Get the Word! Podcast Episode: Is That Resting Bitch Face or Are You Just Unhappy to See Me?



Audio Transcript:

Is That Resting Bitch Face or Are You Just Unhappy to See Me?



Hello everyone. It’s Mike, your host of Get the Word! an etymology podcast for word nerds. This week I couldn’t stop reflecting on a phrase we talked about last week in our episode on antidisestablishmentarianism. It’s the phrase Resting Bitch Face. Last week, we discussed how this phrase is in the Oxford dictionary that I often use for this podcast, that is the New Oxford American Dictionary, but the word from last week, antidisestablishmentarianism is not in this dictionary. Go back and listen to last week’s episode to learn some of the potential reasons for why that is. I want to note that this long word from our last episode IS in the UK Oxford Dictionary of English.

It really has me thinking about how lexicographers decide which words to add to our Bibles of the English language. We’ll get into that a bit later and also discuss the use of the term itself, Resting Bitch Face, in the second half of the episode. But let’s start with the origin of this term. How it came to be.

Let’s start with a definition. Since we’re talking about Oxford’s official entry into the lexicon, let’s read what they give us: noun informal (OXFORD DICTIONARY OF ENGLISH)
(typically with reference to a woman) a sullen or scowling expression attributed to or unconsciously adopted by a person when in repose: she has taken flack for what some have called her resting bitch face.

And since I like to be thorough, let’s pick apart each word first. ‘Resting’ being characterized by dormancy. The word ‘rest’ itself in English dates back at least to the 12th century and has a few different etymological roots depending on which definition you’re using, including Old High German, Anglo-French and Latin.

The term ‘bitch’. Now that could definitely be its own podcast episode. Let’s at least trace ‘bitch’ back to when we believe it was first used as an offensive term for a “spiteful or unpleasant woman”. According to more than one source I found the term bitch being used as a term of contempt applied to women dates all the way back to the 15th century.

Ok, and ‘face’ dating back to at least the year 1300 in English traced to a Latin root, the Latin root also translating as ‘appearance’, ‘form’, or ‘figure’.

Put them together and you have Resting Bitch Face. So who thought of this phrase and how did it catch on in popular culture?

Many leads bring us to a video on YouTube released by the channel Broken People, which is the comedic brainchild of the actor and comedian Taylor Orci (or see). In the video you can see multiple women who all seem to be scowling for the camera performing day-to-day tasks like gardening. Shot like a public service announcement, these women reveal how being perceived as a bitch just because of how their face looks is affecting their lives in negative ways, including at one point a woman saying yes to a man on his knees giving a marriage proposal, only to be rejected because of the resting bitch face she gives while he’s proposing. She scares the man off with her face because she didn’t look excited enough for him. We do see in the latter half of the video a focus on men’s glowering faces attributed to a condition known as ‘asshole face’. But for whatever reason, Bitchy Resting Face, or Resting Bitch Face caught on in the English lexicon and ‘asshole face’ didn’t.

This video, released in 2013, has over 8 million views on YouTube. It sparked a wildfire of use of Bitchy Resting Face and eventually it was “Resting Bitch Face” that seemed to be popping up everywhere.

In the show notes I’ll link to a video entitled “Do you suffer from 'bitchy resting face’?” which is a segment from the morning Network TV show Today on NBC, in which one of the hosts suggests that to combat RBF you can try to train yourself to smile. They interview Taylor Orci, who uses they/them pronouns. They tell the host that they have RBF and this affects their life, as they have strangers who come up to them to tell them to smile. They end the interview touching on the reality that woman have more pressure on them to smile than men do in our society, and they close with Orci’s comment when asked about their reaction to people getting surgery to try to correct their RBF, their response to this was, “Maybe it would be cheaper if we all just kind of gave each other a break”.

It’s doubtful that Taylor Orci was the first person to ever use this phrase, but they certainly helped propel it into the spotlight. According to Ngram, which tracks the usage of words and phrases in books, the popularity of Resting Bitch Face just keeps continuing in popularity, rising in usage every year since roughly 2013.

