More Politics of the Smile: Resting Bitch Face

Sometime in 2010, while driving through Hollywood, I passed a sign advertising an artistic
This was it, albeit billboard-sized.
exhibit exploring “beauty culture.” The sign featured a close-up of a White woman, sans facial expression and (much) make-up.

“Dang, that woman looks grumpy,” I thought. Then it hit me: No, she didn’t. She looked completely neutral. She had relaxed her facial muscles, and her lips rested in a gentle, natural downward arc. But why did the absence of a smile, of crinkling eyes, initially strike me as embodying grouchiness? Because, I realized, smiling has become the natural facial default for women.

In the last post, I went full-out, old-school sociology nerd in discussing expectations to smile while interacting with others. I waxed all dramaturgical, I used phrases like “social convention”; heck, I broke out Erving Goffman. That’s all fine and dandy, but I neglected one key element: power dynamics.

I do think part of the reason we expect smiles – even correct people for not giving them to us – stems from the social awkwardness of having to deal with the reality that we’re individuals, not social robots. Maybe, just maybe, we also genuinely want them to be happy and somehow think browbeating them into it will do the trick. Sure. Okay. But it also behooves us to think who we most expect to toss around smiles like confetti at a parade. Among those folks are women.

Oh, come on. You know it’s true. I could pull out the research that proves we regard women’s smiles as the yellow bricks on the road to social fulfillment. And really, is it so surprising? Studies also show us smiles frequently serve as symbols of deference, women smile at men more, and subordinates smile more in attempts to ingratiate. In addition to explicitly (if not always or even often genuinely) conveying happiness, smiles often indicate harmlessness. As such, we expect them from our immediate social inferiors, and when they don’t bestow them, we get cranky.

Let’s take an example. Picture yourself visiting a restaurant – any restaurant, from Denny’s to something with a pretentious French name -- and encountering hosts and servers who don’t greet or treat you with smiles. Pretty maddening, right? In your ire, you grouse, vow not to return, maybe even skip a tip, even though servers make $2 an hour and survive on those tips.

One of the most obvious examples of regarding women’s faces as public property can be seen in the recent hype over “resting bitch face.” For those of you not familiar, resting bitch face is the notion that when women – always women – relax their face, their resulting expression looks grumpy.

Let’s think this through. We are judging women’s faces that have allowed themselves to relax. Kinda telling, right? Not only that, but if, when stripped of the social expectation to display pleasantness, a woman’s face still doesn’t look sweet and ingratiating, we say she looks like a bitch. Uh-oh. Maybe we shouldn’t let ourselves relax too much, girls, or we may trouble peeps with our scary absence of giggling accommodation.

More than that, though, is the truly disturbing thought that any lack of pleasantness on a woman’s face equals hostility. So, in other words, we’ve so taken women’s smiles for granted, we compare their absence to “bitchiness.” But not every woman’s face, Elle, you may be saying. Just the ones whose faces, when relaxed, don’t look pleasant.

Women’s smiles have become the social coin that pays the toll for far too many of our social
When sexism and ageism collide.
interactions. So much so, we’ve created a term to demonstrate our ire (bitchiness?) at being deprived our social currency.

In the prior post, I mentioned the policing of faces. “Resting bitch face” is the ultimate policing of expression and emotion. We expect smiles from women, feel uncomfy with their lack, demand we receive our due. This is in part because all of us experience social pressures to make our social interactions smooth and seamless. But it’s a much heavier burden for women*, because smiling means deference, we expect women to shoulder the lion’s share of social labor, and a smileless woman is seen as not doing femininity right.

An unsmiling woman is a dangerous, non-deferential woman. She is a bitch.

* Yes, and others. Yes, and women with differing identities and situations. I know this topic deserves a lot more depth and finesse, but right now, it serves as a nice, introductory examination.             


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