to the discussion of the downsides of parasocial relationships from the persona’s side.)

Those last two characteristics are the biggies for the whole “this is kind of creepy” column. Because stans will fight you, on the internet or in person, for the honor of the persona they favor. They react about the same way they would react if you’d insulted their mother or their best friend, and soon you’re getting called out to the dueling grounds because you said that someone that, again, they do not personally know, is problematic. If this blog ever gets a following, I’ll probably one day be dealing with the stans of figures like Jeffree Star and Shane Dawson, because I’m stupid/brave enough to call them garbage human beings (which they absolutely are, and we’ll talk about them more in a future post). Both figures essentially have an army of stans (many of them young girls) who will throw down with anyone who dares to criticize them. Stans can essentially be mobilized as an army by their favorite figure, whether that’s in the direct “Hey, attack this person” way, or the indirect, “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest” sort of way. Armies of stans have threatened, harassed, and doxxed creators who criticize a figure they hold dear. It gets genuinely terrifying, to the point that people within the YouTube community are warned by other YouTubers to not criticize certain figures so that their lives aren’t ruined.

Because brands are now trying to people, the stan relationship with brands can be just as toxic as it is with influencers. If you have ever seen anyone go to the mat over iPhone vs. Android, or seen the absolute horror show that is the conservative right’s attempts to “own” the left by eating Chik-fil-a, you understand what corporate stans are like. All the same characteristics apply– brand stans will forgive their problematic faves for anything, will buy everything a brand puts out, and will connect their identity to a brand. And more frighteningly, you see the brands getting really, really canny about exploiting and weaponizing their stans. In the Amandabb video I linked earlier, she talks about how the makeup brand Anastasia Beverly Hills basically was able to turn their fanbase into a free promotional campaign, saving them likely millions of dollars.

But one of the best/worst examples of a brand exploiting a stan army I’ve seen recently is the fight between Disney and Sony over Spider-Man. When I first heard that Spider-Man might be removed from the MCU because contract negotiations had failed between Disney and Sony, I was kinda sad, because Tom Holland has been my favorite incarnation of Spider-Man (or at least he was, until I played the Spider-Man PS4 game) but I shrugged and said, “Welp, guess that is what you get for tying the main story arc of your movies to a character you were borrowing. Sucks to suck.” And then the internet lost its mind, and fans threw a fit, and pressured Sony into capitulating. It was hailed as a victory for the fans, but it was actually a victory for Disney, who had gotten the stans to do their work for them. Let me repeat: A multi-billion dollar company (Disney) was able to weaponize the parasocial relationships fans developed with their content in order to manipulate contract negotiations with another multibillion dollar company. And the fans were fighting on the more powerful company’s side. Disney literally could not have bought a better weapon for their contract deal, and they learned that they can manipulate the public into acting as their enforcement arm. So…. that’s not good.

Bad Times for Personas

Parasocial relationships can also be harmful to the personas as well as to the viewers. And not just in the “Being a celebrity is so hard, let me play the world’s smallest violin” kind of way. In the “Might need a restraining order” kind of way. Making your viewers think they are your friends seems like a great idea when you’re monetizing their affection. It seems like a much worse idea when they’re tracking down your house and coming to visit unannounced, making unwanted comments about your body and your life in general, and taking your actions very, very personally.

In a recent video, Philosophy Tube/Oliver Thorn talks about parasocial relationships, including their many benefits, and six types of “weird” fan. The weirdness can be harmless but annoying, like the “Advice Guys” who ask for advice on very specific, individual problems, or the “Debate Champions” who “…demand you spend your time and attention curing them of their pedantry, which is impossible.” The weirdness can be emotionally crushing, like the “Therapy Needers,” people who need legitimate mental help but are unable to find or afford it in their normal lives, so they seek it from a persona. The weirdness can be dangerous and harmful, like “Stalkers,” who do everything from requesting pictures to buying presents to offering to do unpaid work to showing up at a persona’s home, “Horny People,” people who send graphic text or video, solicit sex at in-person events, and seek personas out on dating apps then lie about not knowing them, and “Hate Mobs,” who we will talk about in a second.

