Tag Archives: tropes

Kiss Your Problems Away: The Reality behind Drugged Lipstick

If you’re a clever, feisty gal in a sci-fi, fantasy, or spy story, chances are you will use every weapon at your disposal, including your own sexual charisma. Throughout stories in the 20th and 21st centuries, characters have been overcoming obstacles by puckering up with poison.

River SongRiver Song from the Doctor Who series, for instance, uses hallucinogenic lipstick to mesmerize and distract whomever gets in her way. In the Batman comics, Poison Ivy’s kisses could either control her victims or kill them outright. Although poisonous or drugged lipstick has traditionally been used by women exclusively, a few men and even robots have taken advantage of this killer kissing action.

While the ability to control or get rid of your enemies through a kiss sounds remarkable, albeit a little biblical, there is one major hole in this plot device that most of us either excuse or never consider. Namely, how do you avoid accidentally poisoning yourself?

If you have ever put on lipstick or, at the very least, lip balm, you may notice that you involuntarily press your lips together and/or run your tongue over your lips as a reaction to the sensation of a foreign substance on your skin. If there were poison or drugs in your lipstick or lip balm, you could therefore not easily avoid absorbing a small amount of the poison yourself.

Even if you somehow managed not to press your lips together, you would, presumably, need to talk/flirt your way into kissing someone.

Speech sounds

When you talk, your mouth produces saliva as a method to lubricate your vocal cords. Your tongue also moves during the action of talking, since we use our tongues to manipulate the air sounds to create words. Simultaneously, our bodies also use our tongues to move the saliva within our mouths. Simply put, the very action of talking could cause your tongue and saliva to interact with the poison/drug in your lipstick, resulting in infecting yourself before you even get to your target.

Plot holes aside, there does seem to be some legitimacy/history with the idea of using lipstick as a transport for poison.

If you conduct a simple Google search for “poison lipstick,” you will find article after article warning consumers about the dangers of lipstick ingredients, especially lead. In fact, according to “Reading Our Lips: The History of Lipstick Regulation in Western Seats of Power,” lipstick ingredients from the time of the ancient Sumerians have often included such deadly items as vermillion, carmine, and various metallic compounds. According to this article, the fear of these harmful chemicals was so great that, prior to national regulations placed on cosmetic production:

the New York’s Board of Health considered banning lipstick out of concern that it might poison the men who kissed women wearing it.”

Of course, none of these ingredients listed above were used intentionally to poison people. They were simply the best ingredients on hand that did the job necessary to create the right texture and color of lipstick.

During the Renaissance, however, the mischievous use of poison was on the rise. Granted, people were using poison far before the Renaissance, but this era in history marked a change in the social schema of everyday life. Essentially, we were heading out of feudal barbarism and moving toward grand scale politics and political intrigue. With political powers constantly shifting and trade markets making merchants more financially powerful than kings, it was becoming far more necessary to take your enemies out covertly and save face rather than to be caught red-handed. Hence, the use of poison proved a simple yet effective tool to kill or temporarily incapacitate your target.


There are several Renaissance stories that portray characters purchasing poisons that could be delivered through various fashions. In the anonymously written Arden of Faversham, Mosbie hires Clarke the painter to create two different poisonous artifacts: a painting; and, a cross.

According to the story, if the victim looked at the painting, the poison somehow would’ve been strong enough to kill the victim instantly. Likewise, holding the poison cross could also be deadly. Although the cross seems more likely to be an effective murder weapon compared to the painting, since it involves actual contact with skin, neither object was used to do the deed.

Perhaps the choice of including these useless poisonous relics was a deliberate decision on the part of the unknown author. Simply put, there were many alchemists and charlatans during the Renaissance who were selling a wide range of poisonous items, including lipstick and other cosmetics. While the poisons themselves were no doubt effective in many cases, the idea of transferring poison through various items creates too much risk for the person administering the poison. Furthermore, the idea of putting poison in/on a non-food item under the hopes that the intended target would touch or handle the item seems highly convoluted.

In reality, someone wearing poisonous or drugged lipstick would only prove effective under certain circumstances.

