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Jul 24 2013

Fix that face

There’s a thing, or a fake thing that turned into a real thing, or not a real thing but a fake thing that people shouted at women for having anyway, that is called Bitchy Resting Face.

it wasn’t coined until – amazingly – May of this year. Needless to say, it instantly grabbed the media’s attention. Truly, a titbit with such potential for female anxiety and self-loathing is like an iron filing to the media’s magnet. The term emerged in a public safety announcement video – and we’ll get back to this video in just a tick – in which several women discuss the terrible problem that afflicts so many of their gender: Bitchy Resting Face. “They might not be bitches at all – they might just have faces that look bitchy,” one of the films several narrators clucks sympathetically.

Uh huh. I’ve had that my whole life. I’ve actually explained to people on occasion that I’m not as horrible as I look. I am very horrible, admittedly, but not as horrible as I look.

The weirdest thing is the BRF does not actually exist: the video that coined the term was made by comedian Taylor Orci and is a joke, as some of you might have guessed from the very name BRF. Yet this has not stopped plastic surgeons eagerly offering cures for this non-existent problem. In this sense, BRF is the new cankles. Hail the new cankles! Someone wheel out the gilded easel and announce its arrival!

It’s the kind of joke that needs a Dan Cardamon, I think.

There’s another issue here: the original video doesn’t just talk about BRF. It addresses Resting Asshole Face, the male equivalent of BRF. Needless to say, that has not garnered anywhere near the amount of comment that BRF has. As far as I’m aware, Jon Hamm has not appeared on US talkshows apologising for his Resting Asshole Face as Anna Paquin did for her BRF. Nor has the RAF (with apologies to the Royal Air Force) featured in the Mail Online’s sidebar of shame whereas BRF has already become almost as much of a regular feature there as drool-splattered photos of 14-year-old girls looking “grown up for their years”. To be fair, RAF is made up. But then, so is BRF.

I know this one! I totally know it. It’s because men are supposed to look like that, and women aren’t. Men who look like that just look strong and reserved and maybe intimidating. Women who look like that look like evil witches kill them kill them kill them.

The reason BRF has attracted so much more attention than RAF is not just because it’s more instinctive for the media to mock women’s bodies – although there is that – but because, clearly, the former underlines the expectations on women. To be an acceptable woman is to be feminine and that means being compliant and smiley. It doesn’t matter how many Anne-Marie Slaughters or Sheryl Sandbergs out there tell women to be more aggressive, the current public image of businesswomen in this country is one who bakes cupcakes and who injects Botox, two things that would presumably help sort out any woman’s BRF.

All BRF means, really, is “not at that moment smiling”. And how dare a woman not do that all the time, right? Cheer up, love it might never happen! Female characters in books, movies and on TV are meant to be likeable and, as nymag.com points out this week, if they’re not, the problem is usually explained away as a medical problem (such as Homeland’s Carrie being bipolar.) If they’re simply difficult, grumpy or selfish in the way male characters are, they provoke outrage and astonishment in the way male characters never do (hello, Lena Dunham.).

Precisely. They even get men, total strangers, shouting at them on the street for not smiling. Really: they do. We do. I do. Remember that? Two years ago? That guy was seriously pissed off by the audacity of my walking past his house with a bitchy witchy resting face.

 

 

24 comments

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  1. 1
    jose

    Of course the cosmetic vultures are going to medicalize the existence of faces and offer stupidly expensive surgery to make women look like the fucking joker. And people will buy it, they always do.

    Also appalling how accepting black people are of whites calling them niggers – sorry I meant women, men and bitches respectively. I will never understand the existence of things like “bitch magazine” or “slut walk”.

  2. 2
    Anthony K

    Actually, I lied – that is not the weirdest thing about this whole farrago. The weirdest thing is the BRF does not actually exist: the video that coined the term was made by comedian Taylor Orci and is a joke, as some of you might have guessed from the very name BRF. Yet this has not stopped plastic surgeons eagerly offering cures for this non-existent problem. In this sense, BRF is the new cankles. Hail the new cankles! Someone wheel out the gilded easel and announce its arrival!

    That’s one of the things that makes this body policing the real bullying. You can’t win. Next year, it’ll be something new, something you didn’t know you were apparently doing wrong by existing, minding your own fucking business, just being, but doing it in public.

