Read my lips

Though loose lips might sink ships, red lips sell books in this week's BookStories.

Read my lips

I’ve been thinking about books and lipstick lately. 

Wait, say what? 

A good friend whom I work with at the library bookstore told me that after her mother died, at age 101 no less, she had gone through her mother's things, each item resonant with memories and associations. One item in particular conjured all sorts of Proustian connections — her mother’s tube of bright red lipstick. Her mother was a woman filled with zest and an adventurous spirit well into her final years and never left the house without "Cherries Jubilee" gracing her aging lips.

Sweet story, I thought, of a woman defying age and convention by drawing attention to her lips: See me. I am alive. I care. I matter. I am not invisible.

Then I began to notice how many books are marketed with the punch of painted lips. A woman’s full-frontal mouth in bold and rich color on the cover —  pleased, panting, pained, pouting, pleasured, empowered — can connote a storyline that’s exotic, erotic, maybe neurotic, if not psychotic. 

I’ve always been intrigued by the imaginative color labels that cosmetics manufacturers give to their products. "Cherries Jubilee" is such a wonderful evocation of celebration and in-your-face excess.  For sure, careful study and market research are brought to bear on product names. As I once told students when we were discussing words and their connotations, there’s a reason why the compact car was "Pinto," but the sports car was "Mustang," and why perfume is "Evening in Paris," not "Afternoon in Tarpon Springs."

Along with the suggestive "Cherries Jubilee," consider some of these other popular reds and the images they connote, all straight from cosmetics color charts: "Five Alarm Red," "Ruby Woo," "Red Carpet Red," "Russian Red," "Fire & Ice," "Fire Engine Red," "Crimson Pout," "Candy Apple," "French Kiss," "Bold Strawberry," "Maraschino F-Bomb," "Poppy Red," "Watermelon Crush," "Pomegranate Stain," "Cherry Smoke," "Valentine Berry," "Scarlett Johansson Scarlet," "Scarlet Letter," and so forth. 

Naming all these lipstick shades no doubt requires massive cadres of unemployed English majors. 

And those that don’t find work in the cosmetics industry get picked up by the paint industry. Sherwin-Williams has an equally connotative line of reds for painted rooms: "Heartfelt," "Valentine," "Eros Pink," "Coming up Roses," "Cheery Cherry," "Radish," "Heartthrob," "Scarlet Tanager," "Red Barn Red," "Bull’s Eye Red", Sultry Stop Sign.

You had me at "Sultry Stop Sign."

But I digress… back to lipstick and painted lips and how they are an international symbol for the feminine mystique. It’s no surprise that book designers take their cue from the world of cosmetics, whose very coin of the realm is fantasy and make-believe.

Cleopatra enhanced her hue with henna. Elizabeth I painted her face white and her lips red. Paloma Picasso began wearing her trademark red at the age of three. Marilyn Monroe wore "Kiss Kiss Crimson." Jessica Rabbit, with her pouty red lips, has been voted Sexiest Cartoon Character. Even Rosie the Riveter, as she flexed her bicep for the war effort, wore bright red lipstick to convey her strength and full-throttle feminine determination. Kaitlyn Jenner sells her lipstick line that features "Relentlessly Red," "All Fired Up," and a bruised red "Tongue ’N’ Chic." Red lipstick on a man's collar is the immediately recognizable symbol of adultery.

In her riveting book A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman says that anthropologists believe that red lips serve as a reminder of the labia "which flush red and swell when aroused." I'm sorry that Sigmund Freud died before he could establish his own cosmetics line of red lipsticks, perhaps "Freudian Slip-of-the-Lip" (with hints of berry and cocaine) or Phallic Fixation (crimson seduction in a slide-dispensing tube) or maybe "Rogue Rouge" (for those days you feel hysteria coming on).

If you search Goodreads or Google Images for book covers that feature brightly painted lips, you'll be astounded by how many books use suggestive titles with provocative close-up mouths, painted in screaming red. They include, among many others, The Plot Thickens (mouth holds a diamond), Pretty Dead (mouth holds a peppermint candy), Red Lips (mouth kisses itself in a mirror), Honey (a bee crawls near the mouth), The ABC's of Kissing Boys (tube of lipstick penetrating the mouth), Bad Taste in Boys (lipsticked lips coated in grains of sugar), The Lipstick Laws (mouth holding heart-shaped Valentine candy with title written on the candy), Putting Makeup on Dead People (painted lips on a corpse), Pucker Up (lips edged in flames), The Lipidopterist (gold-leafed lips), Diaries of a College Girl (mouth chewing on a pen, no doubt a book about writing a freshman comp essay), Dead Until Dark (painted lips licking blood), The Devil’s Larder (mouth crammed with blackberries and dripping red juice down the chin). Even classics like Nabokov’s Lolita (non-painted, pale lips of barely pubescent girl), Jane Austen’s Persuasion (lips in shadow), and Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust (lips that drip paint) are marketed in new editions with close-up mouths on the cover that immediately convey the story’s primary narrative of a totally objectified female reduced to her red lips. 

Whew, we've come a long way from "Cherries Jubilee."

click to enlarge Books with lipsticked lips - Ben Wiley
Ben Wiley
Books with lipsticked lips

Read my lips —  whether in life or on a book cover — lipsticked mouths catch your attention and compel you to buy and try.

Ben Wiley, a Creative Loafing film reviewer, also advocates for paper and print. Dead trees, if you will. He volunteers at a local library bookstore and enjoys engaging with readers and their books. This BookStories feature highlights some of these Ben, Book & Beyond encounters. Contact him here.