I imagine I’m behind the times but I just read an article in the NY Times about a phenomenon apparently afflicting women around the country: Resting Bitch Face or RBF. I figure if it’s in the NYT it must already be passé and I know I rarely can keep up with things I’m actually interested in much less random memes created by overly clever people with too much time on their hands.
But RBF is such a classic example of sexism at work I could barely stop sputtering with rage. The idea is that many women, when their faces are at rest…that is not on for the camera or the boss…have a hard, ‘unhappy’ look that many, especially men, find unpleasant.
How many of us have walked down the street and heard men’s lewd comments about our bodies which are then followed up with. “Come on, smile sistah!” I used to compose perfect responses that could come unbidden to my lips but that wouldn’t get me smashed in the face by disgruntled ‘admirers’. And I usually only delivered it if the guy was standing alone rather than in a pack. Being white-haired now I rarely face this problem any longer but I remember a few of my retorts:
“I save my smile for people I actually know.”
“I’ll smile when the problem of world hunger is solved.”
“This is me smiling.”
But then I’d have to speed away quickly to avoid a follow-up, possibly physical, attack since men’s egos are so fragile.
Ironically, I’m someone to whom a smile comes easily. Friends and fans alike would rarely say I ever look stern. But I think that’s because I always assume that somewhere in the crowd there might be a fan about to say hello. That’s not ego but wanting to be as kind to some one as I’d want Joan Armatrading to be to me if we bumped into each other at the farmers market. But as noted in the article I too have experienced a male boss or co-worker responding to my RBF with a shout out to smile “nothing’s that bad!”
And I think: “I’m trying to balance my program budget for the coming year; you smile and give me more money.”
These guys would be in paroxysms of fear if they watched me while I’m writing! I have a mirror over my desk so I know what I look like when I’m trying to figure out how to get Gilda out of her latest vampiric tight spot. I’m not smiling.
Plastic surgeons are even now advertising that they can help erase your RBF with just a few nips and snips. I can’t imagine many women want to look like the Joker permanently but having cried at what Joan Rivers did to her face I think that doctors are able to convince many women to do anything short of walking into a propeller blade.
One of the funniest things about the Times piece was that right in the middle of it was a huge advertisement for a famous designer featuring an equally famous actress wearing his newest design and her own RBF. In reality the fashion industry has perfected the RBF on its models. They stalk the runway in gaudily expensive creations with either a totally blank stare or an angry glare that says I spit on the homeless and hungry. And fashionistas think that’s sexy.
Maybe it’s just because I’m a lesbian but I actually am attracted to the flint-eyed look of a woman trying to figure something out or just keeping her own council. Also over my desk I have a picture of Xena,Warrior Princess, the queen of squint. She’s swinging her sword, nary a smile to be seen and under it I wrote “So far so good.” A high percentage of women I admire do RBF really well: Nina Simone was one. Jada Pinkett Smith, Helen Mirren; yes they have brilliant smiles but catch them in an unguarded moment or in character they can stop you cold.
Complaints about RBF are just another way of trying to push women into always being accessible and pleasing to males. It’s the same way that the image of elder women who had healing powers was twisted into the gnarly, grotesque of evil witches. After WWII, when men wanted women to forget the vital work they’d done as part of the war effort and return to their homes advertisements showed women in frilly aprons vacuuming or cleaning their refrigerators with glowing smiles. It was a reality that existed only in the fantasies of men terrified of equality. How many times do you hear mothers telling girl children to be quiet or not to talk so much? Much more than with boy children.
Our male dominated culture has innumerable ways to shame women into submission from fat phobia to rape. If the micromanaging of our power has stooped to policing our facial expressions we will need much more aggressive (a word wielded to hurt us too) attention to how we maintain our space in the world. Before it’s required that women be sedated into smiles or be replaced by the voice of Scarlet Johannson let’s teach our selves and our girl children to follow our inner feelings not any external demand for pleasing others.