The problem comes about due to a failure of boundaries, or at least a failure to recognize boundaries. Most of us are aware that we can ask for attention, or hugs, or whatever, from our close friends and family, but that it’s rude to stop a random person on the street, hug them, and tell them about all of your mental illnesses and how watching them is the only thing that keeps you from committing suicide. (Most.) But that is exactly what some stans will do with their favorite YouTuber. Because to the stan, that isn’t a stranger, it’s their friend. Their friend who has no idea who they are. Their friend who has just been accosted by a stranger and been made responsible for said stranger’s mental health and continuing existence. Many creators talk about how exhausting it can be to be approached in public and expected to be their online selves in a real-life setting– to be “on” and respond the way that their fans expect, lest they be labeled an asshole or bitch when they acknowledge that yes, they appreciate their fans but really they were just trying to get some takeout after a long day, and no, they don’t want to take a picture.

The hate mob aspect is probably the scariest aspect of stan culture, both for personas and for society at large. While it is a characteristic of stans that they often put up with whatever their favorite persona does without ever criticizing them, that doesn’t mean that the stans don’t have a breaking point– and when they break, they break hard. Because again, to the stans, the persona is their friend. They have not just been mildly disappointed by someone they watch on YouTube– they have been betrayed by their friend. The emotions are a lot deeper, and a lot darker. Thorn talks about a recent hate mob that came after him regarding a controversy largely centered around his friend and fellow content creator, ContraPoints. Despite not being the main figure in said controversy, Thorn got tons of hate, including death threats, being encouraged to commit suicide, and being doxxed. He said that people went through his videos where he talked about his mental health to find specific words and phrases that would hurt him the most. He explained that these former fans were more venomous than the neo-Nazis and transphobes that have attacked him for his progressive ideas.

More venomous than neo-Nazis and transphobes. For a controversy in which he wasn’t even the central figure Holy hell.

What Does it All Mean?

It means that all of us, viewers and personas alike, need to be careful, need to have good boundaries, and need to be media literate. There is no harm in enjoying someone’s work, finding someone’s work meaningful, or even feeling connected to a community because of someone’s work. But there is obviously a lot of harm in over-investing in an influencer or a brand, and either being exploited by them or being creepy towards them.

Remind yourself, frequently, that personas are just that– personas. They are the artificial version of a person or thing that you are getting to see.

Do not invest a significant amount of emotional energy into supporting, protecting, defending, etc. a persona.

Do not lose sight of the real world community outside of a persona and their fandom.

Do not allow yourself to feel personally responsible for the financial success of a persona or a brand.

Do not become overly invested in the real lives of the personas you admire. Don’t try to find their house, their family, their place of work, etc.

React in rational, situation-appropriate ways to the behavior of personas and brands.

Above all, always remember: Brands are not people and Influencers are not our friends.

Kisses,

Cray Cray Gevinson.

The Rougeoisie Part 2: Ethical? Consumption

Being a discussion of some of the more unsavory aspects of the beauty industry.

“Every daring attempt to make a great change in existing conditions, every lofty vision of new possibilities for the human race, has been labelled Utopian.”

— Emma Goldman

Hello and welcome to The Feminist Lipstique. I’m your hostess; today you can call me Queen’s Blood Goldman. I’m a feminist in my early 30s who recently became obsessed with makeup, and is still harping about the fact that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism.

I’ve said that a couple times now, and it’s probably a nice thing to explain what exactly I mean by that, and how much of it is joking– or at least, not fully accurate. The basic idea behind saying, “There is no ethical consumption under capitalism” is to say that all products and services are accompanied by some element of unethical behavior or consequences. (This is one of the major plotlines of a season of The Good Place, which is the reason that The Good Place is a miracle of a show and we must make everyone watch it.) It is not so much that we are all horrible people and we are incapable of wanting to consume ethically– it’s that we’re boxed in and don’t really have a choice. Spending money is a Plinko game where every ending slot includes something horrible.

Let’s take an example from food. You decide to go vegan, because you watched one too many documentaries on Netflix and you are sick of playing into the industrialized farming complex. Ok, cool. First step, you decide to switch to almond milk instead of cows’ milk and palm oil instead of butter. Then you find out how much of an ecological disaster almond farming is, and palm oil, well… orangutans were cool while they lasted. So you go to your local Wal-Mart and buy a ton of kale. Well, first problem, you’re shopping at Wal-Mart. There’s a ding right there. Second, that kale had to travel thousands of miles on a truck because you live in a barren wasteland, so the carbon footprint of that kale is insane. So you say, “Let’s try a different source.” So now you’re shopping from a local organic farm. That’s got to be better, because it’s organic and local, right? Well that organic farm utilizes under-paid immigrant labor, and the “organic” pesticides they use are actually present in more dangerous quantities than traditional pesticides, so on top of being underpaid the workers are being constantly exposed to hazardous conditions. (I have some problems with how we talk about “organic” farming, in case you couldn’t tell.) So you decide to buy your kale from a booth at the farmer’s market, but surprise! That cutesy local farm is actually a front for a large corporation that buys up small farms and has them continue to operate under their original names so that people feel better about their life choices. Also, that small “local” farm is actually from two states away, but they know you live in a food desert so they haul themselves out every week because getting your town to buy fresh produce is like shooting fish in a barrel, creating a new carbon footprint!

