Since leaving Coronation Street, Michelle Keegan's career has gone from strength to strength, not least in the BBC drama Our Girl, which premieres its fourth series this week. In case you missed it, the Mancunian actress was a guest on The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday in an interview designed to promote the show, but which quickly took a critical, and frankly quite sexist turn. Marr started a dialogue about — wait for it — Our Girl's Michelle Keegan's make-up and now the internet is in a frenzy about whether it's realistic enough. Where the presenter could have focused on the complexities of playing such an intense role, or perhaps what the actor learned from the experience, he decided to talk about how Keegan looked.
After talking about her military training for the role and the positive representation of the British Army on the drama, Marr took a different tack. "I said it was mostly highly realistic, but it has been noted that you're right on the front line and you're looking great, you're heavily made up," he asked. Within minutes Twitter was alight with conversation around the topic, with many people suggesting that to be wearing make-up while serving in the Armed Forces is an inaccurate representation. Thankfully, amongst the uproar, there were some voices of reason.
The conversation around Keegan and make-up is (unfortunately) not new; critiquing a woman's appearance and bringing in her ability to perform in that role because of how she looks is like Sexism 101. Keegan revealed that viewers have often pointed out her eyebrows, saying they were "too perfect" and that the way the actor's make-up endured through intense and fast-paced scenes on Our Girl was improbable. In response to the backwards takes, Keegan told Marr, "A lot of the make-up is down to a minimum. And I have met girls who work in the army and who are medics and they say well, that’s normal. You’re not doing anything wrong there, you’re still representing the country."
In a statement issued to Bustle, a BBC spokesperson said: “Andrew Marr was giving interviewee, Michelle Keegan, the opportunity to address broader comments about her character being unrealistically made-up on the front line. This was part of a wider discussion about the return of TV military drama Our Girl. We were in no way suggesting she was wrong to wear make-up or raising the issue because she is a woman. We gave her the chance to answer those criticisms from others.”
It's sad that Keegan had to mount such a defence. After all, a woman can wear whatever make-up she chooses and still do her job. The line of questioning also reinforces the assumption that a woman's appearance is up for debate and that quizzing someone on television about how they look is fair game. It's hard to imagine a similar line of questioning being applied to a man. Not only is it insulting to Keegan, it also undermines the work done by women serving in the Armed Forces. Keegan went on to say, "I remember when the building collapsed and I got a lot of grief because my eyebrows were still intact. Yeah, they are! Because they are tattooed! I can't dust them off."
This isn't the first time Keegan has had to defend herself against such questioning, and with like the fierceness her character Georgie displays, Keegan has been quick to call out her detractors. "You can wear make-up in the Army. And again, it's such a sexist thing to point out," she told Metro.co.uk in an interview. "It just makes me mad how people have perceptions of how people should look when they are in the Army." She went on to explain she'd actually heard from members of the Armed Forces in support of her position. "I had girls who are in the Army tweeting me going 'I’ve got my eyebrows microbladed.’"
Keegan is an accomplished actor playing the lead role in an acclaimed BBC drama, but when interviewed she still has to field questions about make-up. Would a man ever be asked the same questions? Very doubtful. This line of questioning normalises a fundamentally sexist way of thinking about women and their appearance. At the end of the day, women can wear as much make-up as they want and whether they do or don't, it does not impact on their capabilities.