Wonder Woman: Fierce heroine or infantilizing cosmetics marketing tool?

wonder woman

When I was a little girl, one of my favorite things to do was perch on the edge of the tiny bathroom sink of my childhood apartment and watch my mother apply her make-up. My mother was a notorious cosmetics hoarder, and lipsticks, eyeshadows, pencils and blush spilled from the medicine cabinet. In the morning, as she was readying herself for work, my mom would go through the complicated process of "putting on her face." It involved a tedious routine of blending, and brushes, and smudging. Applying her face meant as much as erasing her perceived flaws as accentuating the features she thought were acceptable. There was nothing fun about it. Putting on her face was a utilitarian act.

As a girl I had my very own make-up, from brands like Bonnie Bell and Tinkerbell and Barbie. It was scented like strawberries. I too spent time at the bathroom mirror, painting my lips and experimenting with peel-off nail polish. I wanted to look older, and glamorous, and chic, just like the models on magazines. I subjected my younger cousins to spontaneous make-overs, and we staged complicated photo shoots involving enough make-up to supply a Broadway production of Cats. Make-up was fun, and colorful, and a delightful way to practice at being a grown-up.

Somewhere between my childhood experimenting and growth into an adult, I lost the playful quality which cosmetics used to contain. Now, when I'm in front of the bathroom mirror in the morning, I too "put on my face."My routine includes eyeshadow primer, shadow, liner, mascara, foundation, and blush. I smudge and line and contour, all with the intention of covering flaws and accentuating the features I deem positive.

When the New York Times wrote about the growing market of women purchasing cosmetics featuring cartoon and comic book characters, I was intrigued. MAC, the innovator of such lines, has produced collections inspired by Hello Kitty, Miss Piggy, Wonder Woman and villainous Disney characters such as Cruella De Vil. According to David Gager, the brand's senior vice president and group creative director, cartoon-based collections generally sell very well and tend to become "very coveted and special" to consumers.

There is certainly an element of nostalgia behind the popularity of these cosmetics collections - I have fond memories of watching Wonder Woman on TV during rainy Sunday afternoons. But the cult love behind cartoon-inspired cosmetics might signify more.

Steve Stoute, an advertising executive who helped broker a collaboration between MAC and Lady Gaga said, “I think that anytime you find a way to incorporate the essence and glamour of the beauty business, but also find a way to touch a woman and make her still feel like a girl, is beautiful. It creates a healthy tangent between a little girl and a sophisticated woman.” There is something about these collections that taps into the playful, creative element of cosmetics. A glimpse of Miss Piggy on the case might remind women that cosmetics are not only functional, but also fun. In addition, swiping on a shadow from a Wonder Woman palette could inspire a woman to be sassy, or fearless, or powerful, just like her heroine was.

Some might see these collections as a baffling form of infantilizing women, and products such as Maybelline's Baby Lips lip gloss and Hello Kitty bubble bath certainly hint at it. But marketers are becoming increasingly crafty at injecting products with an emotional element. To some women, items that hint of a more innocent time resonate deeply. A Wonder Woman compact might remind these women of a time when life was simple, and their heroine was a a fictional superhero who was strong and glamorous.

So what do you think of these cartoon-inspired makeup collections? Have you ever bought cosmetics from one of the MAC lines? Are you intrigued by these collections? Do you see make-up application as a chore, or a way to be creative? How much make-up do you wear on a given day?


  1. I'm not a big fan of licensed make-up lines and often wonder who they target, exactly. Other than perhaps Hello Kitty, which seems to have a decent sized teen and young adult fanbase, I can't imagine a 15 year old wanting to buy Barbie lipgloss, even if it's by Stila or MAC. Like you, when I was 15, I wanted to be a grown-up!

  2. To be honest, the more i learn about the beauty industry, the more I'm convinced MAC will capitalize on whatever their niche audience will shell out for.

  3. concealer,foundation, blush, eyeshadow, eyeliner, mascara, brow pencil...I have it down to a science, but it still seems like a chore. And the older I get, the more so. I wish I felt confident enough to go without!

  4. I own the Cruella De Vil beauty powder from MAC. I was really late getting into the make up thing - up until a couple years ago, I didn't own any cosmetics other than mascara and eye liner. So, at first, the nostalgic cosmetics made no sense to me - wasn't I wearing make-up to feel more like an adult? But, now I find that it does lend a little whimsy to an otherwise tedious task. It makes me feel like the idea of an adult I had when I was a child (confident, fun, free), not the boring adult reality (responsible, insecure, tired). Some of the products can and do cross the line into infantilization, but if guys are encouraged to be nostalgic (hello, Transformers movies!), why not us ladies?

  5. I think this has a lot more to do with what a girl sees her mother (older sisters, etc.) do than about the cartoon character. I watched superhero cartoons when I was a kid and I was way more into Wonder Woman's invisible jet and ability to lasso stuff than I was her look. I don't think female superheroes and makeup ever connected in my mind at all.

    I'm a second-generation non-wearer of makeup (my mother gave it up in college, years before I came along), and there was very little focus in our house on appearance beyond being clean, decent, and in good repair. My mother, bless her heart, doesn't have a stylish bone in her body. Somebody actually gave me a child's makeup kit (possibly Strawberry Shortcake themed; I don't remember any more) as a gift: Lipstick-shaped tubes of lipstick (red), eyeshadow (lilac blue), and perfume (white/clear). I think I used them to paint stuff; I don't recall ever actually wearing them on my face. I simply was never primed to look at anything in terms of fashion or cosmetics.

    So, I think character licensing is fun and should be harmless if little girls aren't already being taught to focus too much on their looks. If they are being taught that, it's not the companies' fault: It's their parents' fault for not keeping things in perspective.

  6. A related question could be, are having fun, being attracted to whimsy, and cultivating the imagination character traits that need to be abandoned in order to be a mature, responsible, independent adult? These are things that adults tend to not engage in (or feel guilty for doing), but does participating in make-believe and fun for the sake of fun absolutely make one not an adult?

    As for what make-up I wear, I have two extremes. I'm comfortable with no make-up. The other days, I wear bright, clearly not natural, eye make-up. I own several eye shadows, two red-based lip glosses, a pink-based lip gloss, one blush, and one mascara. Make-up for me is about creative expression, occasionally about looking "grown-up" (e.g. for a job interview where I wear more professionally styled make-up), and never about concealing flaws or highlighting assets. Make-up is fun!

  7. I can't get down with the cheap-looking packaging!

  8. If I bought MAC regularly I would probably own a few of the cartoon-related products. The Wonder Woman lipstick reminds me of underoos! I do own a Hello Kitty compact from Sephora but it's tucked away in a drawer somewhere. For me it's about nostalgia and sharing something fun from my childhood with my kids. For my mom makeup was about correcting flaws and trying to be beautiful from the neck up when she felt she looked terrible from the neck down. I rarely wear more than tinted lip balm (Maybelline's baby lips, in fact) mostly out of sheer laziness. I do like makeup and have a little train case full but it mostly gets used to "play makeup" with my 6 year old.

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