#1 The Unknowing Pawn

TV Tropes.org points out that Alexander Dumas’s tale, La Reine Margot, included the use of poison lipstick, but in this story, the murderer gave the poison lipstick as a gift to his target’s girlfriend. Thus the wearer of the lipstick has no foreknowledge of the deadly kiss she would give to her beloved. As an added bonus, the lipstick would also kill the wearer, therefore silencing her from revealing the real killer.

#2 Pre-Injected Antidote User

If someone were going through the trouble of using poisonous or drugged lipstick, they would hopefully know what dangerous chemicals they were going to put on their own lips. From knowing that information, they could, hypothetically, plan ahead and inject themselves with the antidote.

Princess brideDepending on the poison or drug, and how much time they have beforehand, they could even build up a tolerance to the chemical. Consider the case of the Princess Bride when the masked man poisons both cups to rig the choice game. Since he has slowly built up a tolerance to the poison he administers, he was never in any real danger. 

#3 Species-Specific Toxins

In science fiction or fantasy stories, the lipstick wearer may not be attacking individuals of her own species. Therefore, chemicals that can be deadly to one species may be completely harmless to another, so she could easily poison victims without risking her own health.

In a more real-world scenario, instead of species-specific toxin, the lipstick wearer could use allergy-specific toxins. For example, if her target had a deadly allergy to peanuts or shellfish, she could put those concentrated allergen chemicals on her lips to cause her target to go into anaphylactic shock.

#4 Suicide Mission

As far as options go, this last one is not ideal for someone who wants to make a career out of being a femme fatale. Nevertheless, if you have the poison ready, and kissing is the only option to take-out a target, then I suppose it’s a matter of how dedicated you are to the mission at hand.


Where Does that Trope Come from? OR, Down the Research Rabbit Hole

Recently I was watching Disney Junior with my girlfriend and her son. As anyone else with a toddler knows, one of the newest shows is Sheriff Callie’s Wild West – a music filled cartoon with anamorphic characters providing lessons on making friends and good behavior. One of the recent episodes did a twist on the classic magic feather trope.

Magic featherOne of the most well-known examples of this trope includes the story of Dumbo. Initially, Dumbo the baby elephant doesn’t believe he can fly, regardless of the evidence to the contrary, so his friend, Timothy the mouse, gives him a feather and convinces him that it’s magic. As long as he has the feather, he can fly or do other amazing feats. By the end of the story, Dumbo of course loses the feather, but in doing so he realizes that the feather was never magical, and that he had the ability to fly all along.

In Sheriff Callie’s Wild West, one of the characters loses his confidence – much like Dumbo – and the other characters attempt to lift their friend’s spirits. While talking to other characters in town, they get the idea of pretending an item is magic so that they can convince their depressed friend to believe in himself by focusing on the magic item. Unlike Dumbo, the depressed character in this story unknowingly loses the magical item while completing the difficult tasks. Therefore, it is only after the depressed character succeeds that he realizes he did everything on his own without the use of magic.

Following the end of the program, my girlfriend and I started talking about the rehash of the Dumbo feather story, and then both of us started to wonder where the magic feather trope originated. Surely it must have started somewhere, so I began to dig.

After some initial brainstorming and research, I realized that the modern-day term for this trope would be the placebo effect. In other words, people believe that some sort of medicine or treatment will make them better, so they GET better, even though the medicine or treatment has no real value. It’s a psychological trick that has medically been proven to work.

If the magic feather trope is just a fancy name for the placebo effect, I thought that perhaps the origin of the trope was connected to the origin of the word placebo.

In their article, “Placebo, a historical perspective,” Efrat Czerniak and Michael Davidson examine how different cultures and medical practitioners over the centuries have utilized the placebo effect, whether they knew it or not. According to their research, Czerniak and Davidson point out how all the major historical cultures – Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and the Chinese – maintained records that detailed medical procedures. At the time, the bulk of these procedures were a mixture of spiritualism (magic, witchcraft, deity-invoked faith healing), herbalism, and biological science.