You get the idea– no matter what you try to do, you don’t have an ethically pure option. Follow basically every product back to its source, and you’ll find the exploitation, abuse, or even destruction of people, animals, and/or the environment. Probably multiple times.

It’s more fair to say that there is no ethical production under capitalism– it isn’t as if the average consumer is saying, “This kale would taste better if an immigrant without healthcare or worker’s comp protections got paid $2.00 an hour to harvest it” or “I’d only like to consume this product if it is laced with orangutan tears.” We just don’t have any choice. Getting excess value out of labor means that, at some point, the labor is being screwed over. And we as people don’t get to opt out of the system, at least not fully. I don’t get to tell my landlord, “I’m sorry, but I’m no longer paying rent because you’re exploiting my human need for shelter.” I also don’t get to stop needing to eat just because there’s no fully ethical way to purchase food. We all have limits on how much food, clothing, etc. we can all produce for ourselves, so short of living on a self-sustaining commune or actually doing a Heckin Revolution, we are stuck with consuming under capitalism.

So what we’re left with is an attempt to navigate capitalism and consume as ethically as possible– not completely ethically, because again, that’s impossible. But we need to try to shop within the boundaries of an acceptable moral range and more importantly, within the sort of comfort level that we can live with. And I absolutely understand that this is a tall order. Especially in the US, where hyper-consumerism has been tied to All the Good Things, from supporting our country to soothing the emptiness in your soul. (I have had to stop myself from stress shopping so many times during the pandemic.)

I want to make it clear: my intention in telling you all of this (and telling you everything that is coming up) is not to make you feel bad or guilty, though that may be a side effect of what I am saying. I’m not trying to make you decide to run off and live in a commune, or throw up your hands and say, “Well if there’s no ethical consumption then fuck it!” I believe in making informed choices, and I know all of this can be very overwhelming, so I’m hoping to share information in a digestible way with all of you. I do personally think that there are better and worse choices to make, and if you’re one of my close friends I may have a Very Special Episode-type discussion with you, but I’m not the arbiter of Everything That is Right and Good. I am a millenial who absolutely raced her dog for a piece of Pop-Tart that I dropped on the floor earlier today. I absolutely do not have all of the answers. I just want us to be able to muddle through things together.


Top Ways Brands are Unethical

As we start to navigate through the ethics of the beauty industry, I want to start with the broad strokes of unethical behavior in the beauty industry. These ethics violations range from the small (using excess packaging to make you think you’re getting more product than you are) to the big (systematically excluding people of color from makeup lines). The list below is not in alphabetical order or order of pearl-clutching inducements– I don’t think it is my job to form a scientific ranking system of unethical habits. Instead, they are in the order in which they popped into my brain.

Hyper-Consumerism

Hyper-Consumerism is probably one of the cardinal sins of the beauty and influencer industry. A lot of people blame Colour Pop and its frequent palette releases (it’s called the “fast fashion” of makeup, and that’s not supposed to be a compliment) for making every other brand up their games and start releasing more and more product, but it’s a comprehensive problem throughout. Makeup brands are constantly releasing products and constantly chasing trends. There are entire Instagram accounts and YouTube videos/channels that do almost nothing but showcase and talk about the upcoming releases of various brands. A video that does the weekly recap of upcoming products can last an entire hour. A lot of influencers and gurus will use hyperbole in reviews, utilizing words like “obsessed” and “need” to discuss products. Brands, influencers, and fans all talk about buying things as if they have no free will, like they were passing an Ulta and a troll demanded they pay a toll in the form of buying five new highlighters. People will pay extra for something because of its packaging, will buy products they don’t really want just because they are on sale, because it has a brand tie in they are nostalgically fond of, because it was a collaboration with someone they liked, etc. There are also all sorts of tricks that run off of FOMO, a lot of which I’m going to discuss in my next post because they’re tacky and I hate them, but they aren’t my main focus for today.