After the break, we’ll look at some reactions to the term and what it says about how women are perceived in our society, and we’ll also touch a bit more on how terms like this have entered the dictionary. Stay with us.

— Break —

Do you remember that in the viral video that introduced Bitchy Resting Face to the masses, we are first shown bitchy resting face women and then asshole face men? We are creating a gendered word divide here based on a common word associated with males and a common word associated with females. I’d like to talk about the weight of each of these words for a second, and maybe we can decide together if calling a woman a ‘bitch’ is roughly the equivalent to calling a man an ‘asshole’. Before we do that, just as a sidebar, I’d love to know what Orci thinks of this video now after 8 years have gone by. As a person who identifies as nonbinary, I imagine they’re interested in challenging a gender binary and in extension all the assumptions that our culture has on individuals that are shaped by whether that individual is regarded as a man or a woman. I think we can all assume at this point that my stance is: this can be very problematic. So a discussion around comedy and gender and gendered experiences would be a very interesting one. Shout out to Taylor Orci. Let’s have that chat.

Let’s look at bitch and asshole. I’ll have you decide based on some synonyms if these words have equal weight and if they’re used in similar ways.

Synonyms for Bitch from Oxford: shrew, vixen, she-devil, hellcat

And the words Oxford uses to describe an asshole? stupid, irritating, contemptible

We can pick apart some words here. A vixen is spiteful. A vixen is quarrelsome. They want to pick fights. A shrew is an ‘aggressively assertive woman’. A she-devil is a malicious or spiteful woman. A hellcat is a spiteful violent woman.

Okay, and those words to describe an asshole? stupid? well that’s not really the man’s fault, right? Irritating? Again, that can be pretty innocent. Contemptible? Someone who is deserving of scorn? and is beneath consideration or is worthless? As a reminder, these are Oxford’s words not mine. In all honesty this is not the description of a person that I personally would call an asshole. What about you? Write into the podcast and share your thoughts. Full disclosure I already have ‘asshole’ on my list of words to cover on the podcast, partly out of curiosity to its connection with that certain anatomical region.

So I’ll leave it up to you to decide if bitch and asshole are roughly equivalent, albeit inarguably gendered, terms. Full disclosure once again, I think asshole face is pretty hilarious. The video is funny, props to Taylor Orci, no matter what your beliefs are around how much emphasis society is putting on women to try to correct this type of face or alter their appearance. Comedy is a powerful tool. We can laugh at things that our more cerebral side tells us we don’t want to laugh at… and this is the same for many people, I’m sure, don’t try to deny it. It’s a powerful tool. Comedy makes us think about concepts in a way that other forms of expression don’t.

Now let’s get some other opinions. Here’s some text from a NYT article entitled “I’m Not Mad. That’s Just my Resting Bitch Face”:
“When a man looks stern, or serious, or grumpy, it’s simply the default,” said Rachel Simmons, an author and leadership consultant at Smith College. “We don’t inherently judge the moodiness of a male face. But as women, we are almost expected to put on a smile. So if we don’t, it’s deemed ‘bitchy.’ ”

“I like RBF,” Ms. Simmons said. “I think it’s fun to say. I think it can be empowering to own a serious face. But the problem with it lies with the fact that there is no male equivalent.”

It is fun to say, I suppose . I still think asshole face is more fun to say, but looking at internet trends comparing the two terms, well, far fewer are saying asshole face. Why? Well as Ms. Simmons points out, we don’t want to focus on the moodiness of the male face. We don’t judge a man’s face as much if he is looking serious. So perhaps Orci helped popularize the existence of a cultural phenomenon that we’ve been dying to put a label on.

Here are some more thoughts. In the article entitled “How the ‘B-word’ is used to keep women down, Peggy Drexler has this to say about RBF, after bringing up a few examples of famous people cited as being afflicted:

“…you don’t have to be famous to have people (mainly men) call you out for not having a smile painted on at all times.

