The Design Observer Group

Posted 03.11.08

Michael Bierut

Would It Kill You To Smile?

My lovely wife Dorothy, March 1976.

My lovely wife Dorothy finally finished a project that she's been planning for years: to organize all those old photographs, boxes and boxes of them, that we've been accumulating in our basement for over a quarter of a century. Most of these pictures are filled with smiling babies, smiling toddlers, smiling little kids, and smiling adults. The rest of these pictures are filled with non-smiling adolescents. Non-smiling, sullen, disaffected, alienated-looking 10- to 20-year-olds. Some of these were our own children. Some of them were relatives. Some of them were even us.

There must be something wrong with us, I remember thinking. Where is the joy of youth, the carefree spirit of eternal promise? Is there something inherently depressing about our family?

Then I discovered we were not alone. I discovered bershon.

Bershon was first introduced to a wide audience by writer and blogger Sarah Brown, who remembered it as a word from her own teenage years. Her definition is still the best:

The spirit of bershon is pretty much how you feel when you’re 13 and your parents make you wear a Christmas sweatshirt and then pose for a family picture, and you could not possibly summon one more ounce of disgust, but you’re also way too cool to really even DEAL with it, so you just make this face like you smelled something bad and sort of roll your eyes and seethe in a put-out manner.

What a relief! So it's not an obscure affliction limited to subjects of the pictures in our basement. Bershon is everywhere. There's a Flickr group called I'm So Bershon, and there it is, over and over again. "Every photo of me from high school can be summed up in that one word," says Heather Armstrong at Dooce. When Finslippy's Alice Bradley heard about bershon, her mind flashed back to her own adolescence, "when I was so consumed with distaste for everything and everyone I was forced to live with or near that I could not wipe that look off my face, no matter how I tried. I think I even slept with it on."

On reading that the Department of Homeland Security would be searching for passengers with suspicious expressions like disgust, anger and sadness, Defective Yeti's Matthew Baldwin suggested, "In addition to having to forgo your iPod and hair gel you will now be required to check in your teen prior to boarding." Threat Level Bershon! Exactly. If any doubt whatsoever remains, simply rent a copy of Ferris Bueller's Day Off and study Jennifer Grey's performance. She conducts a virtual master class on the Fine Art of Bershon over the entire course of the movie.

Once I became aware of bershon, it was tempting to start classifying everything as bershon. But there are rules:

1. Babies with cranky faces are not Bershon. Bershon implies a certain self-conscious world-hating attitude that only develops with time and hormones. Little kids may appear to be Bershon, but we are projecting.
2. Photos of someone who is kind of uncomfortable but who is about to crack up are not Bershon.
3. People who are just bored are not Bershon.
4. People who are stoic are not Berson.
5. Old people, in general, are not Bershon, though there may be exceptions.
6. Animals are not Bershon. Animal are animals.

Although bershon can be experienced and expressed anywhere, it seems to be especially associated with the act of being photographed. ("God, will you please just take the stupid picture?") You don't have to be an adolescent to qualify. There are hundreds, if not thousands, if not millions of images of languid, bored, even stupefied-looking supermodels out there, all of them amply fulfilling the spirit, if not the letter, of the laws of bershon. And don't even get me started about author photographs. "John Updike, Bernie Siegel, David Halberstam, Dominick Dunne, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison and Caryl Phillips all lean forward uncomfortably, their chins or cheeks supported by a fist or hand. (Presumably their own hands, but who knows?)," Dick Teresi once observed in a New York Times story titled "Haul Out the Old Cliches, It's Time to Shoot an Author Photo." He concluded, "They all look like failed lounge acts appearing at your local piano bar. Mr. Updike appears ready to launch into an angst-laden version of 'Sometimes When We Touch.'"

In the days when I used to design corporate promotional literature, I used to dread the moment when we'd have to take the deadly CEO portrait. Titantic kings of commerce, totally in control in the boardroom and the executive suite, predictably would collapse into caricatures of rumpled unease before the camera, all the while grumbling, "How long will this take?" Herculean feats would be required to make these symphonies of corporate bershon ready for publication. I remember one group portrait for a well-known but volatile investment bank that required so much retouching and alterations — all in the days before Photoshop, mind you — that it may as well have been a picture of the Soviet Politburo leadership circa 1932.

But men — and boys — really don't have what it takes. Their way of dealing with a photograph is to scowl, or make a horrible face. Bershon, ultimately, is a girls' game. For its quintessence, examine one of the most famous examples of all, Robert Frank's photograph "Elevator — Miami Beach," which appears on page 99 of his landmark 1959 book The Americans. The vaguely exasperated look on the operator's face, her eyes just short of rolling, the unspoken message clear as a bell: Lord, get me out of here. Sexy, too. This is what every girl is going for when she goes for bershon.

And who can blame them? I leave you with the last sentence from the legendary introduction that Jack Kerouac wrote for Frank's book. "And I say: That little ole lonely elevator girl looking up sighing in an elevator full of blurred demons, what's her name & address?" So keep trying, girls. Right now you're surrounded by jerks. But somewhere there's a Jack Kerouac who's desperately trying to find you.