Group 4

Why beauty and politics can't (and shouldn't) be separated

For the LGBTQ+ community, that “Euphoria-inspired” make-up is still an act of protest


Text: Dominic Cadogan
Illustration: Sam Sands

When Euphoria burst onto our screens in 2019 — following in the footsteps of other chaotic teen dramas like SkinsÉlite, and Skam — a new generation was hooked, watching the latest retelling of the trials and tribulations of coming of age.  Yet among all the grit in this hazy, Levinsonian dream, unexpected beauty emerged at the hands of the show’s make-up artist Donni Davy, who adeptly painted Hunter Schafer, Sydney Sweeney, and Zendaya with glittering tears and punctuated neon liner with Swarovski crystals. 

Earning her two Emmys for Outstanding Contemporary Make-up, to say that Davy’s work sparked a new beauty movement is an understatement. Arriving at a time when Glossier’s dewy skin and minimal aesthetic was beginning to homogenise the beauty industry, in contrast, this maximalist make-up was both experimental and a powerful statement of self-expression — a Gen Z prerogative.  

Now, four years later, we’re still seeing the lasting impacts of editorial make-up regularly appearing in everyday settings and all over our social media feeds — the TikTok tag ‘Euphoria make-up’ alone currently racking up 2.4 billion views. Much like the TV show’s looks, more is more, leaving it up to the wearer to go more glamorous, weirder (pioneered by celebrities including Julia Fox and Doja Cat), or change on a dime, like the unique multiversal looks created by Michelle Chung for the Oscar-winning film Everything Everywhere All at Once. At this point, it’s inescapable. 

Ditching traditional Regency-era beauty, Bridgerton make-up artist Erika Ökvist instead used Pat McGrath Labs, one of many brands championing the aesthetic with others including Davy’s Half Magic BeautyIsamaya Ffrench’s eponymous offering, and Halsey’s sister lines about-face and af94. In the same way that we’ve previously seen beauty borrow from drag culture — with techniques like baking, contouring, and overlining the lips incorrectly attributed to the Kardashians — these brands too appeared to draw from LGBTQ+ tenets with an emphasis on colour, individuality, and celebrating imperfection. 

While on the surface this movement seems to be about simply having fun, the brands rooted within the trend are simultaneously moving the dial on who beauty can be for — spotlighting a diverse range of beauty creators and make-up artists in their content and celebrating their individuality. It’s fitting, given that almost 20-percent of Gen Z identifies as being LGBTQ+, but it’s important that the relationship between the queer community and beauty isn’t reduced to simply being a trend. 

For those under the queer umbrella, make-up can be a powerful tool to proudly celebrate one's identity authentically, as well as an identifier for others within the community. In my own experiences of unpacking my gender expression as a non-binary person, make-up was integral, not only as a method of affirming and exploring my femininity — though make-up itself shouldn’t be viewed as being gendered — but also as a way of connecting to other people like me, many of whom make up the beauty community. 

As I experimented, often emulating editorial looks I’d seen on Euphoria and elsewhere, I began to notice an uncomfortable shift in the way I was perceived in public when I was wearing make-up — the gawking disappearing when I wasn’t. In the years since then, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been ridiculed, harassed, and intimidated — culminating in my first physical assault a few months ago when I was alone on the Underground and unfortunately this experience isn’t unique to me. 

As the rift between the two sides of the culture war grows with an increasing number of violent clashes, it’s important to note the way in which ‘us’ and ‘them’ are identified.

With hate crimes in the UK at a record high in 2022, the most significant increase has been against trans and gender non-conforming people — rising by 56 percent, the largest annual increase on record. Yet, rather than providing safeguarding for this increasingly targeted group, the government has doubled down, stoking the fire in an ongoing ‘culture war’ against trans people as a smokescreen to avoid discussing the current cost of living crisis. After blocking a bill passed by the Scottish parliament to make it easier for trans people to get official gender recognition certificates, equalities minister Kemi Badenoch is now intent on making changes to the 2010 Equality Act, to prohibit trans people from same-sex spaces. 

In the US, the situation is even more dire, a terrifying glimpse of where this road might lead. Amid cries of wokeism for including trans TikToker Dylan Mulvaney in a Nike campaign — the so-called ‘drag ban’ in Tennessee is more insidious than it might initially appear. In using deliberately vague language — the word ‘drag’ itself does not appear, instead “male or female impersonators” — there are valid fears that the legislation will be used to target trans people for simply existing. Though the bill has been temporarily halted, anti-trans legislation continues to roll out across America — including a repugnant ruling that appears to allow genital inspections to stop trans girls from participating in sporting events at school. 

As the rift between the two sides of the culture war grows with an increasing number of violent clashes, it’s important to note the way in which ‘us’ and ‘them’ are identified. It’s no coincidence that visibly queer people are targets for attacks in public, given that they’re often easily identifiable due to their self-expression via fashion and beauty. 

If beauty can borrow from drag and queer culture, unsurprisingly we expect something back.

While violent calls to “eradicate transgenderism for the good of society” are being used more frequently, the community is continually othered as “mutants” and “demons”. It’s indicative in the stark differences between Harry Styles being celebrated for ‘redefining’ gender norms as a seemingly cisgender man, while Sam Smith is accused of Satanism and faces the same vitriol as the rest of the queer community when out in public. Other celebrities, often those who are LGBTQ+ — including Lil Nas XDoja Cat, and Lil Uzi Vert —  are also singled out while their straight peers, names such as Ariana Grande, Dua Lipa, and Katy Perry, are celebrated.

In conflating expressions of identity through fashion and beauty with acts of evil — grooming, paedophilia, and witchcraft — victims are not only more susceptible to violence, but also run the risk of irreversible damage to their livelihoods. During Balenciaga-gate — the brand’s recent controversy sparked by two inappropriate ad campaigns — conspiracy theorists online made huge leaps, incorrectly identifying stylist Lotta Volkova (who no longer works with the fashion house) and touting her as a Satanist based on her Instagram feed alone. 

When it comes to fashion and beauty and their weight in the arena of social and political issues, it’s a conundrum — those with the privilege to ignore issues that impact the most targeted groups often argue that it’s not the place of aesthetic-based industries to get involved. Brands will too often sit on the fence, being strategically vocal during Pride in markets they deem appropriate, or using LGBTQ+ talent in their campaigns, but failing to double down in support of this kind of representation in instances when there is a backlash. It’s hard to ignore this kind of hypocrisy when only the marketable elements of queer culture are catered to, while ongoing issues on our right to simply exist are overlooked. 

As rights are rolled back in the realms of reproductive rights, racial justice, and gender expression, Gen Z demands more from the brands they align with and support through representation simply isn’t enough. If beauty can borrow from drag and queer culture, unsurprisingly we expect something back. Yet, despite tapping prominent drag queens in their campaigns over the years — MAC, Lush, and Glossier are among those who have been notably reticent in speaking out against the drag ban. Without action, these opportunities are hollow. 

As lines are drawn (and crossed) in the ongoing culture war, support from allies and advocates is more important than ever. Though the British public is overwhelmingly in support of drag — the art a more inherent part of our culture, through pantomime and TV legends like the late Paul O’Grady — there are still those who would rather see America’s regression implemented here too. We don’t have the luxury of being complacent. 

For now, the maximalist glamour sparked by Euphoria continues to have beauty in a chokehold maintaining among newer trends like the revival of indie sleaze. You may even joke with your friends that you look like you’ve stepped straight off the show’s set when you’re all glammed-up. Just remember, for it to simply be about joy and expression is a privilege, because for queer people, whether they like it or not, it’s an act of protest.