There are definitely people who are pushing back against this hyper-consumerism. Drag queen Kimberly Clark popularized Anti-Hauls, or videos that talk about products that people are planning not to buy for various reasons. (She’s also a singer and her version of “Midnight Radio” manages to start off even sadder than the original and I DON’T KNOW HOW THAT IS POSSIBLE.) Whitney Hedrick has some really great videos on tips to keep you from buying makeup you don’t need.

Deceptive Advertising

In Britain, there are strict advertising standards that mean brands have to be able to substantiate all their claims, avoid practices like “using a flawless-skinned 24-year-old as the model to sell an anti-aging cream” or “using fake eyelashes to sell mascara,” post-production airbrushing or photo manipulation that is liable to lead consumers to have inaccurate perceptions of the product, etc. In the US, our advertising standards seem to be “Don’t use cartoons to sell cigarettes and include a small print warning about drinking responsibly at the end of the ad about how alcohol makes you sexy and rich.”

I genuinely cannot believe what advertisers get away with when it comes to cosmetics and skin care. Mascara ads will have teeeny tiny words in the bottom telling you that the model is using “lash inserts.” Also known as fake lashes. They can’t even get the promised results of the mascara in their own damn commercial. Skin creams that promise to remove dark circles, puffiness, signs of aging, pores, or basically having skin. They’ll be advertised by a twenty-something model who hasn’t gotten her first grey hair or wrinkle yet, and the ad will have small words telling you “results not guaranteed.” Makeup can legit promise you a “flawless” appearance. And that’s without even getting into the incredibly shady things, like “not using the shade they say they’re using on certain models,” (Anastasia Beverly Hills), darkening white models’ appearance to make it seem like their products work better for darker skinned women (Becca. Also Stila. Twice.), or just…. straight up selling “Skin lightening” lotions, complete with misleading advertisements (Nivea, what the many levels of fuck?). Basically, there is an extra level of advertising fuckery that is reserved for screwing over customers of color. Which is a uh, theme of the beauty industry.

Unethically Sourced Ingredients

I’m not going to belabor this point too much, because I’ve mentioned it at least twice before, in my cruelty free and vegan post and also briefly when I talked about the Claire’s asbestos/talc issue. But it does bear repeating: it is difficult, bordering on impossible, to get beauty products that are 100% ethically sourced. In our complicated global community, it can be hard even for producers who are interested in doing so to fully backtrace the source of their ingredients, let alone for consumers to try and accomplish the same. And most producers don’t want to know. If you want to get really depressed but have a teensy bit of hope at the end, you can read this article about the impossibilities of ethically sourced ingredients, especially mica and palm oil, but then also gives us some hope about how blockchain might help us get better transparency in the beauty world.

Unsustainable Packaging

I’ll admit, this one wasn’t even really on my radar until I saw Raw Beauty Kristi talk about her disappointment in Colour Pop switching from cardboard to plastic packaging for their 9-pan palettes and Samantha Ravendahl talking about how she was no longer accepting PR, largely because of the extensive waste that was the result of the packaging it was shipped in. I, of course, saw Kristi’s video just after I had bought five Colour Pop nine pans, and they sit in my palette holder, silently judging me. In general, we should be pushing the makeup industry, like all industries, to decrease their use of single-use plastic packaging, increase recycling efforts, and work with more environmentally-friendly shipping and packaging methods. This also links back to the hyper-consumerism thing a bit, in that there is a strong emphasis in the beauty industry to buy things constantly, whether you are actually going to like them or not. Those products that you get may or may not be returnable (we’ll get to that a bit more next week) and whether they are returnable or not, they are likely going to end up in the trash. In addition to being a waste of money, this is a waste of resources and an extra item going to a landfill that didn’t have to be there.

