Have you ever met anyone like Levi from Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl?
He “smiled all the way from his chin to his receding hairline. His forehead wrinkled up, his eyes twinkled. Even his ears got into the action — they twitched, like a dog’s.” At times, it would “devour his whole face.” Rowell further describes Levi as “pass[ing] out smiles to everyone he met like it didn’t cost him anything, like he’d never run out.”
You’d think that someone who smiles this much would be phony or creepy, but Levi is an extremely likeable — albeit flawed — character who, with relentless smiling, defies gender stereotypes, but perhaps strains a reader’s tolerance for repetition. It’s understandable that Cath, the main character in Fangirl, would want to “come up with more words for Levi’s smiles.” The word “smile” appears in some form 205 times in the novel (according to my Kindle). It’s hard for me to fault Rowell for using the word so much,* given how I use “smile” all the time in my own creative writing. The common synonyms for smile, including beam, grin, smirk, simper, and leer, come nowhere close to describing the many smiling expressions our faces are capable of making.
Unlike Levi, Cath smiles sparingly, as though “smiling at strangers [would] exhaust [her] overall supply.” She was even fired from her job at a bookstore because she didn’t behave the way society expects women to behave–she didn’t smile enough. We’re raised to be pleasant, attractive, and approachable, a presumption about women’s mentality and behavior that is reinforced every time a stranger thinks they are entitled to a smile from those of us who don’t walk around grinning from ear-to-ear.**
My friend Jaclyn from Covered in Flour calls this interaction with strangers the introvert’s pet peeve:
Don’t you absolutely hate it when strangers shout “Smile!” at you? Scarcely anything bugs me more. First of all, stranger, I don’t know you, so why should I grin at you like an idiot? If I’m going to give myself smile lines, it’s going to be for people I actually know. Second, this is my face’s natural position. I look serious. Do I screech at you things like “Why so giddy?” No. Simmer down.
I probably produce more happy smiles now than I ever had in the past — thankfully, each year of my life has brought more to smile about — but I keep these facial expressions for my family, my friends, and for myself. I’ll return a polite smile, but I don’t dole out joyful smiles to just anyone.
Smiles can be wide, broad, flat, wistful, seductive, sheepish, expectant, indulgent, sympathetic, rueful, quirky, deceitful and just about anything else, communicating an infinite number of feelings beyond happiness or amusement; as Herman Melville wrote in Pierre, a very strange novel (by the way), “a smile is the chosen vehicle for all ambiguities.” The degree of the upward turn of the lips matters — a slight upturn is different from a wide smile — but, really, the rest of the face is the best indicator of a person’s internal feelings. A genuinely happy smile, for instance, tends to light up the entire face with telltale creases around the eyes, while a faux or sad smile, often on a tilted face, is usually only slightly curved and has no creases around the eyes.
So, the next time someone tells me to smile, I’ll probably ignore them the way I always do. However, I might just smirk, roll my eyes, and say, “[F-you]. I am smiling!”
*Though I liked Levi and really enjoyed Fangirl (which I reviewed last week), I must admit that some of Levi’s smiles/grins didn’t quite make sense to me. For example, in the Emergency Dance Party scene, Rowell writes, “Levi raised his eyebrows and grinned.” In another example, Levi “grinned and raised a hand-drawn eyebrow.” I can’t believe he’d do one after the other–this guy is a perpetual smiler–but if he raised his eyebrows and grinned at the same time, he’d look like this, which is rather weird. Try it.
**Perhaps some of us suffer from BRF.