  3. 3
    MrFancyPants

    @jose Events like “slut walk” events are intended to claim/reclaim a derogatory word. People who go to Slut Walks aren’t there to insult each other, but to be sex-positive and to push back against a culture that derisively deems a woman a “slut” from the way she dresses or acts. The point being of course that it shouldn’t matter how someone dresses, they should be treated with respect regardless. In other words, it’s a protest march, and a good thing.

  4. 4
    melody

    Not smiling has been an offense to men as long as I can remember. As soon as I hit puberty I had men telling me to smile. “Smile! Things aren’t that bad!” “You’d look much prettier if you’d smile.” Strangers on the street, men in nightclubs, men everywhere telling me to SMILE.

  5. 5
    Great American Satan

    I used to work with a guy who looked 10% more evil than darth maul because of the construction of his features. Nice enough dude… The natural condition of my face is on the sad or unpleasant side of blank. I can see where the initial joke came from, but it’s disgusting and horribly expected where it went. This blog often has me saying, “fuck the world.” Another day, another reason.

  6. 6
    latsot

    I do remember that post on being told to smile. It was actually quite important to me. I’d recently been raging about how much shitter things were for women in other places and I was slowly cottoning on to the fact that things are also shitter for women here, for any definition of ‘here’. The post helped some thoughts slot into place and caused some painful and embarrassing playbacks in my head. I was raised in a household where opportunities were very definitely equal, but I was still unaware of the privilege I was carrying around, including the company of women who were able to do whatever they wanted. I think I assumed that everyone had it so easy. Ophelia’s post wasn’t exactly an epiphany, but it bumped me into a better and more realistic way of thinking.

    Thanks, Ophelia!

  7. 7
    chigau (違う)

    A long time ago, some guy in an elevator told me that it took ‘less’ muscles to smile than to frown.
    I asked him to tell me which muscles were involved, while opening my Anatomy101 text.
    He did not pursue the matter.

  8. 8
    jerryjobe

    As a sufferer of RAF, I will say that I have been called on many occasions for my downward-turning mouth. I’ve not often been referred to as strong and reserved. However, I understand that BRF is much more debilitating. Thank you for standing up for those who use more muscles to smile than frown!

  9. 9
    Rabidtreeweasel

    The video itself reads to me like an indictment against the Smile For Me Sweethearts of the world. I have had the dinner conversation in which a man asked me why I was eating so aggressively at him. I actually found myself apologizing for my thoughtlessness. It was bizarre. Then I notched my current partner’s resting face and I also thought she might be mad at me. I later realized she’s just comfortable enough around me to put down her Smile Guard. The fact that this is being turned into an actual thing is disheartening. Now I can’t tell if it was really satire or if I was misjudging it.

  10. 10
    bad Jim

    I shaved my beard for my 60th birthday, and found that the two grooves running from my nose to my jaw make me look permanently disapproving, as though I thought everything stinks. For the weeks it took me to grow the beard back I could barely stand to look at myself in the mirror. What an asshole!

  11. 11
    Author

    Since Ophelia’s post two years ago I’ve been wondering what witty retort I’d make to an unknown man who ordered me to “Smile!”, but I’ve always drawn a blank. Until recently, when I must have been visited by the spirit of Oscar Wilde or Dorothy Parker or some other such wag, and came up with this:

    “YOU fucking smile.”

    [bows]

  12. 12
    Morgan

    Ugh, this is depressing. I remember seeing that video and going “damn right” even before the RAF part came up. Like Rabidtreeweasel, I took it as a middle finger to the prats with nothing better to do than police me and others to make sure we’re making them feel like everything must be great at all times. I’d much rather a world where some people are a bit frowny by default than for the American (customer service?) ideal of fake plastic smiles plastered everywhere to become the norm.

    Strangely it never seems to occur to these people that being told to “cheer up” when you’re in a perfectly fine mood – but not thinking about the set of your face – or being implicitly or explicitly told that the important thing is making sure other people don’t feel bad for thinking you might be a bit grumpy may, itself, be a bit of a downer. That, maybe, starting on that shit will make us pissed off.

  13. 13
    Argle Bargle

    I not only have Resting Asshole Face, when I’m in motion I have Moving Asshole Face.

  14. 14
    rowanvt

    Because of the shape of my lips (natural downturn at the corners) and a penchant for keeping my eyes partly lidded, when I am in a no-expression mode I apparently look really angry. Per family, coworkers, and random strangers. I’ve gotten more than a little tired of people asking “What were you so angry about earlier?”, and I’ve been talked to by past managers about my expression intimidating newbies who don’t know me.

