The Significance Of A Smile


John Brewer looks at a brief history of the French grin in a review of Colin Jones’ The Smile Revolution in Eighteenth-Century Paris:

[Jones] begins with the stiff, courtly smile of supercilious superiority that emanated from the court of Louis XIV and which was associated with succeeding Bourbon monarchs – a look predicated on gross inequality, but also the result of appalling dental hygiene and care. … Courtly smiles were rare – La Rochefoucauld claimed to ration himself to one laugh a year – and could be treacherous when they cracked the facade of imperturbability. Tight-lipped smiles were part of a system of bodily control needed to survive in the duplicitous world of the royal court. They were also a social marker: no courtier wished to be seen (much less portrayed) as open-mouthed, which was at best a sure sign of demotic credulity, levity and bad manners, and at worst a feature of madness.

The 18th-century cult of sensibility, spread through performances on the Parisian stage and nurtured by novels of deep emotional intensity by the likes of Samuel Richardson and Rousseau, loosened the grip of the costive, courtly smile. Charming and tender smiles – transparent expressions of feeling intended to be shared by all men and women, though, in practice, chiefly enjoyed by the Parisian cultural and social elite – became fashionable. Teeth and smiles were chic – and so were dentists.

On a related note, Sarah Smarsh recently considered the psychological cost of living without dental care in 21st-century America:

My family’s distress over our teeth – what food might hurt or save them, whether having them pulled was a mistake – reveals the psychological hell of having poor teeth in a rich, capitalist country: the underprivileged are priced out of the dental-treatment system yet perversely held responsible for their dental condition. It’s a familiar trick in the privatization-happy US – like, say, underfunding public education and then criticizing the institution for struggling. Often, bad teeth are blamed solely on the habits and choices of their owners, and for the poor therein lies an undue shaming.

‘Don’t get fooled by those mangled teeth she sports on camera!’ says the ABC News host introducing the woman who plays [Orange Is The New Black‘s] Pennsatucky. ‘Taryn Manning is one beautiful and talented actress.’ This suggestion that bad teeth and talent, in particular, are mutually exclusive betrays our broad, unexamined bigotry toward those long known, tellingly, as ‘white trash.’

(Image: Portrait of Louis XVI of France, 1785, via Wikimedia Commons)