Terrible Shade Ranges/Shade Considerations

As I was saying earlier, the makeup industry has not been kind to customers of color. In basically every way. The first and most obvious way is the terrible, terrible, TERRIBLE shade range most brands have for things like foundation and concealer. I’ve already hyped Nyma Tang’s The Darkest Shade series, but I’m gonna hype it again. Customers of color have been considered an afterthought for decades. And it’s not just foundation and concealer– it’s even products like bronzer and eyeshadow. Bronzer is supposed to darken skin, which is hard to do if the darkest it goes is “slightly overcooked pizza crust.” And eyeshadows with the wrong undertones can look incredibly ashy and unflattering, or even not show up, on darker skin, which means anyone with darker skin who wants to wear the color will probably need a white or near-white eye primer in order to make the color work. One important method for changing this this is for makeup fans whose skintones ARE represented in a product range to be on the lookout for the overall range and reviews of the product. Darker skinned makeup fans have been left out because their needs and concerns haven’t been considered “profitable,” and enough white people shrugged and went, “Well, I got mine.” that most brands never felt the need to change.

Black Outrage

This is very closely related to the issue of shade range. Amanda at the channel amandabb has a really great video about this topic. Essentially, it boils down to the idea that brands and influencers are doing things that screw black people over (having bad shade ranges, essentially wearing blackface, performing cultural appropriation, etc.) on purpose to drive outrage, get their product talked about, and raise their company profile. Which is sadly common in our current stage of capitalism/worst timeline. (Hbomberguy has a very good video about outrage marketing that you should also watch.) As you might imagine, I find this morally reprehensible, and it throws me into the same quandary I get about “feeding the trolls”: I don’t want to give them the attention they are craving, but I also don’t want them to get away with their foolishness. Amanda has some good suggestions for that as well. (That I’m not going to tell you because you should watch her video!)

Product Amount and Production Cost vs. Price

So I learned recently that the average restaurant has a 3-5% profit margin. (AKA, they make about $.03-.05 of profit out of every dollar that is spent at their restaurant. In other words, their revenue minus their costs leaves about three to five cents of profit left over from each dollar.) A really good restaurant can get to around a 15% profit margin. You wanna guess what the average profit margin is for makeup brands?

60-80%.

SIXTY to EIGHTY PERCENT. That means that after accounting for costs, 60 to 80 cents of each dollar is pure profit. That is “fireworks sales” money. What this means in practical terms is that almost all makeup is dramatically overpriced. Like, “painting bricks with gold paint and selling them as gold” overpriced.

One of the ways that this overpricing happens is by playing fast and loose with product amounts versus price. If you’ve ever been poor, you’re already used to glancing at the “cost per ounce” section on price labels at the store. If you’ve never been poor, come with me on a magical adventure!


Most makeup products are labeled with the ounces or grams of product that they have. At one point I had a list of average amounts for products, but I can’t find it now and so you’re all just going to have to suffer in frustration with me. The point is, paying attention to this information is really important in terms of how much bang you are getting for your buck. A lot of brands will put small amounts of product into large, bulky packaging to make it seem like there is more product than there actually is. Or they’ll advertise their amazingly low prices without telling you that the reason their product costs half as much as their competitor’s is that they have half as much product as their competitor.

Now obviously, product amount is not the only indicator of value. If I get twenty grams of dollar store eyeshadow for $20, that is not necessarily a better value than the 10 grams of high end eyeshadow I got for $40– a lot depends on the quality of the shadow I’m getting. But if you’re comparing similar products, then this is a good way to help judge when you’re getting a good deal. And it’s just a good habit to get into for general shopping.

Private Labeling

I talked about this practice in my cost/value post, but it really pisses me off so I’m talking about it again. I abhor private labeling, especially in light of what we just learned above about the profit margin. If you are unable to run a makeup company without buying wholesale, generic makeup, slapping your name on it, and reselling it at a dramatic markup? Maybe don’t try to run a damn makeup company. To me there is a world of difference between coming up with your own formulations and then depending on someone else to actually produce it, and taking makeup someone else has already made, re-labeling it, and passing it off as yours. And the latter practice makes me really mad.

Rainbow-Washing

Rainbow-washing is related to probably the more well-known practice of pinkwashing, where everyone from clothing companies to gun manufacturers to the goddamn NFL will start producing everything in pink in October for breast cancer “awareness.” At best, companies will donate a small percentage of sales to breast cancer research organizations. In the middle/purgatory category, it’s a soulless cash grab that assumes you will buy things just because they are pink so that you can performatively demonstrate that you hate breast cancer/ support breast cancer survivors. At worst, they use the color pink to sell products that are ironically carcinogenic. Or you know… guns.

Rainbow-washing is similar, only instead of turning everything pink, brands turn everything rainbow in honor of Pride Month.

