Here’s a puzzle for you. In nearly all romance books, but especially young adult romance books, the hot romantic interest smirks.
Sometimes it’s a “sardonic smirk” or a “wry smirk” or a “one-sided smile” or a “crooked grin.”
“But seriously, there’s entirely too much smirking that goes on in YA books. And it is annoying.” — The Midnight Garden, YA for Adults
Sometimes it replaces the speaker designation, as in,
“‘Want to play,’ he smirked.”
It doesn’t matter if he is the nice, friendly boy who likes her but she isn’t interested in; or the hot, moody biker boy with tattoos who makes her all flustered and confused. When a YA author wants readers to be aware of a sexual energy, when they want a character to go from friend zone to end zone, they add a smirk.
It’s a writing shortcut.
“You know where they smirk nonstop? YA Fantasy. If there is one thing more annoying than an Alpha Male Romance Hero, it is an Alpha Sassy Teenage Brat.”
But why do smirks turn on teenage girls? Wikipedia defines a smirk as “a smile evoking insolence, scorn, or offensive smugness.”
Vanessa Van Edwards of Science of People writes “The smirk is the universal facial expression for contempt, hatred and disdain.”
How the smirk became shorthand for sexual tension in YA fiction
In the same books (mostly YA, paranormal romance, urban fantasy, etc.) the heroine’s first impression of her love interest is this: he hates her.
Maybe it’s because she smells so damn good he can’t control himself.
Maybe it’s because they are fated for each but it always ends in tragedy.
Maybe it’s because they are sworn enemies, part of an eternal feud…
But she doesn’t know any of that yet.
All she knows is, this guy is a condescending jerk who makes fun of her and treats her like shit for no good reason. So she gets angry. And feels self-conscious. Eventually, she’ll win him over and they’ll fall in love, and it will be all the more satisfying because of the rocky beginning.
This is romance: she’ll figure out the reason for his hatred and diffuse it.
But it’s also fantasy: in real life, there probably isn’t some supernatural explanation for his disdain. If he thinks you’re really annoying, it probably isn’t because he’s a demon or vampire. If he smirks at you, it may not be because he’s hiding his deep love for you.
Condescending jerks that treat girls poorly often tend to stay that way in real life. At least towards the women they have no respect for. Being a girl and getting ignored by some smug guy (especially a hot one) is really infuriating. It gets under your skin. You want to think of ways to make hime notice and appreciate you. That maybe why you feel attraction and sexual chemistry. But part of the appeal probably comes from YA novels promising a happy ending with the bad boy. There’s sexual tension and arguing and storming off and accidentally grabbing each other too hard — hard enough to leave marks — but it all works out in the end.
But happy, healthy relationships aren’t based on “insolence, scorn, or offensive smugness” or “contempt, hatred and disdain.” Real relationships probably don’t have as many sparks as the romances in books.
Nice guys who smile and hold your books aren’t sexy, they’re boring.
Guys who ignore you, smirk at you and throw your books on the ground are the guys that girls want to be with — at least in fiction. But that’s because fiction is about sex, not love.
Fiction is about the sexual tension, the resisting and wanting, and the eventual coming together in rapturous emotional and physical unity… and then the story ends — because the decades of peaceful co-existence based on mutual love and respect are really boring. There’s no conflict. Successful romance has to conform with the rules of successful fiction: conflict on every page.
That’s why fictional relationships have to be “stormy” and “rocky” — usually some kind of power struggle between two dominant alpha characters who don’t like to be pushed around. (In real life, these relationships always fail. They are usually a sign of emotionally immature personalities who refuse to compromise).
I don’t blame YA writers for using writing hacks like “smirk” to instantly resonate with young girls’ built-in psychological sex drives; I think young girls are attracted to exactly the things a smirking man represents.
But I am concerned that, unlike adult romance or erotica novels (which are self-consciously about the sex, and their astute readers don’t take them as a basis for healthy loving relationships) YA books lump sex and love together, and are targeted at readers who have little experience of either.
“Think of how many sci-fi or dystopian YA books you’ve read wherein the plot takes a backseat for a while so the lovebirds can kiss and swoon and smirk and push their shaggy hair out of their eyes.” — PrincessFallon, Nanowrimo Forum
The smirk conveys a precise attitude: self-confident, smug assholes who don’t give a shit about you. The fact that “kiss and swoon and smirk” can fit together this way, when smirking is a reflection of hatred and disdain, should make us pause and reflect.
“I think if I have to choose, I prefer the old fashioned abusive alpha and the stable heroine, to the new smirking alpha and the screeching harpy.” — Bootz, AbsoluteWrite Forum
Why Smirking is Sexy
Some readers see the smirk as:
- Showing more sexual experience and
- Showing sexual interest
I can agree to that but only partially: if all I wanted was sex from a girl, a smirk might be how I communicated “I’m not listening to anything you’re saying, because you’re annoying and dumb, but I like your body so if you shut up we can have sex.” Women seem to associate the smirk with sex (not love) but overlook the part about disdain and hatred (possibly because, most women don’t get how men can disdain/hate a girl but still want to have sex with her).
My memory is that the heroes of the earlier, unabashedly rapetastic romance era were smirkers, but the smirking was largely restricted to “See, I told you that you would enjoy that.” — Sanguinity, forum comment
In this article on ThoughtCatalog called “17 Things Hot Guys Do That All Girls Love”, #9 is
That special smirk all guys have where you ask them what they’re looking at and they go “nothing.” It’s the “You’re amazing/let’s fuck” smirk. This is very similar to the “I know you want me” lick of the lips.
If not sexual, if I found myself smirking it might mean: “I’m tolerating your ignorance because I’m better than you, but you’re wrong about everything.”
It’s a symbol of smugness and being a know-it-all. Girls tend to find that attractive; but it doesn’t mean the guy is interested… and even when it does, it reflects sexual desire but is at odds with true love or respect (though maybe that’s why the girl has to work to earn respect and love; to prove herself to the smug, disinterested guy ignoring her).
Real smirking is not a flirtatious gesture. It’s what that guy in your class who thinks he knows all the answers is constantly doing. There’s nothing charming about a smirk IRL. I think “smirk” is one of the biggest common malapropisms in character description.
Smirking should be reserved mainly for characters you want readers to hate; and associate with the negative traits of disdain, self-importance, hubris…
Also, smirks are what Draco Malfoy does. I don’t know how many times he actually smirked in the books, but this association is locked in my mind forever.
I like it best when a character smirks, is sarcastic, but is still described as being “charming.” I know I and the rest of humanity are totally charmed by people who seem to be trying to threaten me, am I right or am I right? (Also, I’m pretty sure Dolores Umbridge smirks constantly and Sirius Black not at all, and yet I bet fandom disagrees.)
These comments are mostly from adult readers, with emotional maturity, who have learned to discern love from lust. But YA novels teach teenage girls that the smirk is the way to start relationships, rather than seeing it as a warning sign. YA readers are buying up millions of books and falling in love with heroes who wear smirks like it’s the only expression they know.
Is scorn and disdain what drives the conflict and sexual tension in the beginning of the relationship? Or have YA readers associated the smirk with other emotions and psychological traits in their minds?
What do you think? Is smirking hot? If so, why? Is the definition of smirking wrong; perhaps it meant something different to older generations than it does now? (Or is it hardwired and automatic, as most of our expressions are?)
PS) I’m working on my first paranormal romance book and deciding how much smirking to include. Reserve a free copy at www.UrbaneEpics.com
Some of the quotes used in this article I got from this discussion: The Smirk that Launched 1000 ships.