RBF is what happens when a woman’s face is at ease. Perhaps she’s deep in thought. Perhaps she’s thinking about nothing in particular. Either way, she’s not smiling, not over-the-top effusive, and consequently her mood is perceived to be angry or irritated. She is perceived to be the B-word. And not a pretty, perfect one: RBF is not a compliment.

she goes on to say…

RBFs, in fact, are unattractive and unappealing. And, well, isn’t a woman’s whole purpose for being to be appealing? It must be. Because when she’s not, in comes the B-word. “

Drexler mentions the art project that grew into a nationwide street art campaign a few years ago, you may remember it, which was called “Stop Telling Women to Smile”. www.stoptellingwomentosmile.com, a campaign to bring awareness to and address street harassment is a reminder that the perceptions that predominantly male bodied individuals have of female bodied individuals can have real, dangerous consequences.  

Has the rise of the phrase Resting Bitch Face given some people more confidence to approach women and tell them what they think of their face?

The popularity of the term is showing us that it fills a word-void. I guess in this instance, a phrase-void. No, that’s clunky. I’m still sticking with word void. It put a label on something that needed one, whether problematic or not.

That brings me back to the dictionary. Discussing Merriam Webster’s criteria for dictionary entries in our last episode, I can easily see RBF meeting those criteria. It has sustained usage, it has widespread usage, it has meaningful usage (that is to say it has a real meaning). If Oxford’s criteria are more or less the same, then I can understand its entry (I want to point out though, that I can’t find RBF in Merriam Webster, only in Oxford).

I won’t deny that it fills a word void and puts a label to something real. Since 2013 there seems to be plenty of interest in breaking down the science of RBF. I don’t feel like getting into that too much, but it is obviously true that people’s perceptions of others are shaped by interpretations of facial expressions. I feel that this could have brought up a different discussion in pop culture though, but instead the way it was picked up and used kinda makes me a little nauseous. My research brought me to the conclusion that we as a society want to know what can be done about RBF. I suffer from BRF. Do you suffer from BRF? Maybe I haven’t done enough digging though, so write in to the podcast and share with us what you’ve found on the topic. getthewordpodcast@gmail.com. And head on over to englishsessionswithmike.com for the show notes below the audio transcript, for some links to articles I mentioned and some others I didn’t get around to mentioning.

Before I go, I just want to throw out there another word that I’m surprised isn’t in many dictionaries (well not really, I’m not surprised at all): the word misogynoir (the specific hatred, dislike, distrust, and prejudice directed toward Black women (often used attributively). Props to dictionary.com for being one of the few dictionaries I saw that have an entry for this word. In doing my research this week, which led me down an intersectional rabbit hole, I saw this term several times, which led me to do some tracking of ITS usage (a link in the show notes to an article about this issue, by the way): at certain points in the past year this term was trending more than RBF… alright, I’ll give the lexicographers a break on this one, but I expect it to be entered into more dictionaries within the next couple of years. I better start compiling a list, eventually I’ll have so many unofficial words that I may have to shift the direction of the podcast. It’ll become Get the Word! The official podcast for unofficial words. I’m still working on the tagline.

— FACT CABINET —  

That sound signifies that it’s time to dig around in the fact cabinet. Now what on earth am I gonna find this week related to Resting Bitch Face?

