On Resting Bitch Face

Person: “You know, the first time we met, I thought you were a bitch. But it turns out you’re actually really nice and funny!”

Me: “…Thanks.” Looking back, I didn’t even speak the first time I met this person. Ah, another thinly veiled reference to my default facial expression. 

Other person: “Something about your face, I don’t know, I always thought you hated me or something. Or I did something to make you mad. But now I get that’s just your face.”

Me: “I see…” I have never thought about this person one way or another in my entire life. 

If I had a nickel for every time someone felt compelled to comment on my “resting face,” you know, the neutral expression I don when listening, or observing, or walking, or otherwise minding my own fucking business, I would have many, many nickels. With my many, many nickels, I could probably afford to buy a cheap ski mask to make everyone happy — but that would bring about a whole host of other issues.

I have grown tired of being policed about my facial expressions. And I specifically use the plural here because I regularly reveal many different expressions since I largely lack a poker face, but people continue to see what they want to see. It is exhausting and there is not much I can do about it — it’s how my facial muscles work — and there is also not much I want to do about it. After all, I am not responsible for mediating people’s responses to my face. I have more important concerns in life.

This is a deeply gendered issue. Women are supposed to smile and be pleasing and accommodating and friendly and warm. And a woman is judged instantly (and to her detriment) as possessing none of these qualities if she doesn’t use or possess the correct facial expression. On the whole (black men may be excepted), men are not held to the same standard when it comes to regulating their faces in public. The term ‘resting bitch face’ is obviously gendered. It is meant to punish women who do not conform. A grumpy old woman is just a bitch, but who doesn’t love a grumpy old man? See perceptions of Hillary Clinton compared to Bernie Sanders for an example of this double standard.

Very important as well, is the racial element of facial monitoring. A resting bitch face in a black woman moves her from judgemental or intimidating to aggressive or simply ANGRY. So many times, I have been asked what I’m angry about when I’m perfectly content. And this is by my friends. I can only imagine what most strangers and casual acquaintances are thinking, although, as evidenced above, sometimes they go out of their way to tell me.

All this facial monitoring has a pernicious effect. It makes the subject — usually a woman and often a visible minority — much more self-conscious. It is inhibiting. Sometimes, it is even marginalizing. I have to think very carefully about how I sit, how I stand, how I walk, how I dress, how I style my hair (afros just scream black power, apparently), all to mitigate the effects my face might have on others. And if I don’t feel like doing that, and I usually don’t, I must suffer the negative consequences.

Facial monitoring has had the most negative effect on the way I speak. For a long time, I just didn’t speak that much, especially if I disagreed with someone. I didn’t want to be perceived as arrogant or aggressive or angry. When I realized this was actually stunting my intellectual growth, I decided to throw caution to the wind and express myself more freely. But it’s difficult. Being a woman, I make the conscious effort not undermine my own points or be overly self-effacing, as I feel we women are far too pressured to express ourselves publicly in such a way. But this lack of conformity on top of my default expression and indelible blackness can sometimes see people take things personally that they otherwise would not. I can only imagine how difficult it would be for me to try to craft a public intellectual persona with these challenges, and to experience these reactions to my face and demeanor on a macro scale. However, perhaps I owe it to my many black, bitch faced sisters to give it a shot.

There is, nonetheless, one positive consequence to people’s responses to my face — one small joy. Many times, my facial expression has stopped men from “holding forth” in my presence. When I use that term, I refer to Rebecca Solnit’s excellent and well-known essay, “Men Explain Things to Me.” In it, she describes the experience of dealing with an unreasonably confident man explaining the merits of a book to her, which, unbeknownst to him, she actually wrote. She paints the vivid picture of the man wearing “that smug look [she] know[s] so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority.”

All women have encountered this man, likely many times over. It’s funny because when he speaks, I am usually not judging him so harshly. I generally find blowhards amusing and they spare me the effort of having to do my part in small talk. Nevertheless, I feel that every man who silences the women around him with his ignorant and unrestrained verbosity needs the experience, at least once, of being stopped in his tracks by what he falsely perceives as an antagonistic facial expression. I am happy to oblige in the hopes that that brief moment of self-doubt will lead him to learn self-restraint, although I think that outcome unlikely.

Overall, though, I’m just tired of having to negotiate this issue. My face is my face and it is very insulting that people expect me to change it to suit their preferences. I’m quite happy as is, and if people take a long time to get that or they don’t get it at all, then so be it.

Source

Solnit, Rebecca. Men Explain Things to Me. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014. Kindle AZW file.

