Early on, I learned that game faces were not my forte.
It was spring of eighth grade, at my school’s final concert. I sat on stage with the band, my alto sax in my lap. Every year at this concert, the school gave out small scholarships meant to fund summer arts programs for gifted students. There were several awards, but the one I remember from that year was the music award.
I knew I wouldn’t get it, though I was a good musician who played alto, tenor, and baritone sax in concert band and a jazz quartet, and sang lyric soprano in a specially selected concert choir. But my friend S___ deserved the music award. In addition to being a talented flutist, she was a flawless coloratura with a nimble upper register that flowed into a lush, rounded lower register. She was by far the best musician in our school.
But on that balmy spring evening, the award went to G___, a tall, skinny, sweet-faced guy who was a great artist, a great writer, but wasn’t much of a musician. Not like S___. Not truly, shiningly gifted.
After the music award was announced, S___ sat clenching her flute on the other side of the stage. We stared at each other, our jaws ajar.
My father took me aside later and said, “Honey, everybody in the audience could tell you were upset. You’ve got to learn to control your emotions.”
I needed to develop a game face.
My father had a point. There was no reason to let the whole school know I was shocked by who’d been chosen for the award. It was an ungracious reaction, impolite and hurtful.
But there was more to his admonition than that.
“If you want to play with the big dogs, you can’t piss like a puppy.” That’s our family motto.
At least, it’s the men’s motto. Men are tough, determined, strong. They don’t let anyone see them sweat. That’s why they’re big dogs.
Women are puppies by default. They show the world when they’re hurting. They cry. In public.
For a woman to be a big dog, she has to fight harder than a man. She has to be like my father’s mother, who owned her own business, a sweatshop where 25 Italian women sewed snow suits pieces that were then sent in pastel-colored bundles to factories to be made into the finished product and sold around the world. My grandmother always earned her own money. She was ambitious, manipulative, aggressive.
She was also extremely feminine, handsome instead of beautiful, with a gorgeous figure, exquisitely turned out in a dress, heels, hose, her nails done, hair coiffed. As if she wanted everyone to think she was just another puppy. Which she did. She wanted her appearance to deceive, so that people would underestimate her, try to screw with her. Once they did, she would find a way to get the better of them, and then pay them back tenfold. She believed in grudges and revenge, the harsher the better.
She was a big dog, as big as a woman could get.
I wanted to be like her. I would play with the big dogs, not piss like a puppy; like a little girl.
So I tried not to let people see me sweat, to put on a determined, I’ll-get-you-next-time-motherfucker mask. To put on the face of a winner, a big dog.
A game face.[bctt tweet=”I tried to put on a determined, I’ll-get-you-next-time-motherfucker mask. A game face.”]
“Game face” is defined as “a neutral or serious facial expression, as displayed by a sports player or gambler.”
It’s difficult for me to keep a neutral expression, especially when I’m stressed. My emotions have always dwelled close to the surface, impatient to assert themselves. Serious is easier. Serious is close enough to angry or upset that I can approximate it, no matter what I’m feeling.
So serious and determined became the face I wore at school and at work. I took nothing lightly. I worked hard, strove to be the best at whatever I did. I hid my fear, my hurt or upset. Or I tried to. Too often I didn’t succeed. I would cry soundlessly in a bathroom stall, or I over-apologized when something went wrong, even if it wasn’t my fault. And then it would hit me, what a failure I was. What a puppy.
To circumvent failure, I decided game face meant that, at least when it came to school and work, I couldn’t have any feelings other than the ones that were part of my game face. So, in addition to serious and determined, some form of dignified happiness was okay. Anger was also acceptable, but only if it was targeted, controlled, used to get what I wanted.
I buried any other emotions, buried them deep.
But they didn’t like being hidden away. It pissed them right off. So when they finally dug themselves out, they wreaked havoc.
I had my first breakdown in law school. I should have seen it coming. I was drowning from the very first week, when I called my sister during a Civil Procedures class and gasped out between sobs, “I don’t understand a word they’re saying, and I don’t care!”
I was a sculptor, a singer, a writer. What the fuck was I doing in law school?
Game face. Don’t let them see you sweat. Get a bad-ass, serious degree so that you can play with the big dogs, be the biggest one of all.
Midway through my 1L year, I could barely drag myself out of bed to get to class. I started therapy and cried through entire sessions. Couldn’t my psychologist see what a failure I was? I couldn’t play in this league. I couldn’t be a big dog. I didn’t have the drive or the intellect. I didn’t have the face for it.
But big dogs don’t quit, so I finished law school, moved to Los Angeles, became an entertainment lawyer. Glued my game face back on whenever it came unstuck–which was often.
