On the Subject of Face-ology

Let us talk for a moment about scandals and stagecraft. The DNA of the modern scandal is pretty well mapped out by this point, with the sequence of events playing out in predictable fashion. The first tip will surface and immediately spread through the news websites and 24-hour networks. Then the portals and other aggregators will pick up the scent. You might stumble upon the news while checking your e-mail, or taking a quick peek for the score of a game. Maybe you overhear the guy two cubicles down saying, "Man, you hear about this thing with [So-and-So]?" which sends you clicking around for dirt. Details flesh out in time for the evening news.

"No comment. I can't comment on that. I don't have any comment at this time. I'd like nothing more than to go into the details, honestly I would, because I know that the facts will vindicate me. However, on the advice of my lawyers ... "

The blogs get a hold of it and do blogular things. Stewart and Colbert have their say. Cable's talking heads on froth at the mouth (at the mouth if we're lucky). The public has a few days to chew it over, while the malfeasor has sweaty conversations and calculates how long it would take to dig a tunnel from his basement to international waters. Then, at last, comes the press conference.

Our Man of the Hour puts on a well-chosen suit and stands before the firing squad. At his side, as often as not, is the wife he just got through humiliating. He reads a prepared statement. He fesses up. And he makes The Face.

The Face is a frown, but it's more than that — it's an exaggerated tug at the corners of the mouth, a tightening that pulls and distorts. It's almost like the person wanted to smile, but the smile got caught in a bear trap and is trying to chew off its own foot. And here's the thing. They always make The Face. By the next morning, The Face is all over the news, photographed from so many angles that you could render the moment in 3D. Every time I see it, a voice in the back of my head gets a little bit louder ... "There it is again! Why do they always, always, always make that face?"

"The Face"

It came up this week when I saw a picture of Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis testifying before Congress about the heap of trouble the banks are in. Perhaps not a full-blown scandal on his part per se, but sure enough, there was The Face. The voice in the back of my head was now shouting. The Face had officially achieved "phenomenon" status. Let's take a look, shall we?

Rod Blagojevich, facing the media after his indictment:

Mark McGwire, testifying before Congress about his steroid use:

Alex Rodriguez, taking questions on that same subject:

Japanese Diet member Ichiro Ozawa, at a press conference to discuss allegations of illegal campaign donations:

New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey announcing his resignation:

Kobe Bryant's legendary appearance with his wife after his arrest for sexual assault:

But none of them could touch Eliot Spitzer. At the time, I thought his face was going to turn inside-out:

Now, there must be some sort of science that deals with facial expressions. Guys like Tim Roth in "Lie to Me" and Samuel Jackson in "The Negotiator" have an encyclopedic knowledge of what every last flutter and twitch means about a person's inner thoughts. All that stuff must have come from good ol' fashioned lab coat-wearing researchers who watch people's faces and write things down, like "Lifted left eyebrow — probably watched a bag of puppies burn to ash last night." Well, let's get a team of our best face-ologists working on this, to delve into the mysteries of The Face. What does it mean? Why do they always make it? Does it indicate genuine contrition, or are they pissed they got caught? Is it actually a common expression, and the papers just pick photos that make them look bad?

Whatever the case may be, there's a common thread at work here, and it says a lot about the type of people who get themselves into these situations.

I can't think of a single instance of a woman making that face.

(Edit 6/9/11: This post was written before Analog Nation changed layout, which is why the photos are all akimbo. So far I have not figured out how to fix it.)