Because we live in a very weird, capitalist society, it is in some ways a positive sign that corporations have decided to exploit Pride Month in order to make money, because it’s a sign of positive social change– it is now more profitable to try and cater to/exploit the LGBTQ+ community than to ignore them or even actively oppress them. So… yay then? Goodness we live in an insane timeline.

Like pinkwashing, at its best rainbow-washing serves in at least a small way as a method to raise funds for pro LGBTQ+ organizations. Also like pinkwashing, at its midpoint it is a soulless cash grab, and at its worst it is a soulless cash grab that exposes a company’s hypocrisy. Many corporations (not just makeup brands) will go all out in rainbow for Pride Month, and then donate to anti-LGBTQ+ politicians and organizations, or have corporate policies that discriminate against queer employees.


These were all of my big issues. And these are my case studies in the argument that what we really need to be pressed about is the production side, rather than the consumer side. As consumers our jobs is to be as ethical as we can given the various constraints (time, money, energy) we have on our lives. It should be the responsibility of the brands to be more ethical, but it takes public pressure and “voting with your dollar” to make that happen a lot of the time. That’s why I think it’s so important that we’re aware of these messed up business practices, and can make as good of choices as possible.

Join me next time, when I will finish up my overall makeup brand practices discussion with some topics that are not so much anger inducing as they are just weird/kinda shady/things to be wary of.

Kisses,

Queen’s Blood Goldman.

The Rougeoisie Part 1: Cruelty Free and Vegan

Being an attempt to explain what it means to be nice to animals.

“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

— Margaret Atwood

Today marks the start of the second miniseries of posts, The Rougueoisie. This miniseries is actually what inspired me to truly turn this into a blog, instead of just constantly fishing for attention on Facebook by posting selfies. (I still do that, I just also have a blog now.) In this series, we’re going to talk about the ethical dilemmas present in the beauty and makeup industry. There are… a lot. So many. I thought that this first post was going to get to be multiple topics in and of itself, and I think it will have to just be one. In this miniseries, we will be discussing problematic brands and YouTubers, product contamination, soulless corporate tie-ins, and even, occasionally, things that brands are doing well and people that I admire.

Let’s do this.


Hello and welcome to The Feminist Lipstique. I’m your hostess; today you can call me Sapphire Siren Atwood. I’m a feminist in my early 30s who recently became obsessed with makeup, and is very upset that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, and that is doubly true for makeup.


Basically every subgroup or interest can become a microcosm of everything that is wrong with capitalism. And makeup is that. All over. All the time. It’s just… wow. There’s a lot to cover. So let’s start with the first two concepts that are probably the most important and also the most divisive, “cruelty free” and “vegan” makeup.


Cruelty Free

Like a lot of terms that you think should have a legally-mandated definition, “cruelty free” does not have a legally-mandated definition, and any brand can claim to be cruelty free, even if they test on animals, without any legal repercussions. (There is no ethical consumption under capitalism, there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, there is no ethical consumption under capitalism…) Instead, it has been left to a patchwork system of activists, consumers, brands, and certification organizations to decide what “cruelty free” actually means. When we talk about wanting makeup to be “cruelty free,” there are actually a few different levels of cruelty-free status that can be obtained. Because capitalism is complicated, and cruelty, like ogres, has layers. And like pretty much everything in the world today, it has a lot to do with China.

China has about 1.4 billion people, so it is literally the largest single-country market on Earth, and pretty much all brands would like to sell there for obvious reasons. However, it’s a little bit complicated for makeup brands. As Jen of Jen Luvs reviews explains in a video (that is legit the basis for basically the next three paragraphs) the Chinese government (with the exception of Hong Kong) requires that any makeup product that is sold to Chinese citizens undergoes animal testing (or is open to undergoing animal testing). So outside companies who want to sell in China have to pay a fee to the Chinese government to perform pre-market testing. Companies that actually make their products in China and then sell in China (which is a lot of them, honestly) can be made to undergo government-funded post-market testing if there is an issue, though in March of 2019 they stopped just performing post-market testing on randomly selected products. So a lot of whether a brand can fairly call itself “cruelty free” depends on whether or not they sell products in China. Which brings us to the Hierarchy of Cruelty Free-ness.

