Facing the phenomenon: bitchface/smugface

Facing the phenomenon: bitchface/smugface

This column was originally published on Killings.

‘A bitchface is a way to express your passive aggression,’ announced 16-year-old online wunderkind Tavi Gevinson to Jimmy Fallon. A recent guest on Fallon’s late night talk show to promote the release of ‘Rookie Year One’ – an exciting text appropriation of Rookie, her marvellous online magazine for teenage girls – Tavi tutored Fallon in the art of this affectation. Combining looks of distaste, boredom and hostility with an air of endearing self-composed charm, Tavi explained that ‘bitchface’ is a purposeful action used by some girls to indicate their disengagement and disdain. A self-diagnosed ‘chronic bitchface’ sufferer, Tavi also inferred that this look is innate for some girls and isn’t necessarily an accurate reflection of how they feel. Girls can be told they look grumpy, malicious or jaded, when often they are none of these things.

As the Tavi and Fallon clip indicates, this facial affliction is commonly associated with teenage girls, but the term is also attributed to stern-faced ladies generally. In cases where ‘bitchface’ is an involuntary pose, a natural state, it often incites uninvited, egregious comment. The standard retort to this – ‘it’s just my face’ – is humorous and sincere, but the underlying notion that women’s appearances are open slather for everyday comment or patronising jeers is indeed aggravating. The sad truth that women’s appearances are judged against a set of generalised implicitly cheerful or passive feminine standards – like we get dressed by birds in the morning and frolic with deer over afternoon tea? – also underpins this otherwise fun concept.

However, like in the context of the Fallon interview, the ‘bitchface’ isn’t meant as a slight; any negative etymological connotations are superseded by its very definition and how it has been embraced. The jovial element that Tavi attributes to this non-debilitating epidemic is an example of how, through different cultural avenues – from books to art and film – women have taken ownership of ‘bitchface’. Many women have put their hands up and indicated they too suffer from this quirk; in some ways, a glorious scowling expression is uniting certain factions of the female community.

I love these fun tongue-in-cheek renderings, but couldn’t help wondering why such a meme hasn’t been widely attributed to men. Then I remembered ‘Pete Campbell’s Bitchface’.

Injected with requisite mocking humour, this tumblr looks at how Vincent Kartheiser embodies his cheating, conniving and smarmy character on 1960s period drama Mad Men through loaded glances. Pete Campbell is the kind of character that people love to hate – not merely as an emblem of the era’s misogyny, but because he’s also scheming and daft, vain and insecure. I have long grouped Pete Campbell with Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson) from Game of Thrones and Oliver Trask (Taylor Handley) from the first season of teen drama The O.C. due to their likeness in demeanour, action and expression. In fact, they are so alike that in some strange Junior-esque fanfic world, if Pete and Joffrey procreated in early 2000s California, their child would be Oliver.

It has been acknowledged that each of these actors utilise hateful histrionics to stir emotion in viewers and at times, their use of ‘bitchface’ as a technique has been acknowledged. Yet unlike April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) from Parks and Recreation, whose babin’ ‘bitchface’ is ubiquitous, the looks that these male characters present are laced with deeply hardened intentions. Accordingly, I don’t think that ‘bitchface’ is an appropriate term for these men’s mugs. Rather, deviating from the phenomenon that is ‘bitchface’, I propose that Pete, Joffrey and Oliver each suffer from ‘smugface’.

‘Smugface’ has a different set of connotations attached to it. These characters are not passive-aggressive, nor can their expressions be misinterpreted; the similar upturned lips and sneers of self-satisfaction reflect the sense of entitlement that each of these characters bask in. This irritating triumvirate are spiteful and driven by quests for power: King Joffrey as a spoilt and forbidding sovereign, Pete Campbell in the corporate world of advertising and Oliver within the micro-society of The O.C.’s friendship circle. Perfectly written and performed to conjure intense, masochistic loathing that leaves a bitter (but almost pleasant) distaste, this ‘smugface’ trio are highly manipulative megalomaniacs responsible for weaving darkness into the fabric of their fictional worlds.

It is a testament to each of these actors that they evoke such emotional reactions through their use of ‘smugface’ (try to go back and watch this sequence of Batman Begins without smiling), but their performance demands a high dosage of aggrandised self-worth and elements of cruelty that ‘bitchface’ doesn’t denote. ‘Bitchface’ may be touted as an accessory ‘that says “You are a fucking idiot, why am I still talking to you”’ – a conscious and justified reaction to encountering idiocy. But it is without premeditated malice or intended violence. So where ‘bitchface’ unites through empathy, ‘smugface’ is a merely a marker of hubris, a mask of detachment that encourages a bitchslap.

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