Donald Trump: The Man, the Myth

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A few days ago, I posted John Oliver’s segment on Donald Trump, which is a valiant attempt to challenge the myths surrounding the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. Oliver provides some hard-hitting criticisms, which focus on Trump’s failed business ventures and bankruptcies, along with his habitual lies, thin-skinned immaturity, and overall inconsistency. Oliver makes the point that while Trump’s unpredictability may be entertaining, it is also a deeply problematic characteristic for a politically inexperienced presidential candidate who would be responsible for creating a coherent set of policies to lead a deeply divided country.

In the last quarter of the segment, Oliver explores why so many Americans are drawn to Trump. He provides his own theory with the following quotation: “Even when you can demonstrably prove Trump to be wrong, it somehow never seems to matter…and that may be because he has spent decades turning his own name into a brand synonymous with success and quality, and he’s made himself the mascot for that brand.” Oliver humorously promotes a wide scale effort to refer to Trump by his ancestral name, Drumpf, to dispel some of the magic surrounding his brand and celebrity.

Oliver’s theory for Trump’s broad support throughout the US reminded me of a great book chapter I read by Eugene Rosow called “The Myth of Success.” The chapter traces the plots and conventions of gangster films to the American creed of exalting wealth and individual success. Rosow provides a great overview of the heritage that gave American capitalism its rationale and mythology — the Gospel of Wealth and the Myth of Success. From the nineteenth century until the Great Depression, the Gospel of Wealth functioned as an apologia for private property, acquisitiveness, accumulation, and concentration (Rosow 23). Industrialism and Protestantism combined to depict wealth as a sign of God’s favour and good morals. Wealthy industrialists fought to define capitalism in terms of democracy and promoted the Myth of Success, the idea that anyone can climb the ladder with enough grit, ambition, and intelligence, to placate the masses (Rosow 28-29).

I believe that much of Trump’s appeal derives directly from his wealth and the prevailing notion, with roots in the Gospel of Wealth, that wealth should be respected in and of itself. The idea is that Donald Trump is very wealthy and successful. Because he is very wealthy and successful, he must possess good judgement. Because he possesses good judgement, he would be a capable and effective political leader. For most critical thinkers, these are undoubtedly dubious leaps to make.

Donald Trump also benefits greatly from fear and insecurity in particular segments of American society, particularly racist whites, nostalgic for the Confederacy and white supremacy. For decades, the Republican party has made deliberate efforts to specifically incorporate racist whites as a significant part of their support base; however, many feel that establishment politics have abandoned them. This insecurity is not without basis: in an era of globalization and technological revolution, many poor whites have lost their jobs and livelihoods, and fear losing their place in American society. Trump makes them feel safe by scapegoating Mexicans and Muslims, and reserving judgement on his white supremacist supporters.

Notwithstanding his wealth, celebrity, and effective racial attacks, I have to wonder why more moderate Trump supporters, who clearly take issue with rising economic inequality, the declining middle class, and crony capitalist plutocracy, do not turn towards a Bernie Sanders. After all, Sanders has consistently supported efforts to keep American jobs from being outsourced and has been very vocal in his attacks on Wall Street greed. Furthermore, Sanders supports much tighter corporate regulation and higher tax rates for the wealthy and super wealthy. The only answer I have besides partisanship relates to what I view as learned passivity. Bernie Sanders insists on revolution; Donald Trump insists he will take care of everything. He will defeat ISIS, make Mexico pay for the wall, put China in their place, and simply “make America great again.” Trump’s rhetoric puts no burden of real, sustained political action on the American people.

Nick Hanauer, a wildly successful American entrepreneur and venture capitalist, gives a very persuasive TED talk wherein he warns his fellow plutocrats that it’s time to wake up and help make the economy more inclusive and more competitive. With economic inequality at historic highs and only rising, Hanauer insists that American plutocrats will have to either support a New Capitalism or contend with the pitchforks of the masses. I agree with Hanauer’s warnings; however, the vast majority of ordinary people have no desire to take up a pitchfork. Most people just want the myth of success to somewhat resemble reality for both their own sake and the sake of their children. And for now, Trump promises to fulfill that dream and asks for nothing in return but blind, uncritical support.

Sources

Freeland, Chrystia. “The rise of the new global super-rich.” TED. Sep. 2013. Lecture.

Hanauer, Nick. “Beware, fellow plutocrats, the pitchforks are coming.” TED. Aug. 2014. Lecture.

Heer, Jeet. “How The Southern Strategy Made Donald Trump Possible”. New Republic. 18 Feb. 2016. Web. 3 Mar. 2016.

Last Week Tonight. “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Donald Trump.” YouTube. 28 Feb. 2016. Web. 1 Mar. 2016.

Rosow, Eugene. Born to Lose: The Gangster Film in America. New York: Oxford UP, 1978.