The Hierarchy of Cruelty Free-ness

At the bottom of the hierarchy, we have what I call the “I’m Technically Correct, Which is the Best Kind of Correct” level. These are brands that don’t test on animals themselves, but pay companies in China to test on their behalf. Basically every US and European brand can fit this very loose definition of cruelty free. Brands like L’Oreal, NARS, Benefit, Estee Lauder, and MAC (none of the French-named ones get their little accent, because they don’t deserve it and I am also lazy) all explain that they don’t test on animals in the production of their products (which is admittedly a step up from how things used to be) but that when required by law/regulatory bodies, *cough* China *cough* they allow outside companies to test their products using animals.

Then we have what I like to call the “Ignorance is Bliss” level. This is the level where the specific brand that you are purchasing from does not test on animals in the production of their cosmetics and also does not sell in China. But (and you knew there was a but) they are owned by a parent company that DOES sell in China. So any brand that is owned by one of the previously mentioned companies (and quite a few other companies) falls into this grey area. Examples of this level that Jen gives includes Too Faced (which you probably shouldn’t buy anyway, but we will talk about that later) and Urban Decay. I tentatively put Wet n’ Wild in this same category, for slightly different “ignorance is bliss” reasons. Their products are produced in mainland China, so they are not required to have mandatory pre-market testing, but they are subject to post-market testing if any of their products seem to cause any kind of negative reaction for a consumer. So as long as their products are carefully quality controlled and clearly labeled, everything should be fine. But there is the possibility that their products will be tested on animals if something goes wrong. (They got into a big controversy over this in 2019, as you already know if you have watched the video. They also say on their website that they are cruelty free, and have been given the PETA cruelty-free symbol, which is a Whole Thing we are going to talk about later on in this post.)

Finally we have what I call the “Morally Pure, as Much as a Cosmetics Company Can Be Morally Pure” level. These are cosmetics that don’t sell in China, don’t test on animals in the production of their cosmetics, and either have parent companies that do not sell in China or do not have a parent company. This is why it is really important that you pay attention, whenever you are able, to whether your favorite indie brand is being bought by a larger parent brand. A brand that was 100% on the up-and-up prior to being bought could wind up owned by a parent company that sells in mainland China.

Figuring Out if Something is Cruelty Free

The blog Cruelty Free Kitty is one of the most comprehensive sources to look to when trying to figure out if something is cruelty free or not. They keep lists of cruelty free and non-cruelty free brands, and also help explain what they mean by that. As explained by CFK, there are two main organizations/endorsements that signify that a brand is (at least claiming) to be cruelty free. The first is an endorsement from PETA, and the second is an endorsement from Leaping Bunny.

PETA, to the surprise of no one who as ever heard of PETA before, has a shadier endorsement system than Leaping Bunny. To get a PETA endorsement, a company “must complete a short questionnaire and sign a statement of assurance verifying that they do not conduct, commission, or pay for any tests on animals for ingredients, formulations, or finished products and that they pledge not to do so in the future.” And… that’s it. So if a company fills out a questionnaire and pinky promises not to test on animals or pay for animal testing, they get the endorsement.

Leaping Bunny kicks things up a notch. The pledge that companies must make applies to both their own practices and the practices of their ingredient suppliers, and also requires signees to allow for independent audits to make sure that they are telling the truth:

“[a] voluntary pledge that cosmetic, personal care, and/or household product companies make to clear animal testing from all stages of product development. The company’s ingredient suppliers make the same pledge and the result is a product guaranteed to be 100 percent free of new animal testing. All Leaping Bunny companies must be open to independent audits, and commitments are renewed on an annual basis.”

Companies with either certification can put an icon on their products to indicate their cruelty free status. To make things more confusing, both endorsements involve rabbits. To make things even more confusing, PETA has recently altered their logo, so brands with PETA certification may use one of two different icons:

(Don’t worry, we’ll talk about the “vegan” aspect here in a bit.)

The leaping bunny logo is… a bunny leaping through the stars?

Now as you probably noticed, both PETA and Leaping Bunny (Though Leaping Bunny is more stringent) leave some pretty big loopholes open for the “Ignorance is Bliss” level of The Hierarchy of Cruelty Free-ness. Wet n’ Wild is, in fact, PETA certified, but as shown in Jen’s video, the makeup it produces in China is also sold in China, which means post-market testing could happen to the products. Since Wet n’ Wild isn’t paying for the testing themselves and isn’t testing on animals in production, they still qualify for the PETA certification. (From my reading, they would qualify for the Leaping Bunny certification as well if their ingredient suppliers were also cruelty free).

