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Velvet Yates

Department of Classics
2015 Rothman Faculty Summer Fellowship

Velvet Yates, a faculty member in the Classics Department, used her 2015 Rothman Faculty Summer Fellowship to complete research for a forthcoming article in an edited volume titled “Men’s Cosmetics in Plato and Xenophon.” This article delves into how fourth century BCE Athenian philosophers redefined gender and physical appearance to distinguish between the aristocratic class and craftsmen, and exclude the latter from legitimate political participation.

After the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE), Sparta imposed oligarchic rule on a defeated Athens. This violent period, also known as the rule of the Thirty Tyrants, did not last long. In 403 BCE Athenian democracy was restored. In the wake of democratic restoration, craftsmen became more important political actors while aristocrats remained concerned with criticizing democracy and restoring oligarchy after the failure of the Thirty Tyrants. The aristocratic response against craftmen centered on the question of political legitimacy.

With the support of a Rothman Faculty Summer Fellowship, Yates was able to research and write an article in the summer of 2015 exploring this question of political legitimacy through the important, but often overlooked, role of male cosmetics.

According to aristocratic ideology, men had tan skin because they practiced gymnastics, which consisted of military training and other activities, naked and in the sun. In contrast, craftsmen worked indoors, rendering them white and sedentary. These characteristics were normally associated with women. Aristophanes, Plato, and Xenophon all drew the connection between the pale skin of women and the pale skin of craftsmen. Their labor made them pale like women, and also made them “unfree” since they had to work for a living unlike aristocrats. As a result, craftsmen were denounced for using tanning makeup to appear more aristocratic. So, according to Plato and Xenophon, the use of cosmetics allowed craftsmen to overcome a natural deficiency by illegitimate means; craftsmen became aristocratic imposters and ideological women by using cosmetics. The male use of tanning makeup problematizes their status as “free” citizens and as “male” citizens.

On the other hand, aristocratic women were promoted to the status of aristocratic men. In Plato’s Republic women could become philosophers and guardians of the city. In Xenophon’s Oeconomicus, he discussed how elite women can achieve “natural” color without using cosmetics, which for women consisted of a white lead foundation with rouge for the cheeks. They must participate in men’s gymnastics (Plato), or in ‘women’s gymnastics’ (Xenophon), consisting of household chores and the supervision of household slaves. As such, elite women were sexualized as men in order to achieve aristocratic class solidarity. Rather than proto-feminism, aristocratic hatred of democracy united them against those who usurped their political prerogative: craftsmen.

Yates’ project challenges many assumptions about Greek political thought. Historians and philosophers alike often cite the political liberation of women in Greek political thought as a positive development. However, Plato and Xenophon do not challenge masculinity and femininity as organizing political categories. Rather, they alter these categories by associating sex and gender with class rather than biology. Aristocrats are masculine while craftsmen are feminine. The fluidity of gender and sexuality can become a tool of reactionary conservatism as much as a tool of liberation.