Max Beerbohm's satiric "A Defense of Cosmetics" (text) praises the effects of cosmetics upon women and men. It argues that not only do cosmetics improve a woman's appearance, but cosmetics also help to keep a woman in her rightful place, something that women greatly appreciate:
Surely, without any of my pleading, women will welcome their great and amiable protectrix, as by instinct. For (have I not said?) it is upon her that all their strength, their life almost, depends. Artifice's first command to them is that they should repose. With bodily activity their powder will fly, their enamel crack. They are butterflies who must not flit, if they love their bloom. Now, setting aside the point of view of passion, from which very many obvious things might be said (and probably have been by the minor poets), it is, from the intellectual point of view, quite necessary that a woman should repose. Hers is the resupinate sex. On her couch she is a goddess, but so soon as ever she put her foot to the ground — lo, she is the veriest little sillypop, and quite done for.
Beerbohm humorously claims that women are not meant to be in the public world, or even on their feet for that matter. They should instead remain at home and rest on the couch, as nature intended. In this satiric and chauvinistic portrayal of women, Beerbohm is suggesting that in the current age, one in which society is so concerned about appearances and cosmetics, women are held back by society's expectations.
At the end of the nineteenth century, when Beerbohm wrote this essay, the opportunities for women in British society were slowly expanding. When the essay was published in 1896, women could attend some universities with male students (though many chose institutions that were all women), and just 15 years prior to Beerbohm's writing the Department for the Higher Education of Women was established. With more and more opportunities for women, Beerbohm seems to be mocking those who still foolishly believed that a woman who set foot in the outside world was "the veriest little sillypop." He is urging men, and women, not to let the fashions of the time interfere with progress and growth. No longer is it acceptable for women to be merely the simple "dear little creatures" described by Dickens, and Beerbohm makes it clear through his satiric essay that one would be foolish to think such a society was desirable.>/p>
1. Beerbohm's satiric argument for the benefits of cosmetics is incredibly humorous and ridiculous, but is he mocking the entire notion of cosmetics, or just those who become too devoted to and obsessed with cosmetics?
2. According to Beerbohm, are women or men more at fault for perpetuating the stereotypes about women? Or is the blame evenly dispersed?
3. Beerbohm uses Dickens's descriptions of women as examples of the weak women of the Victorian era. Do Mrs. Joe, Miss Havisham, Estella, and Biddy fit that stereotype? Do the women in Dickens belong to the same clas as those described by Beerbohm?
- “The Veriest Little Sillypop” — Decadence and Women in “The Pervasion of Rouge”
- Resting Women
- Madame Rachel’s Costly Arabian Preparations [on mid-Victorian cosmetics]
Hall, N. John. Max Beerbohm: A kind of a life. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.
Last modified 23 April 2010