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resting bitch face and the badge of appeasement

Was reading this article on “Resting Bitch Face”, about the phenomenon where women whose faces seem to express hardness or harshness when the women in question are in fact merely pensive or spaced out. It’s an interesting phenomenon, and one I think I may suffer from, although it’s supposedly only a female phenomenon. I am often told that I look “serious”. I guess the point is that women are expected to appear friendly and reassuring, and when they don’t, well, they get accused of having Resting Bitch Face.

I have some thoughts about Resting Bitch Face and acting, but they are still crystallizing, so I think I’ll hold off on going into them at the moment. But something else in the first article, above, caught my eye. It was part of a discussion of how women tend to smile more than men, that they are expected to smile, so they then get unfairly taken to task for RBF. :

Nancy Henley, a cognitive psychologist, has theorized that women’s frequent smiling stems from their lower social status (she called the smile a “badge of appeasement”). Still others have pointed out that women are more likely to work in the service sector, where smiling is an asset.

Now, this is a sociological observation about the place of women in society, and how smiling is a response to that. But here’s the thing: I see a lot of unhelpful smiling during scene work in class. Of course, people smile in real life, so there is no reason they shouldn’t in acting as well, but the problem arises when the smiling is part of the actor’s response to the situation of acting a scene, rather than the character’s response to the evolving circumstances in the scene.

Stanislavsky famously began with the insight that actors face self-consciousness: because of the awareness of being watched, scrutinized, judged and evaluated by an audience, they are inhibited, sometimes paralyzed, unable to enact what is asked of them. This situation is complicated by the fact that scripts call for actors to enter into fraught, charged, or awkward situations, and to make themselves vulnerable in those situations. So there is real danger in acting a scene. Often, what I observe is that actors who are uncomfortable with confrontation (and this is a lot of us, since acting comes at least in part from a desire to please, to entertain) will tend to pull their punches by smiling as they speak. If it happens once in a while, it is not a concern, but when it happens chronically, it is. This smiling is actually physical tension that hardens the face and drains it of responsiveness. Also, after an actor speaks, she needs to receive off of her partner: she needs to take in the partner’s response, both verbal and non-verbal, and she needs to be fully absorbed in that receiving. Every fiber of her being, every cell, very nerve, needs to be tuned into the partner. The held smile means that a part of the actor’s physiognomy is abstaining from that process of receiving, it is holding back. In the same way that the smile effectively undermines the process of sending, what we call “throwing the ball”, it also means that the actor is not fully entering into receiving either.

In other words, it’s a problem.

But the good news is, it’s usually an easy fix. Once the actor’s attention is drawn to it, he (and this is a problem for both sexes, RBF notwithstanding), can usually make the adjustment pretty easily, and the results can be rather dramatic.