Throughout my legal career–which lasted eight full-time years and several more part-time years–I experienced periodic breakdowns of confidence, of game face, where I beat myself up for being unable to maintain my composure in this world of rigid rules and posturing; periods where I couldn’t eat and got painfully thin. I developed cystic acne that ravaged my face and back, bouts of IBS and insomnia and panic attacks. The law just didn’t fit. It made me a more rigorous thinker, it made me a stronger, better advocate for those I respected and admired and whose goals I understood and believed in. But it didn’t come naturally. My whole body rebelled against it.
The longer I practiced law, the more my game face changed from serious to neutral–and not because I wanted it to. Neutral was how I felt about the issues I dealt with on a daily basis. I didn’t give a rat’s ass if the highest paid actor in the world got to use a luxury tour bus meant for months-long road trips for his dressing room, or that the same actor wanted the studio to pay for his private jet to fly him around instead of using a commercial airline. Really, that’s what we were arguing about? Tell the fucker no and move on. Or give it to him.
I didn’t care. I was numb.
I finally gave up on law. It was either that or become an emotionless husk of a woman, single, alone, albeit successful and with a killer game face.
Instead I attended graduate school for creative writing, a world where writers, male and female, compared notes on ass-in-the-chair time and shared advice about therapists and antidepressants and anti-anxieties, who laughed until they cried, who got angry and anxious and overjoyed and scared. Who wore their emotions like badges of honor, not just on their faces, but all over their writing, their gorgeous, glorious, exceptional stories and novels.
Men and women.
We still wore game faces sometimes. We feigned indifference when we talked about getting book deals, garnering success in the cutthroat world of publishing. We didn’t care about all that, we pretended; we cared only about the work. Though when one of our professors told us she’d rather we lose a mediocre bestseller manuscript in a cab and publish a quiet, superb gem of a book that sold poorly, we rolled our eyes and told each other we wanted it all: the literary genius bestselling book.
We postured. We preened. We pretended. We dreamed.
That’s game face too.[bctt tweet=”We postured. We preened. We pretended. We dreamed. That’s #gameface too.”]
Game face, I discovered, could take many forms. It could show a whole range of emotions. And it didn’t have to be worn 24/7.
There was a world outside of the one I had decided to pursue when I was a kid, a world where emotion had its place.
I’ve worked hard since then to learn to embrace my emotions without allowing them to overwhelm me. To develop and hone my more expressive graduate school game face with all its pretty colors.
I still need it. Our family motto has its embedded truths. Sometimes it’s not appropriate to broadcast everything I’m feeling. I don’t want to be that ungracious little girl who couldn’t hide her outrage onstage.
Sometimes I need to present a calm face, or a happy face, or an unconcerned one, especially to my kid when I’m worried about paying the bills (which is often) or when I’m frustrated and sad about the fissures that have formed in my family since my mother died. My son is too young to bear witness to those burdens. He deserves to be shielded from them until he’s older.
I also know, however, that I need to drop my game face as often as possible and let him see my full range of emotions, so he knows emotions are good things and he can learn to express them in a productive, healthy way.
And my characters, they need me to be emotional too. If I constantly wear a game face, no matter how modified, my characters suffer, because if emotion doesn’t enter into my calculus, it can’t enter theirs either. And then they’re flat, expressionless. Boring. Sorry, lady, they’ll tell me, we’re gonna find someone else to play with.
So my ability to feel empathy, to cry when sad; to show confusion when I don’t understand something; to ask questions, pursue answers to those questions with the curiosity and intensity of someone who wants to learn and grow. All of those faces, all of those emotions, are good ones to wear. They’re necessary. They’re part of who I am as a person and as a writer. They’re what make me a writer.
At a recent event for the AFI’s prestigious Directing Workshop for Women, Jill Soloway, director and creator of the phenomenal TV series “Transparent,” said in her speech honoring the women directors in the room:
New rules. You CAN cry at work—in fact, you must cry at work. In fact, if you’re going to make a movie, do me a favor and think of it as “bring your tears to work day.” Hell, while you’re at it, “#bringyourpussytoworkday,” every day. You’re gonna need it.
So it’s time to reinterpret the family motto. It’s time to say: I can cry, laugh, sing, yell, and cry some more, whether at work, at home, or on the page.
I can express it all and still play with the big dogs.
A version of this post appeared on Role Reboot as “Getting Rid of My Game Face: How I Learned That It’s OK to Show Emotion.”
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I love your posts, Colette. They’re so honest and open. As far as game face, I do tend to bury painful emotions down deep. I feel so much, maybe too much. Whether I know someone or not, I empathize with their struggles, feel their pain as if it were my own. That’s how I’m built. (Don’t get me started on ASPCA commercials — river of tears.) When it comes to my own anguish, devastation… that stays hidden, secret. Until… I can pass it to a character, and then it becomes easier to manage because it no longer belongs to me. As writers, I think we need to feel everything around us, need to let it impact our lives so we can recreate it, but not at the expense of our well-being. It sounds to me like you’ve got a firm foothold on who you are. Which is a helluva lot more than some can say.
I think you’re right about writing. It allows us the release we need. Happy writing, Colette!