February 2, 2013

Children's faces in pop culture and real life: Mask-like or naturalistic

Awhile ago I looked at how impossible sympathy is in today's culture because of how exaggerated people make their faces look to others. Such behavior stems from an avoidant attachment style, where you want to keep others at a social-emotional distance, and only interact with them transactionally and strategically. These people don't consciously think over the pros and cons of establishing bonds with others -- it's just that, on a gut level, attachment and connections feel creepy. The fearful-avoidants worry about being exploited, while the dismissive-avoidants feel superior to others and not needing their connections.

Presenting others with a face that looks like a kabuki mask avoids the danger of potential attachment by creating an unbridgeable chasm between the individual and the viewers. To resonate with another person's facial expression, you have to ease into it, coming from your own everyday neutral expression. Subtle signs of joy, sadness, pensiveness, and so on, allow us to meet the person half-way or closer. Hence, all portraits in whatever medium show their subject with a subtle yet clearly non-neutral expression.

But to meet someone half-way who shows an extreme expression of anger, say, would require us to shift abruptly from neutral to pretty-angry, an impossible feat. So, we can only observe them from a distance and not get onto the same wavelength. That's why no one cares when you spray your Facebook feed with caricatured emo-face pictures.

Well, that's the ironically detached, snarky, duckface side of the adolescent and adult world. Does it extend even into the world of children? That should be a safe space for sincere expression, although after looking through it, there seems to be a similar mask-like presentation of children's faces.

They aren't ironic and sarcastic like the older kids, but a caricature of kiddie. They too look too extreme to invite us onto the same wavelength and feel attached to our children. Instead, they distance us and only let us observe the kid's hyper-surprised look or their wacky-zany face. It didn't used to be like that in the '80s, when kids looked more sincere and wholesome -- when they looked like real people with their own real feelings, not some animatronic doll that you program to display an extreme face for your own amusement.

Showing the full range of naturalistic expressions from images of kids in the '80s would be a bit too much work. So I've decided to try to restrict things to a slice of the emotional spectrum that can stand in for the full range. Why? You tend not to see faces in this range at all when people are closed-off, guard-up, and at-arm's-length. Only when people are more open do you find faces here, even if they aren't the most common type.

And that is the happy-sad face. It shows, in a single expression, that you're capable of expressing a range of emotions, and that you're comfortable with the complexity of real feelings, where joy may be tinged with vulnerability.

The happy-sad face is composed of a subtle smile in the mouth region (not agape as in surprise, and no bottom teeth visible as in an ear-to-ear grin), and eyes that pinch somewhat around the outsides as with a true smile. But unlike the plain smile where the eyes squint towards closing, the eyes slope gently upward from outside-in, both along the upper eyelid and the eyebrows. There's just a hint of pain or sadness in eyes like those.

That can be contrasted with the stereotypical kiddie face -- namely, surprise. Everything is novel to children, after all. In the surprised face, the eyeballs have a more circular look, no sloping, and the eyebrows and forehead are lifted straight up along the full length of the forehead, not just in the middle as in the sloping sad look. Also, the mouth tends to be in a gaping or at least slackjaw position, with visible empty space underneath the top row of teeth.

To make clear comparisons between the two periods, I chose the closest counterparts possible from each time. First, here are covers from Parents magazine, by far the most widely read of its kind, from 1983 and 2010. (Goddamn, magazine covers are so cluttered today.)

You might object that I'm comparing an older child with a baby, but after looking through old issues, it looks like they didn't limit themselves only to infants as they appear to now. There are many covers from the '80s with infants in a non-caricatured look, but I couldn't find any images of them online. I may try scanning some myself at the library sometime.

At any rate, it's clear that in order to sell to today's parents, you have to show the most exaggerated surprised face possible, one that looks like a wind-up toy. Back in the '80s, parents wanted to see faces that were more adorable and precious, something that you could connect with, and you can't feel that way about a face that's so obviously artificial. It has to look natural. (Recognize the happy-sad girl? That's a 6 year-old Sarah Michelle Gellar.)

We see the same difference in Parenting magazine, the other mega-seller in the genre, between 1989 and 2007.

The one from the '80s is meant to tug at the mother's heart-strings. (Even the mother's expression is subdued, unlike today's covers where the parents themselves have raised eyebrows and wide-open mouths.) The one from the 21st century, though, looks like he's already wearing his Halloween mask. Again we see parents today wanting to avoid the reality of their kids having their own thoughts and drives -- they are dolls for parents to role-play with, so they will assume whatever thoughts and drives that we program into their character specs.