The people who practiced these procedures generally possessed high social rankings, and nearly all were significantly educated. Therefore, the masses believed in anything these healers provided as it was dictated as a social rule to do so, because the healers were socially and mentally above the masses. Since medicine was mixed with magic/religion, naysayers could be killed for heresy. Similarly, if a healer could not cure someone, no one ever doubted the medicine. Instead, healers could use the excuse that the ill person had no faith, or that the powers-that-be would not allow the person to be cured for some other metaphysical reason.

While in retrospect, as Czerniak and Davidson conclude, we now know that many of these remedies were rubbish, and that it was the psychological social belief structure that supported the validity of these treatments for so many centuries. Rubbish or not, however, the merits of the placebo effect cannot be overlooked, since many people were “healed” by these so-called remedies.

In an analysis of the word placebo, it seems that the word comes from the Latin and means “to please.” Although I prefer to use the Oxford English Dictionary for my entomology research, (elitist snob that I am), the Online Etymology Dictionary provided the following useful information:

“placebo (n.): early 13c., name given to the rite of Vespers of the Office of the Dead, so called from the opening of the first antiphon, “I will please the Lord in the land of the living” (Psalm cxiv:9) . . . Medical sense is first recorded 1785, “a medicine given more to please than to benefit the patient.” Placebo effect attested from 1950.”

Since the term bleeds over from the spiritual into the scientific, this description further supports Czerniak and Davidson’s historical perspectives and analyses. In addition, Czerniak and Davidson argue that “placebo is associated with the pleasing of the patient by the therapist, of the therapist by the patient, or both” (1). Thus, in the historical sense, healers attempted to please their patients with a mixture of good meaning psychological trickery and herbological/scientific medicine. In return, the patients would please the healers by believing in and accepting their methodologies as facts.

focusingAs fascinating as all this is, it doesn’t exactly get me any closer to the origins of the magic feather trope.

Clearly, there are correlations between psychological belief and healing, so it is not a far leap to go from using such placebo remedies to rid the mind of self-doubt. Regardless – our mission here is to find the trope’s origin. After all, something only becomes a trope if it’s used repeatedly as a plot device.

My research thus far has failed to come up with an answer that satisfies me. TV Tropes.org offers a nice list of stories that use this trope, but no definitive origin story. A multitude of people online are complaining via blog about the overuse of the magic feather trope, as they claim it makes children believe that they can do anything regardless of reality – check out magic feather syndrome for more information on that perspective, if you feel the need. I’ve also found several articles that reimagine the magic feather concept into a somewhat pseudo-psychological counseling tool. In other words, therapists identify people or items that patients use as crutches, and then therapists try to convince their patients that they do not need these crutches to be successful in life; i.e., allegorical therapy.

According to All the Tropes.Orain.org, one of the oldest stories that uses the basic concept of the magic feather trope includes “The Conference of Birds,” which is a Persian poem from the medieval era. In the poem, the Bird-God has been lost, has fled, or has been hidden away, so all of the birds in the realm must go on a quest to find their God. They face many challenges, and not all the birds make it to the end. When they arrive in the realm in which they believe their God to dwell, the only thing they find is a pool of water that shows their reflections. At that point, the birds learn that they never needed to go out and find their God (magic feather), because they had the presence of their God within them already.

As I said, I’m not fully satisfied with these answers. Don’t get me wrong – the research quest has proven fruitful and enlightening, but I do not feel as if I have done this search justice. With the tools readily available to me at the moment – the wealth of the Internet – the best answer I can offer for the origin of the magic feather trope is as follows:

If fiction reflects reality, perhaps the magic feather trope is meant to demonstrate several cultural perspectives that have been widely believed and explored over the centuries.

First of all, in order to heal self of doubt and malady, one must have an object of focus administered by a sagely mentor. Whether the mentor is a physician, a priest, or an anamorphic mouse, it doesn’t matter, provided that the person receiving the focus item has faith in the mentor figure.

Second, while the focus item helps the injured/ill person overcome adversity, it is nothing more than a manipulative psychological device used with good intent.

Finally, the use of the trope underscores the basic belief found within multiple cultures that individuals have the power within themselves to do great things. In many ways, that reflects the cross-cultural belief that the power of a deity figure or the divine exists within all of us, as described in “The Conference of Birds.”