Another thing to note is that both the PETA and the Leaping Bunny certification are voluntary programs, not industry standards. Thus it is possible for a brand to be some level of cruelty free but to not have either certification if they decided for some reason not to pursue that certification. (Maybe it costs money? I admittedly did not do extra research into the process of applying for certifications, because I was afraid I’d be writing forever.)

That’s why my genuinely best advice to find something that is fully cruelty free is to check out the Cruelty Free Kitty site, as the companies that they list fit the top criteria of the Hierarchy of Cruelty Free-ness. You can see on their list whether a brand has a PETA certification, a Leaping Bunny certification, both, or neither.


Vegan

Interestingly, products can be vegan without being cruelty free, and cruelty free without being vegan. That’s because most of the animals whose byproducts are used in makeup don’t fall under the normal umbrella that is covered by animal testing laws; namely, bugs and fish. There are also animal byproducts that don’t fall under animal cruelty laws because the products used would have also been used for other purposes/the animal was killed for purposes unrelated to makeup testing. I’ll explain some of the most common ones, with help from the Ethical Elephant website.

Bees:

Some of the most common non-vegan products come from bees. Wax is often used as an emollient (aka a softening agent) an emulsifier (aka a stabilizing agent) and a film forming agent (aka a chemical that leaves a constant covering over the skin.) Honey is also a common ingredient for moisturizers, soothing agents, and humectants (aka something that reduces moisture).

Other bee products are also used in various ways, though I’ve personally not seen them frequently in products.

Sheep:

Lanolin is a secretion from sheep. It helps them keep their wool anti-staticky and healthy, and it is used for similar reasons in products. It’s used to prevent static, as a conditioner and emollient, and a surfactant (something that reduces the surface tension of what it is put into).

Insects:

Carmine is one of the most common non-vegan ingredients in cosmetics (it is also referred to as cochineal, carminic acid, crimson lake, carmine lake, CI 75470, and E 120). It is a dark red color that is gained from grinding the shells of cochineal insects.

Ethical Elephant has additional information on insects and shellac, but this is becoming a super long post and I’m moving on.

Bone and Stuff:

Keratin, Collagen, and Elastin are all potentially sourced from animals, including from ground scales, horns, nails, and feathers. They are used for… sciency things.

Fish:

Some lipsticks contain products from fish scales, and a very fun to say word, squalene, may be sourced from fish liver oil.

There are some other animal products listed on Ethical Elephant site, but these are the big ones (to me).

How to Tell if a Product is Vegan

The PETA certification, as you saw above, has an option for products that are cruelty free as well as vegan. There is also “Certified Vegan” certification of various types, which look like these:

Cruelty Free Kitty’s list of cruelty free makeup has a filter for 100% vegan brands, and if you have concerns about a particular ingredient, you can look it up on doublecheckvegan.com.


How Do I Do?

My own ethics with makeup on this one are… mixed. I have makeup from a number of top-tier cruelty free brands, but not exclusively. I didn’t know that Benefit pays for direct testing and I have a Benefit brow pencil and some foundation, because the lady who does eyebrow waxing at Ulta works at the “Benefit Brow Bar” and gets extra commission money if she talks customers into things and I’m very impressionable. And I have a surprising amount of products from the “Ignorance is Bliss” level of the Hierarchy of Crualty Free-ness. I actually have a number of Wet n’ Wild products, because they are some of the best cheap products you can find, and their liquid matte lipstick can go toe-to-toe with lipsticks that cost three to four times as much. I also didn’t realize that Urban Decay wasn’t an independent brand, so I have a few Urban Decay products. (I also looked up one of my other most loved brands, NYX, and found that they are also owned by a parent company that sells in mainland China.) And I’ve legitimately never paid much attention to animal products in makeup. (Except for ambergris. I don’t mess with ambergris because despite my best intentions, I did, in fact, read Moby Dick.) I’d like to think that I’ll be more careful in the future now that I’ve done this research. I’m the type of person who can “ruin” things for myself, and be unable to forget the bad thing I learned about products, brands, people, etc. and thus be unable to manage to do things guilt-free after the fact. I’ll admittedly probably not sweat ingredients like beeswax, but I’m going to try harder to pay attention to other animal-based ingredients.

At the end of the day, everyone has to decide what their own comfort level/ethics level is, and just go with it the best they can. But understanding what all of the aspects of cruelty free and vegan mean can help you determine your level.

Join me next time, where I tackle one of the other (dear lord there are so many) aspects of ethics in makeup.

Kisses,

Sapphire Siren Atwood.