The message of female empowerment then and now.
Recently the new musical War Paint starring Patti Lupone, and Christine Ebersol debuted at the Nederlander Theatre in New York City.
The new Broadway show is about two beauty icons and pioneers, Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden, yes, the same as in the infamous Red Door. The play spans 4 decades and empowerment is the key message from start to finish.
Sitting in the audience I realized from the start that the perfume bottles and skin care jars surrounding the set, while beautifully packaged, are not intended to be the centerpiece of the story. The message centers on the passion that both women shared to succeed and to be empowered in a man’s world. The products were just a means to an end.
Immigrants from Poland (Rubenstein), and Canada (Arden) their companies became American icons in the world of beauty. While they approached it from different angles, Rubenstein the technician, versus Arden the feminist enabler, they soon became a girl’s best friend, or in this case an aging woman’s best friend. The two shared a similar message to women; your youthful looks are what will keep your partner from roaming. Their secret weapon was insights into women’s insecurities living in a judgmental world, however, they too were never really accepted into the upper echelon of society notably the “Mayflower” set of women they served with unrelenting devotion. So much so that when Helena was denied a co-op in a ritzy upper East Side building she didn’t walk away from it, she bought the entire building!
Men and male relationships took a back seat to their professional ambitions. It was clear that they focused on helping women keep a man happy unlike themselves. This back then was a message of empowerment… remember a movie entitled “The Women”? The characters in that movie were the very same customers of Arden and Rubenstein.
(The Women 1939 …. All about keeping men!)
Despite their shared commitment to women, and beauty they remained arch rivals to the end. The final scene in the play underscores their disdain for the other, however, reveals a split second of a veiled respect for each other having succeeded in a man’s world. One could only wonder what would they have accomplished for women’s equality had they joined forces.
Empowerment is a key communication platform for most beauty brands today. L’Oreal Paris established their mantra of “worth” almost 50 years ago. The message was simply whatever you do, do it because “You’re Worth It”. Recently more and more brands are joining in on the quest for empowerment. From the most recent effort by J&J’s Neutrogena’s “See What’s Possible”, which debuted on this year Oscars, to the on-going P&G’s Always’ “Like a Girl” campaign, both celebrate the diversity, individuality and the strength of a woman. Beauty and Empowerment are becoming more integrated and interchangeable than ever before. Pantene’s message to be strong is beautiful is a clear example of this. Dove’s message of female empowerment underscores that there is no longer a one size fits all standard in beauty.
Back when Helena and Elizabeth were an inspiration to women around the world, empowerment was achieved by conforming to the standards provided or, in some cases, imposed upon one by society. Now, empowerment is about self-expression, courage, and unity. I couldn’t help to notice that during the same week of previews for this Broadway show another female empowerment icon debuted in New York. The irony was not lost.
“The Fearless Girl” arrived in the dead of night in time to celebrate International Women’s Day (March 8th). The young girl confronting the bull represents the future and meant to raise awareness of gender diversity in the heart of the financial world, Wall Street itself.
The lesson learned from “War Paint” and Wall Street’s “The Fearless Girl” reminds us that messengers have come and gone, but the message of equality remains constant. There could be a statue of Elizabeth Arden, who began her company in1910, standing side by side with the “The Fearless Girl”. She like many after believed the path to equality was through self-empowerment. However, the one thing about Elizabeth and Helena is that they would be wearing the right shade of red lip color to taunt the bull standing before them.
Read more about female empowerment and beauty in
MR. BEAUTY: AN AFFAIR WITH THE BEAUTY INDUSTRY.
Purchase the book at amazon.com/gp/product/1508619573