  15. 15
    HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr

    My tendency toward BRF, and photosensitivity-required very dark sunglasses when I’m outside has somehow resulted in my getting bothered to smile less often. Apparently I look that terrifying now? The downside being that friends tell me that before they got to know me that I looked intimidating. Then they find out that I just smile when I am genuinely happy, and my neutral face is just apparently intense-looking.

  16. 16
    Onamission5

    @rowanvt # 13

    I do as well. Cannot count the number of times at my last job that my (almost always men) co-workers asked me what was wrong. Um, nothing, I am moving from point A to point B while concentrating on remembering all the things I need to do once I get there. I’m thinking. Or, I was, before you interrupted me. Now I’m annoyed; was not annoyed before.

    Apparently my thinking face makes people uncomfortable enough that they must interrupt my concentration to rebuke me, and consequently cause me to forget half the things I was so intent on doing that I forgot to plaster a non threatening grin across my gob.

  17. 17
    Kevin Schelley

    I have what I call Resting Grumpy face. It often makes my own mother ask me what is wrong. I have clinical depression, so it might be a factor, but it’s just how my face feels most comfortable. Smiling actually hurts my face most of the time.

  18. 18
    thephilosophicalprimate

    I saw that video when it first popped, and I thought it was a hilarious middle finger thrust in the face of all the assholes out there telling women to smile. I can’t describe how appalled I am somehow BRF has now become the official label used by the people who actually engage in the bullshit gender policing the video mocked. That’s just so… so…

    *sigh*

    so predictable.

  19. 19
    Ophelia Benson

    You’re welcome, latsot!

    Author – Well I didn’t even try for wit. I just did the “what the hell do you think you’re doing?” number.

    And, it occurs to me, that’s only because he was rude and aggressive about it. If he’d been friendly or jokey – I still would have been annoyed but I would have swallowed the annoyance and done nothing about it. sigh. That there is Everyday Sexism.

  20. 20
    latsot

    I’ve never thought very much about what expression my face defaults to. Never had to. Nobody ever declared themselves sole arbiter of what expression I should have. From what people tell me, I tend to look like whatever I’m looking at or listening to, it is not you, whoever you are. That’s often true. Fuck it, these days I’m quite likely to pull out a kindle or a computer while you’re right there talking to me and busy myself with whatever it is I do. I don’t remember anyone telling me to cheer up in the last 30 years, based on my expression or reaction to bright, brilliant conversation. People seem to react badly when I say their questions are stupid or their points childish, but I think that’s probably something else. Anyway, it seems totally fine for me to seem miserable, even though when I look at my most miserable, I’m probably enjoying myself immensely, thinking about stuff. But I can virtually guarantee that if my wife isn’t smiling and laughing and talking about other people’s inconsequential babble within seconds of showing up somewhere, someone will ask her what’s wrong in the first five minutes.

    I’m an academic, so I suppose people might expect me to be thinking about complicated stuff if I’m looking a little distracted. But my wife OWNS A LAW FIRM. Nobody seems to think she might have a few things to think about.

  21. 21
    Julia F

    Just this morning a friend posted some photos of me taken at a political event I attended last night. I look kind of grim in both. The room was too hot, the incumbent was telling untruths and his supporters were heckling his opponent, whom I support.

    I laughed out loud at two of his ridiculous remarks, but unfortunately, no one photographed me then.

  22. 22
    shari

    For balance, I have to point out that my husband (gifted with a Dennis Quaid-ish big grin) was told (in the technology/banking field, by peers and/or superiors) that he smiled TOO much – and made people uncomfortable…….!!!! Sexist expectations, much? Or, maybe he just looked like he was plotting?………

    I feel like revelling in my ‘bitchy resting face’ – but the only way to do that without ruining the effect is to maybe print up a t-shirt? (is that copyright infringement?) I find it excruciatingly predictable if the bit about ‘plastic surgeons offering a cure’ is true. And they can keep their money-grubbing mitts of my cankles. I have already named them and they aren’t going anywhere.

  23. 23
    shari

    OFF, not ‘of’. Me and EFF don’t seem to be getting on well today either. He’s scared of my Face…

  24. 24
    Nentuaby

    The fact that this is being turned into an actual thing is disheartening. Now I can’t tell if it was really satire or if I was misjudging it.

    I’m pretty sure it was satire, but being received as a stock example of what it was meant to attack is an all-too-common failure mode of satire. That’s why Swift couldn’t be any subtler than baby eating…

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