Face Reading, Racism, And The State Of The Romance Today

This is not going to be a nice post. It is not going to be a short post. It is, however, a necessary post, if only to keep me from feeling slimy in my soul. Please accept honesty as a virtue today in lieu of graciousness. Tomorrow my chapter of the Romance Writers of America is having their monthly meeting. I generally look forward to chapter meetings, but tomorrow I will not be in attendance. Because the speaker is Jean Haner, talking about her particular school of face reading, also known as physiognomy.

And from everything I can tell, physiognomy is kinda racist.

I am not simply skeptical because The Wisdom of Your Face sounds like something Leslie Knope would yell when angered. (It totally does!) I'm also skeptical because I'm a historical romance author, and like virtually every historical romance author I have read about phrenology and I know that it is a load of crap.

More specifically, it's a load of racist crap, used to justify both slavery and eugenics (among other atrocities) on the grounds that African people were less intellectually developed than Europeans. This despite the fact that none of the evidence amounted to a hill of beans, scientifically. None of the research I've done on face reading in the past three months has convinced me that physiognomy is any more science-based or any less racist than phrenology.

And calling it "Chinese face reading," as many do, does not reassure me on this front. You might as well drop the words "exotic" or "Oriental."

Also a red flag: when you talk about what the shape of a person's nose can tell you about their relationship with money. Because that's certainly never been a talking point of anti-Semitism, nosiree.

The science: I'm not the only one out there to shout "What about genetics?" in response to the fuzziness of phsyiognomy's data. One face-reading website I found addressed these concerns in a FAQ, but the response is chock-full of shoddy science. (Hint: if the romance author can spot you're doing science wrong, you're doing science really, really wrong.) The FAQ in question comes from Rose Rosetree's school of face reading:

So you're claiming that genes have nothing whatsoever to do with how we look? It's not mere chance or coincidence?

No, I believe your soul chooses from what's available in the gene pool. And sometimes it's a pretty long reach in that pool to find the trait that's needed. For instance, one face reading student of mine pointed out that, in his family, there are four brothers. All of them look alike except "the rebel," whose face looks completely different from all the others.

Say it with me now: Correlation does not equal causation!

That is, it is just as likely that the rebellious brother's facial differences caused him to act differently from his brothers as it is that his personal differences are reflected in his facial features. Especially if everyone in the family was frequently making a big deal about it. Oh, you look so different from your brothers! Maybe you were adopted! Maybe the milkman is your real dad! Ha ha ha! It's just a joke—why aren't you laughing? That would certainly lead me to feel rebellious.

Another excellent post, from the hitherto unknown-to-me Motor City Blog, talks about going to a face reading event. Our reviewer is asked to consider the shape of her own eyebrows (because the eyebrows are windows to the soul, or something):

After telling us that women can have high, moderate, or low eyebrows, but there isn't a man on the planet who has high eyebrows (high-brows being, naturally, more sensitive), she had us evaluate the lower arch of our own eyebrows. After a long moment of mirror-gazing, I asked what seemed the obvious question: Before or after plucking? "The way they look right now," she told me. "Because you chose it."

It's one thing to suggest that the shape of a facial feature is drawn by genetics, or behavior, or even choice. My eyebrows are drawn by Cyndee. Although I'm generally satisfied with the styling (read: I don't really care), I had no input into the process other than "ow." Now, it could be argued that a good stylist (and Cyndee is, without a doubt, a good stylist) shapes a woman's brows based on her bone structure etc., but I don't think the sensitivity of my nature was taken into account. This is completely aside from the physiognomy claims, particularly since she also told us that temporary/styling considerations -- like hairstyle -- are not a part of the "read."

I have a related question: what about survivors of trauma—army veterans, for example–whose personalities are deeply altered by their experiences? Do their facial features change shape to reflect their new selves?

The face reader in Detroit then went on to compare the faces of candidates for political office, as Jean Hauer has done in a post about the current election cycle:

Western studies have found that it’s almost always the politician with the strongest jaw who wins the election. Gingrich has a massive jaw compared to Romney.

In Chinese face reading, the jaw is called “The Roots of the Tree.” A tree with strong roots can’t be easily knocked over by the wind. So like the tree, a person with a strong jaw can’t be easily influenced by other people. In other words, they have strong beliefs and will stand up for those beliefs.

Aside from the fact that Gingrich has taken a massive dive in the polls since that post was written, here are my two problems with this:

  • Saying that people will vote for the politician with the strongest jaw may well be a sociological fact. But that just means we have a cultural preference for strong jaws, not that strong jaws are an indication of strong will. After all, "strong jaw" is just a phrase that means "big jaw." It's already a loaded term. And as far as I know there is no way to measure the strength of a politician's determination, so that we might quantify the actual ratio of strength-of-jaw to strength-of-will. I can't believe I even just typed that sentence.
  • People are not trees! Jaws are not actually, factually roots! Do I really have to explain that metaphors are not the same thing as data? Because metaphors are not the same thing as data!

None of the websites I've found have any actual numbers to back up their assertions, or citations of the studies they claim support their arguments. Most of what they offer is specious, transparently cultural assumptions like the above—and such assumptions have no place in science. Or in art, for that matter.

Why This Matters To Me As A Romance Author Specifically

Leaving questions of science or prejudice aside—and oh, how privileged I am to be able to do that—there are reasons why a workshop on face reading is also an offense against the craft of writing.

The strong jaw and trustworthy face ring bells to me as someone who reads and writes romance. The classic romance heroine's mouth is just a little too generous, her chin just a little too stubborn. And from this we are to infer that the heroine herself is both generous and stubborn. Trustworthy people have trustworthy faces, and all our villains are ugly. I'm as guilty of this as anyone—have you met Lord Wart? he's my favorite—but I'm trying to do better.

Lately romance fans have been talking more about the way our characters are physically described and how we can expand more upon the traditional forms of beauty. (Example: this Smart Bitches thread from last year.) Romance as a genre is moving away from the Endless Perfection Parade it was in days of yore. We don't really think that all beautiful people are good, and vice versa. We don't really believe that people with wider mouths are kinder than others. (I mean—we don't, do we?) It's just a convenient way of making our words work doubly hard for us—something we're trained to do by all the writing advice on all the blogs and in all the world. So we make physical descriptions carry the load of character-building as well.

I am here to say now that this is sloppy. It's cliché and trite and plain lazy writing.

So I'm writing no more heroes or heroines with generous mouths. (Villains, maybe—that sounds promising. I need to write more villains.) Or stubborn chins. I would rather show my hero smiling generously, or my heroine stubbornly sticking out her chin. Gestures are fine. Gestures are actions. We can legitimately judge people (and characters) based on their actions.

Because this idea that we can tell what kind of person someone is just by looking at them? It's pseudo-science, and I won't have it turning my books into pseudo-craft.