In a recent episode of HBO’s The White Lotus, Aubrey Plaza’s character, Harper, has an unexpected response to her husband’s “I love you.”
“So depressing,” she says, scoffing and rolling her eyes. Visibly disappointed, she downs a glass of water and lets the silence build.
For Plaza, an impassive response to an emotional moment like this is par for the course. She’s built a career being the girl who doesn’t do emotion, from her star-making role as the blank-faced April Ludgate on Parks and Recreation to her dedicated dry wit on late-night couches. Jenna Ortega’s much-adored Wednesday Addams is similar. In Netflix’s Wednesday, she lifelessly chastises potential attempted murder charges against her because “everyone would know I failed to get the job done,” cementing her place alongside Plaza in the long line of Deadpan It Girls. But what is it about these inscrutable women that makes us want to love them, be them, or writhe blissfully under their shoes?
Though Plaza and Ortega have recently re-elevated deadpan female characters to the forefront of culture, we’ve always been fascinated by emotionally distant women. Take, for example, Virginia O’Brien, an MGM actress and singer of the 1940s. Often referred to as the “Deadpan Dame of Old Hollywood,” her signature singing style of expressionless humor, which influenced a generation of musicals, increases the dramatic irony of her performance—when she rolls her eyes or widens them while singing about pretty things like love and romance, she and the audience develop an inside joke. Her words are laden with a sarcasm only the audience knows is there. Plenty of stony female characters have appeared since, often held up as enviable arbiters of “bad bitch behavior.” Meryl Streep’s epic, unfeeling monologue about the expansive influence of the fashion industry in The Devil Wears Prada is a perfect example. In a moment where a character would usually be showing a hint of frustration, anger, or even annoyance, Streep schools Anne Hathaway’s character in a manner that feels as though she barely even thought about the words she was saying. It gives her an air of removal, and therefore control—being straight-faced and even-toned in an emotional situation shows how little she cares, or that she’s lying about caring at all.
Wes Anderson’s suite of deadpan women offer much of the same. Beautiful, unblinking, and unbothered, they’re often unrepentant to the point of rudeness. In The Royal Tenenbaums, Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) tells a story of how her finger got lopped off without so much as a fluctuation in vocal tone. There’s a layer of mystery there: How does she pull it off? What would it take to make her feel? Half the reason her romance with Luke Wilson’s Richie is so captivating is because it’s the only time she exhibits an inkling of emotion—just never enough to let us in. Daria, MTV’s famously unanimated animated character, who Plaza even spoofed, keeps us just as distant. “I don’t have low self-esteem, I have low esteem for everyone else,” she says, positioning herself as a removed observer, impervious to the mores of everyone else.
We often admire characters like Daria, who will themselves to let go of the things women are “supposed” to care about: love, other people’s emotions, being polite and accommodating. It implies they’re impermeable to norms, which feels good to watch—though we ask so much of women, it’s sometimes more satisfying when we don’t get it. Even more appealing is their deadpan detachment from the consequences, whether they be sideways glances, a media backlash, or garnering more comments about their “quirkiness” or “oddness” than their intelligence or capabilities. They truly just don’t give a fuck.
But the main draw here seems to be the emotional “control” these women exude. With their poker faces, they get to choose the depth at which we know them. That’s not to say they’re unemotional, or that they’re not seething beneath their flat demeanors. Rather, they just know when to employ and safeguard emotion, and also that withholding it is an act of defiance—they’re just simply not going to give all of themselves away. Also, women like Plaza and Daria probably hate us, and that’s kind of charming! It makes us take a hard look at ourselves, and there’s something intoxicating about trying to impress someone who can’t be impressed. Their indifference only makes them more alluring: We hang on their words and study their movements, dying to know what makes them crack.
Sure, there are problems with this. For one, it assumes that stoicism, a more stereotypically masculine trait, is preferred. The feminine position on the emotional gender binary leans toward expressiveness and melodrama, and the cliché that women can’t control their emotions is often weaponized against them. How many times have women been deemed too “emotional” to do something like run a country? Mass-swooning over deadpan women implies that expressive, vivacious women are somehow not in control. Quite the opposite—there’s bravery and merit in being as passionate or loud as you want to be, knowing it could be spit back at you in some silly gendered debate. It means someone has the guts to let you know them.
That doesn’t mean we can’t revel a little in either extreme, though. A deadpan woman is just as enticing as a demonstrative one, and besides, the two are rarely mutually exclusive. Plaza has plenty of moments of steely seething that convey feeling, and Wednesday Addams, whose mouth is permanently frozen in a straight line, communicates rage, excitement, and passion through body language. (Yes, I’m talking about The Dance.) Even Daria—well, no, Daria just doesn’t even bother. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.