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.)
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.