Study Guide

Farewell to Manzanar Makeup

By Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston

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Putting on a good face: that's what makeup is all about.

That's what Mama knows more than anything else, like when she goes off each morning to her low-paying cannery job while Papa stays at home: "Early each morning she would make up her face. She would fix her hair, cover it with a flimsy net, put on a clean white cannery worker's dress, and stick a brightly colored handkerchief in the lapel pocket" (2.19.14).

It's a way of making everything at home seem okay to everyone outside of home, a way of appearing respectable. Seems totally normal right?

But young Jeanne gives us another view of what makeup (and the whole obsession with being made-up and respectable) can look like. In the barracks across from her family's, Jeanne recalls an elegant woman from Japan whose "long aristocratic face was always a ghastly white. In traditional fashion she powdered it with rice flour every morning. By old-country standards this made her more beautiful. For a long time I thought she was diseased" (1.5.16).

Jeanne is not feeling the whole severe makeup routine. And while at first glance we might see this as representing of a sort of generation gap, it can also be understood as drawing our attention to cultural differences. As the U.S. government corrals Japanese American people into internment camps on the premise that as a demographic they pose a threat to national security, this moment when Jeanne is repelled by the elegant woman's traditional makeup is a subtle reminder that there is—in reality—a vast spectrum of difference amongst this group of people. Don't judge a book by its cover, right?

Another important question to ask is this: Are that Japanese woman and Mama all that different from each other? Or, for that matter, are they all that different from any woman who—every morning—puts on makeup to go out and greet the day?

Sure their makeup styles differ, but aren't they all potentially trying to present a more polished reality from what actually is? Which makes us wonder, when is wearing makeup a sort of fake-it-till-you-make-it practice, and when is it a disease?

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