Even in the toys meant for kids, there's a shift from marketing ones with more natural-looking to more kiddie-looking faces. Let's start with the Cabbage Patch Kids dolls, one of the most sought-after toys of the 1980s, and still in their recent incarnation among the best-sellers on the "baby doll" section of Walmart's website.

The one from the '80s has a restrained smile, almost like a baby pursing its lips together out of nervousness, like "will this child walking by find me worth adopting?" They were marketed as newborns that came with birth certificates and adoption papers. Also notice the bottoms of the eyes: the white part is wider on the outside than on the inside, although the whites narrow to the same thinness as you go up the sides of the iris. This gives them that sloping-up-and-in look to hint at sadness.

The new ones have the mouth agape and circular eyes, and the slightly drooping upper eyelid makes them look sleepy. It's a kind of vegetative contentedness, not happy-yet-nervous to see you.

Stuffed animals fit the pattern too, not just baby dolls. Here are Pound Puppies, popular in the '80s, and the most popular puppy plushie on Walmart's "stuffed animals" section.

Like the Cabbage Patch Kids, the Pound Puppies were marketed as rescuing a lovable but defenseless living creature, and they too came with adoption certificates. They didn't all look so sad in the eyes (I guess they overdid it in the ads), but you get an idea of how they were meant to tug at the heart-strings of the kids and their parents. Also like Cabbage Patch Kids, their mouths are slightly raised at the ends in a smile, but the lips look pursed together in nervousness, awaiting your decision of whether or not to adopt them.

The recent dog plushie looks just like a stereotypically surprised baby with wide-open eyes and mouth agape. Unlike 21st-century children's faces, though, the dog does at least have a hint of upward-sloping eyes (the thicker whites at the base on the outside).

Boys didn't play too much with dolls in the '80s, although we all did receive Cabbage Patch Kids as gifts. But with a little ingenuity, they got us on-board too. Just as they got boys to want action figures by turning posable dolls into something mean, gross, or violent, they took the over-sized baby doll and turned it into My Pet Monster. Although it looked angry, sported fangs, and wore hand-cuffs that you could pull apart to show its strength, it was still meant to be your friend -- not a pet, despite the name. (There were other pet-like animals in the toy line, kind of a mini monster version of a puppy.)

The "doll" was updated in 2001 with a totally different face.

The ones from the '80s have a middle-mouth line that goes more or less straight across the head, while the new one has its mouth raised up in a phony-looking grin. And where the eyebrows of the old ones look mean by arching downward on the inside, right over the eyeballs themselves, the new one's eyebrows have been raised away from the eyeballs and look more suggestive of the eyebrow and forehead raised in surprise. The nose has also been reigned in from a bulbous mature-looking schnoz to a flat, non-protruding one like an infant's.

Although the My Pet Monster "dolls" didn't have the sloping sad eyes, they remind me a lot of Ludo from Labyrinth, who does. He also has raised lips at the outside, and an upward purse in the middle, the familiar happy-yet-nervous look.

In fact, it wasn't just pop culture that showed these changes. I think that children themselves were more capable of and willing to make more adorable faces back in the '80s, while kids now look more caricatured. Obviously that's harder to show since there are so many more pictures of real-life kids to study, not just a handful of popular toy lines and magazines.

Still, check out the reactions of two boys opening up the must-have video game system of their day, the original Nintendo and the Nintendo 64. (The second picture is a screenshot from a now legendary home movie clip on YouTube.)

The kid on the left looks just like the other '80s images we've seen, adorable and wholesome, with upward sloping eyes, while the freak on the right not only shows the exaggerated wide-open eyes and mouth of surprise, but also downward inner eyebrows and stiff squared-off lips of rage. When kids of the '90s and later experience happiness, it is usually adulterated with contempt and superiority -- "in your FACE, bitch! I got the Nintendo 64 and you didn't!" Check out the video, where the two little brats pump their fists in victory. They don't just feel joy by itself, or mingled with sadness, unconsciously aware that such joyfulness is fleeting.

Because Christmas usually brings out the smiles and the cameras to capture them, here are a couple more. The one from 1984 is not a detail from a Rembrandt painting, but my two little brothers sitting on Santa's lap at the mall, and the one from 2012 I pulled off of Google Images.

