Was Idina Menzel really perplexed by Eminem rising up from the stage at the Academy Awards, or did she just overhear a baffling comment from a person sitting nearby?
Was Billie Eilish actually pulling a face at Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph’s comedy routine, or was she just wondering if she remembered to lock her car?
Spare a thought for the A-list attendees at award shows. In exchange for a swag bag and the minuscule chance of winning a career-defining trophy, attendees sit captive in unforgiving formal wear for hours while camera crews roam the aisles, hunting for an errant scowl, gasp, or skeptically raised eyebrow. What they’re seeking is that much-memefied award-show staple known as “the reaction shot.”
Most of us aren’t subject to this level of scrutiny. But the memes of Menzel and Eilish — which arguably went more viral than the actual awards on Oscars night — are a high-profile reminder that our facial expressions are always being watched and judged. They’re also evidence of how often observers fill in the blank of a neutral facial expression with an assumption — and how those assumptions can be tainted by the perceptions and prejudices of the observer.
This is especially true when it comes to women’s facial expressions—as those of us who’ve been told to “smile” by a complete stranger know too well. “Resting Bitch Face” is a catchall term for the unsmiling expression some people wear when they’re not thinking about communicating with their face. (That it includes the gendered expletive “bitch” tells us whose faces we’re policing this way.)
The look is hardly new — think of all those blasé baby Jesuses in medieval triptychs! — but the term exploded onto public consciousness in 2013 with a Funny or Die parody PSA for “bitchy resting face.” The video also talks about the condition’s male counterpart, “asshole face,” but that phrase did not take off in the same way as “resting bitch face” did.