Wednesday, May 2, 2018

21st Century Smiles

When I was visiting relatives in Virginia recently I noticed a photo portrait displayed in the kitchen of a young woman dressed in college graduation garb. My sister mentioned she was the daughter of a friend who had recently graduated from Harvard Law. For some reason the portrait bothered me and I finally figured out why. She was giving the obligatory smile, but the more you looked at it, the more you realized it was not actually a smile. The facial expression was actually saying something like: "yes, I graduated from Harvard Law--and you didn't. This makes me more important than you are." Sorry, I really wish I had a copy of that photo for illustration. But there are other similar ones out there. Take this photo that appeared in recent coverage of the White House Correspondents' Dinner:

Michelle Wolf gave a comic presentation at the dinner that was widely criticized for being excessively harsh. But never mind that, look at her "smile." This is another one of those smiles that is really not a smile, but rather a sneer or grimace projecting superiority. The eyes aren't smiling and merely exposing ones's teeth does not necessarily indicate the pleasure and sociability we associate with smiling. Here is another smile that seems less than genuine:

This guy looks like his smile has possessed him without him having much say in the matter:

Here is another example of the obligatory and not very authentic smile:

I think the modern expression that we seem required to turn on whenever we are photographed--which is pretty often these days--is less and less an expression of sociability and more and more an act of personal promotion in a dominance hierarchy. In other words, we smile to market ourselves and to project our self-image--often one of superiority.

If you look at older photos, ones from the 19th century, for example, you will notice that almost no-one is smiling in them.

I suppose one reason this interested me was because, like many Canadians, I have a furtive, slightly insecure smile!

A lot of musicians adopt a serious demeanor for their portraits:

Or only offer a half-hearted smile:

But some offer a semi-smile that is really not a smile, but an assertion of superiority:

Nothing against Yuja, there are just a lot of photos of her out there! Here is another example, a photo of Khatia Buniatishvili, sort of smiling:

Of course what a publicity photo of a musician is often trying to project is not dominance, but rather "interiority" or expressive weight or something.

That last photo is of pianist Igor Levit.

1 comment:

Will Wilkin said...

Thanks Bryan, this one made me smile!