Well, here’s my signed headshot of actor Tommy Flanagan (Sons of Anarchy, Braveheart, Gladiator)… no he doesn’t have resting bitch face, or asshole face, well maybe a little, but he does have a Glasgow grin, another term I saw in my research this week. This seemingly innocuous term is actually referring to something very horrible, a scar left over on both sides of the mouth after an attacker decides to take a razor blade to someone’s face, creating the appearance of a broad smile on the victim’s face. Named after the city in Scotland where I guess razor blade gangs have been a huge problem, especially in the 20th century. Flanagan used to DJ at a nightclub in Glasgow and I guess one night got into a fight outside the club. I don’t want to think about that anymore…

… let’s move on…

Ahh, here lemme dust off my bust of Louis XIV, King of France from 1643 to 1715. You know, his name kept coming up in my research too this week, as he is considered to be a historical example of someone with resting bitch face. Go ahead, look him up real quick. If you’re driving though, pull over first. A few interesting facts about Louis XIV: he was also known as the Sun King, as he thought he was a direct representative of God, and “he adopted the sun as his emblem since France revolved around him (just) as the planets revolved around the sun. “ This is also the Louis that the US state of Louisiana is named after. The United States kept the name Louisiana after it acquired this land from the French. Louis XIV reigned over France for 72 years, starting at the age of 4. Imagine living in a country run by a toddler. Well, I’m sure some of us in very recent history can relate.



Write in to the podcast: getthewordpodcast@gmail.com . Give us your word suggestions, and I’ll take them into consideration for the podcast. Please rate and review this podcast ANYWHERE that you can. It’s super helpful. Podcast artwork by Bruno Sanches. You can find a link to his work in the show notes. Music performed by the Monroeville Music Center. Production, editing and research performed by me, Mike Butler. Write in to the podcast and give us your comments. That email again is getthewordpodcast@gmail.com. We’d love to hear from you.

Show notes:

https://www.cnn.com/2016/02/03/health/resting-bitch-face-research-irpt/index.html

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-psychology-of-resting-bitch-face-syndrome-and-what_b_57bd18fce4b07d22cc3a3055

https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/city-slicker-glasgow-1616900.html

https://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/68037/Surgeon-says-hospitals-treat-a-knife-victim-every-six-hours

https://www.cnn.com/2014/04/06/living/street-harassment-art/

Do you suffer from 'bitchy resting face’?:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xf-zXyfO7X8

https://www.etymonline.com/word/bitch

https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=misogynoir%2C+resting+bitch+face&year_start=1800&year_end=2019&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cmisogynoir%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cresting%20bitch%20face%3B%2Cc0#t1%3B%2Cmisogynoir%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cresting%20bitch%20face%3B%2Cc0

https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?date=all&q=misogynoir,resting%20bitch%20face

https://www.cnn.com/2015/08/10/opinions/drexler-rbf/index.html

https://jezebel.com/is-bitchy-resting-face-over-or-is-it-just-the-beginnin-646947759

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3v98CPXNiSk

https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/02/fashion/im-not-mad-thats-just-my-resting-b-face.html?smid=fb-nytimes&smtyp=cur&_r=0

https://www.etymonline.com/word/face#etymonline_v_1056

https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=bitchy+resting+face%2C+resting+bitch+face%2C+asshole+face&year_start=1800&year_end=2019&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cbitchy%20resting%20face%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cresting%20bitch%20face%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Casshole%20face%3B%2Cc0#t1%3B%2Cbitchy%20resting%20face%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cresting%20bitch%20face%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Casshole%20face%3B%2Cc0

https://stoptellingwomentosmile.tumblr.com/

https://www.biography.com/news/louis-xiv-biography-facts

https://everydayfeminism.com/2015/08/4-tired-tropes-misogynoir/

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-psychology-of-resting-bitch-face-syndrome-and-what_b_57bd18fce4b07d22cc3a3055

https://www.lexico.com/search?utf8=%E2%9C%93&filter=noad&dictionary=en&query=antidisestablishmentarianism


Every episode:

Music performed by Monroeville Music Center: https://monroevillemusiccenter.bandcamp.com/track/the-perfect-planet

And Kevin Macleod https://freemusicarchive.org/music/Kevin_MacLeod/Jazz_Sampler/Faster_Does_It_1271

Artwork for Get the Word! created by Bruno Sanches: https://brunofsanches.myportfolio.com/

Comments

Fiverr