Does anyone in the beauty industry actually know what a cult classic is?

Posted on March 28, 2018 under Thoughts

These are not cult classics.

As with many concepts, the idea of the cult classic was birthed out of film studies. (My favourite film studies neologism is “the male gaze”, although the actual essay it comes from is primarily a bizarre psychoanalysis that I do not particularly enjoy despite having read it approximately ninety thousand times for professors who don’t realize that it’s a Film 101 staple.) Though the precise definition of a cult film is debated by film academics, definitions usually encompass subversive elements, a devoted following, and cultural longevity. Generally I agree with Mark Jancovich’s conception of the cult film as works of paracinema united in “subcultural ideology” rather than in any specific formal or thematic elements. (His book on the subject is really interesting!) The “cultness” of something (i.e. its base of niche, devoted fans) is as important as the “classicness” (i.e. its legacy and lasting influence).

I think The Room is probably the clearest example of a cult film, although it’s also pretty extreme given how it exists almost completely outside of film industry production, narrative, and aesthetic conventions. A more reasonable example is The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Another example in the field of television would be Freaks and Geeks, which was so commercially unsuccessful that it was cancelled before the end of the first season – yet it’s managed to remain culturally relevant to TV fans almost two decades after its last episode originally aired.

The concept of a cult classic has been integrated into mainstream vocabulary and obviously now applies to things outside of the realm of screen media. It’s a term that is thrown around a lot when talking about cosmetics… except the definition seems to have shifted entirely. “Cult classic”, when talking about beauty products, doesn’t seem to refer to marginal products with niche audiences. It seems to refer to, well, any product that’s has enjoyed wide popularity for a sustained period. This Reddit thread about cult classics namedrops products like NARS Orgasm blush, ABH Brow Wiz, and Smashbox Photo Finish Primer. These are really just popular, mainstream products. A recent Racked article on the “cult favourite” phenomenon bizarrely seems to imply that the term was birthed within the beauty community and uses MAC Ruby Woo as an example of a cult product.

But, as the article itself points out in its first paragraph, four tubes of Ruby Woo are sold every minute. How, then, is Ruby Woo a “cult classic”? It’s not – it’s one of the most absurdly popular lipstick shades in the world. That’s like saying Titanic is a cult classic. Ruby Woo is a classic, but cult implies nicheness, marginality, a feverish devotion that exists somewhere outside of mainstream sensibilities. Oh, sure, we all know someone who is practically evangelical in their love for Ruby Woo (or maybe Russian Red), but do you think the four people a minute purchasing a tube have a cult-like mentality? Isn’t the entire point of a cult that it goes against the norm? If the norm is that Ruby Woo is the red lipstick to own, that’s not really a cult at all. That’s just life as a human who wears lipstick.

Now, I know that language evolves, and you may think I should go with the flow, or that it doesn’t really matter anyway. And it doesn’t! But I do think that if you’re going to use a phrase made up of two words with very specific connotations (“cult” and “classic”), it doesn’t make sense to then use that phrase to describe something contrary to what the actual words imply. It’s curious how beauty rhetoric has appropriated the phrase in such a way that the original definition is subverted entirely. So, no, I don’t think we should induct Naked palettes into the pantheon of cult classics, because everyone and their mom owns at least one practically by default. I think Fairydrops mascara is a worthy contender for the title, however, because it’s a product known to and enjoyed by a relatively small subsection of those who use makeup in the Western world but which nonetheless enjoys endlessly positive reviews and sustained use.

It doesn’t really matter, but it’s interesting anyway. And that is pretty much the definition of my academic interests. (Just kidding, television does matter even if it’s not taken seriously as an art form.)

There are 2 responses to “Does anyone in the beauty industry actually know what a cult classic is?”

  • Thank you for this lovely and well-cited piece that articulates exactly why I hate the “cult classic” conversations in the beautysphere. THESE THINGS ARE NOT CULT LITERALLY EVERYONE HAS THEM OR HAS TRIED THEM.

    • I’m glad I’m not the only one! I was starting to feel like I was living in some sort of parallel universe where everybody else had just accepted a definition totally contrary to my understanding of it.

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