Resting Bitch Face through the Lens of Polish Modernism - Kat Mulligan

October 25th, 2023


A storm was congealing in the sky, and the nearby bridge was gradually overwhelmed by  shadows. I sat on the curb a few meters from the bus stop sign, knees shoved into my chest, as I did the only thing I could do—wait for the bus to come and provide shelter. A construction worker, tasked with the seemingly never-ending roadwork that gutted the far end of my block, abandoned his site and began to casually stroll towards me. There are plenty of reasons why someone might mill about like this, so I feigned unawareness, even as it became clearer that his sights were set on nothing but me. He stopped before me, and what ensued was a circular conversation of him asking me if I was alright, me explaining that the bus was only a few minutes away, and him informing me that the rain was set to come down hard at any second.

Shy and doe-eyed as I am when in the company of strangers, I do not believe that I was a very charming conversation partner, or that I rewarded him with any satisfaction for having extended his kindness to me. I saw—or perhaps imagined—a look of regret, of awkwardness, arresting his eyes. Despite my gratitude for his care, I had accidentally backed the both of us into a corner through my inability to fluidly express this gratitude. I knew that once again my resting face, which is one of inadvertent melancholy or irritation, had attracted more attention than I could answer for. The construction worker, having failed to convince me to seek shelter, had no choice but to retreat back to his site.

This interaction brought me back to two months prior, when I had finished my task at work and was waiting on a bench for my coworkers to join me. My boss’ boss, with whom I had exchanged only a few words on the day of my interview, passed by and halted at the notice of my miserable gaze. “You look sad,” she said. “Oh, I just look like that,” I replied. For the rest of my contract, I afforded myself no peace when in her presence. I found myself in a constant state of worry that some forlorn expression was sneaking past me. I wondered what she must have thought of me, the new employee who said so little and had no true opportunity for redemption in the close-lipped smiles we exchanged when passing each other in the hallway. If I otherwise attempted an air of mirth, it would only be an exaggerated pose.

In these two instances, and in innumerable others throughout my life, my resting face was guilty of betraying false sentiments. To have it commented on was, yes, a gallant act from others, but also launched me into the same distress they had first envisioned in my face. The trouble was, I could not simply deprogram my face or turn it inwards. On the contrary, it was the first impression I projected to the people around me. If left unclarified by a gentle “Are you okay?”, my ostensible sadness would be what they believed of my disposition.

As I scurried onto the bus that stormy day—for, as the construction worker had predicted, the rain had begun mercilessly pelting the earth within minutes of our conversation—I lamented my incapacity to connect my inner sentiments with the artifice I presented to the world. I was immediately reminded of one of the themes from my favorite book. In Witold Gombrowicz’s 1937 novel Ferdydurke, a thirty year-old writer named Joey is taken back to high school by his former schoolteacher and is treated by everyone around him as if he is seventeen. In this nightmarish world, he is made to navigate life at school amidst rowdy, blaspheming, Latin-speaking classmates and with his so-called modern and unpretentious host family.

In Ferdydurke, Gombrowicz describes a phenomenon called the “gęba,” often translated as “mug” for its colloquial take on the word “face” (think “ugly mug”). In one of his most celebrated passages, Gombrowicz portrays a scene between two schoolboys, Syphon the idealist and Kneadus the realist, who challenge one another to a duel of grimaces. The premise is that, in response to every expression of grace or charity that Syphon makes, Kneadus must pull an expression that is equally as monstrous as Syphon’s is angelic. When Syphon wins the duel with a final astounding expression of righteousness, Kneadus resorts to an alternate method of wounding Syphon’s idealism: pinning Syphon to the floor and screaming every profanity in his vocabulary into Syphon’s ears.

This scene has two large takeaways that go hand in hand. The first is the broad philosophy imbued in Gombrowicz’s novel, of which I will give a semi-brief explanation. Gombrowicz dedicated much of his writing to dissecting what he called “forms,” or façons d'être. He recognized that societies were constructed by man-made paradigms that its members are trained to adhere to, through which we form and deform ourselves and each other. Because our societal expectations were conceived with the intention of quelling any unrefined, animalistic, but innately human instincts, adherence to these forms results in “the tragic disproportion between man’s secret immaturity and the mask that he wears to interact with others” (Pornografia, 7).  Adapting our inner self to our mask rather than the reverse, we are less our own personalities than we are abstractions of our society’s superstructure. Who we are when completely alone remains a mystery to all who live among other humans, bound as we are to these man-made paradigms. “In this earthly church, the human spirit worships the interhuman spirit,” Gombrowicz says (The Marriage, 15). We are simultaneously perpetrators and victims of our own system.

Secondly, our faces are the first line of offense in imposing these forms. Unlike the rest of our body parts, which are neutral and relatively unchanging, the face is a social weapon that is always pointed at someone by design. In “Gombrowicz, Polish Modernism, and the Subversion of Form,” Michael Goddard writes, “The face is more expressive of social power relations than of the individual whose essential self it is supposed to reveal…The reader is forced to examine to what extent his or her essential self is, in fact, a product of his or her gęba” (41, 42). This is masterfully demonstrated in the duel of grimaces, in which Syphon and Kneadus strive to debase the other through their facial expressions alone, and after which Joey descends into a fit of face-pulling as an adverse effect of his attempt to neutralize his gęba. It is also emblematic of Ferdydurke’s message as a whole; the mask one wears to project composure and elegance to the outside world leaves room underneath for a private subculture of depravity (similar to Carl Jung’s concept of the shadow). The immature, itching in the fancy clothes of their sanctioned good behavior, at times break from the mold and seek to drag the mature down to their level, as Kneadus does when cursing at Syphon. With the immense pressure to uphold these forms not only in one’s behavior but in one’s facial expressions as well (especially since even a resting face implies an active attitude), it is no surprise that Kneadus snaps and frees his gęba to translate every ounce of malice that boils beneath his surface. He rejects Syphon’s gimmicky idealism, his aspiration to maturity, but sooner or later, beyond the novel’s limits, even Kneadus will be made to submit to sophistication. He will not be able to pursue a relationship, keep a job, or live among others if he does not respect the rules devised by his fellow man. In this earthly church, man scrambles for identity, unable to lower his face in surrender, disavowing his true nature.

Now, I am sure that this construction worker or my boss’ boss were not considering the earthly church or twentieth century Polish literature when misinterpreting my RBF (resting bitch face). In fact, I appreciate that they thought to extend a helping hand, however unwarranted it turned out to be. However, it did catapult me into an existential panic to be reminded that my face is participating in society a few paces ahead of my actual self. Gombrowicz’s proposed first step to solving this crisis of forms is to grant more leniency to those who diverge from our man-made paradigms, or to those who are immature or still in the process of development. In this way, we can allow ourselves and each other to cultivate a more authentic personhood and (hopefully) end the stigma surrounding the RBF.

Works Cited

Goddard, Michael. Gombrowicz, Polish Modernism, and the Subversion of Form. Purdue University Press, 2010. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/book/17342.

Gombrowicz, Witold. Ferdydurke. Yale University Press, 2012.

Gombrowicz, Witold. The Marriage. Northwestern University Press, 1986.

Gombrowicz, Witold. Pornografia: A Novel. Grove Press, 2010.
An undergraduate
feminist art & art history