My brothers both have the upward sloping eyes, and although the one on the right has his mouth slightly open, it looks like he was caught speaking, since it's not in the slackjaw position. The one on the left may not even be smiling; if so, it's incredibly subtle. And with his hands clasped together like that, he looks like a Pound Puppy himself. He's the most Scotch-Irish of us three, so even as a baby he'd already mastered the charmingly pathetic Celtic eyebrows.

The siblings on the right are obviously posing, with the infant opening his mouth almost as wide as he can, and the toddler stretching a grin across her face while wrinkling up her nose and eyebrows in mock anger. I doubt either of them have seen kabuki mask pictures on Facebook yet, so they're picking this look up from older people in real life. Perhaps behind the camera, the parents are explicitly modeling the gaping-mouth face and the wacky-sassy face for their kids to ape.

So, it's not just media representations but also candid family pictures that show the changes. And it's not just what the adults want, but what the kids themselves feel motivated to do. Those toys didn't become popular because the parents foisted them on unwilling children. That's what they wanted.

And I doubt my brother was copying a grown-up's face when making that pound-puppy look. The recent Christmas picture might not reflect copying the parents either, but just what kids these days are prone to. That spazz in the Nintendo 64 picture might have been copying what he'd seen in the poor sportsmanship of older kids, but then he might have had that reaction spontaneously.

Children are very perceptive of the social and emotional atmosphere around them, just by observation, not having to be told, for example, that they live in a tense household when mommy and daddy are constantly shouting at each other. Somehow they picked up on the fact that their world in the 1980s was more open and trusting, so that they could and should express themselves more sincerely. They also sensed that grown-ups did not view them as an engineering project, but as real, unique creatures to enjoy a wholesome relationship with -- so give 'em what they want, and make yourself adorable.

Over the course of the '90s, children shifted away from those behaviors as they sensed changes in the social-emotional atmosphere around them. Grown-ups had flatter tone-of-voice, more restricted facial expressions, and treated them more like a computer programming project. If the grown-up world was so evidently closed-off and distant, and if that's where you see yourself headed toward, then prepare for it now by never revealing your true self to anyone, and only display caricatured masks on those rare occasions where you do have to make some kind of face.

These changes mirror the changes in the crime rate, a relationship that I've explored elsewhere, although I can't remember where at the moment. Just search this blog for "attachment" or "avoidant" or other relevant word. These changes should therefore also appear when contrasting the 1920s with the '40s or '50s, the former looking like the '80s and the latter looking like the 21st century. I've seen that in looking through advertising, candid pictures, and children shown in the Sears catalog, but that's for another time.


  1. You've said that during reclusive eras, people are scared of feeling emotions towards others. Now, maybe this is an exaggeration, but those pictures of the sad little kids def. hit a nerve with me.


  2. It might be because I only put up happy-sad pictures -- if you go through the old photo albums or shoeboxes, you'll see the full spectrum there, not just ones designed to tug at the heart-strings.

    But yeah, it will feel like looking into a different world if you're used to Facebook and YouTube.

    I've begun insulating myself as much as possible from the kabuki world, and going through all this old stuff is a great relief. The only thing I use YouTube for now is to find '80s music videos and commercials. Just search for '80s commercial vault -- there's enough to last a lifetime.

  3. "But yeah, it will feel like looking into a different world if you're used to Facebook and YouTube"

    What can I say? This stuff wasn't that represented in teh media, and I don't spend lots of time around little kids(except my cousins - after they had gotten a little older), and, as you say, people just don't show genuine emotion that much these days. And yeah, I probably need to get out more, but still.

    Those pictures did throw me for a loop, though. I must not be used to seeing even a hint of sadness in the faces of small children, like most from my age group.

    Oddly enough, facebook put a picture of a little kid doing the same expression - "happy-sad" - after catching a fish. The pic looks like its from decades ago.

    Its on facebook's login page, so you have to log out of facebook, and then open facebook in a new browser, to see it. You should def. do it if you have FB.

    Its eerie you should mention this now, actually. Maybe the culture is starting to get looser...


  4. The SuperBowl commercials are just terrible. Unwatchable.

  5. Like how? (You watch 'em so I don't have to.)

  6. How much of this is due to possible Amud Neanderthal influence? Koanic writes about this on his blog. The sloped Thal forehead could account for the upward-slanting eyes you mention.

  7. interesting post but examples seem cherrypicked and overargued

    high diversity/population density seems likely to decrease subtlety of marketing imagery


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