I Always Have That Look on My Face
Fusion ran a story with an amazing headline this week: "A Visual History of Bernie Sanders' Resting Bitch Face."
This headline was sparked by an interview with Bernie Sanders on Face the Nation. The host mentions that Sanders had a "stoic" look on his face when Hillary Clinton spoke at the DNC, and then asks him what was going through his mind at the time. Sanders replies: "I always have that look on my face. You know, it's nothing new. I'm not always a smiley kind of guy."
This interview made more than one headline. Over at New York Magazine, writer Gabriella Paiella proclaims that Sanders, in his defense of his resting bitchface, "has never been more relatable."
I was drawn to these resting bitchface headlines because I love researching slang. In fact, I have collected quotations of the expression resting bitchface and its variants in my work on the quarterly article "Among the New Words" in American Speech.
(Note: I'm using the closed-up spelling of bitchface because I've always spelled it as one word, and I think the two-word variant looks dorky.)
I'm Okay, It's Just My Face
I first learned about bitchface—the concept, the verb, and the noun—from Tavi Gevinson's 2011 tutorial "How to Bitchface" in Rookie Magazine. In the introduction she writes:
If you are the kind of person to encounter human beings in your life, you probably will find yourself needing a bitchface eventually. A bitchface is a beauty essential for any true lady—the kind of accessory that says, “You are a fucking idiot, why am I still talking to you.” Here, I show you multiple faces for reacting to varying levels of stupidity, including handy step-by-step how-tos.
This article became very popular. It was revamped for the printed collection Rookie: Yearbook One, published in September 2012. As part of the promotional tour for this book, Tavi Gevinson appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon to give an in-person bitchface tutorial. She explains, "A bitch face is a way to express your passive aggression."
But bitchface is not always an expression of passive aggression, as we see above with Sanders' explanation. Sometimes it's just the way you look when you happen to not be engaging your facial muscles. Gevinson tells Fallon that her default expression made her teachers worry. They'd ask her if everything was all right after class, and she would respond, "I'm okay, it's just my face."
Fallon is apparently very into bitchface. Since Gevinson's visit, he's had another bitchface tutorial on his show, this time from actress Emma Roberts.
In my research for Among the New Words, I discovered that bitchface dates to at least the late 1990s. TheSydney Morning Herald printed the following line on April 18, 1997: "Diana, of course, remained the constantly premenstrual bitch-faced goddess type." The verb came later, and the whole concept seems to have taken off shortly after Gevinson's tutorial, according to Google Trends.
From this research, I also learned about some exciting runons and variants, though I'm sure this is not an inclusive list: bitchface, bitch face, Bitchface, resting bitchface, RBF, Bitchy Resting Face, Chronic Bitch Face, chronic bitchface, bitchfaced, and bitchfacey.
And now, Resting Bernie Face.
Oh, I Look So Much Prettier When I Smile?
If you haven't experienced someone telling you to smile firsthand, ask most women you know if they've been told to smile by a stranger on the street. You'll learn it happens all the time. It's so common an experience that the query "don't tell me to smile" on Etsy yields a collection of shirts, buttons, pins, ribbons, and patches with this expression on it.
Bitch and bitchface are very gendered terms; they're used most commonly in reference to a woman. A quick search in the Corpus of Contemporary American English shows that the term she collocates with bitch more than twice as often as he. If you dive deeper into the data and look at the keywords in context, you see that many of the examples with the terms he and bitch are about a man calling a woman a bitch.
The Resting Bernie Face headlines are an interesting role reversal, and I hope the term takes off. My favorite trolling tweet, which was deleted since I first posted this, read: "Bernie, you look so much prettier when you smile."
Poor guy. It's just his face.