A Short History Of The Smiley Face As Dissent
Last week, activist Jolovan Wham was summoned by the police for taking a photograph of himself outside the police division with a smiley face placard. His summon sparked outrage amongst members of civil society, highlighting how a single person could constitute an assembly, and be unlawful under Singapore’s Public Order Act.
Activist Jolovan Wham poses with a smiley face placard in Toa Payoh. (@JWham/Instagram via Coconuts)
This is not the first time smileys have been controversial—the smile and the smiley face both have longer histories entwined with protest, counter-culture, resistance, and dissent. 

During the 17th century, the act of smiling itself was thought to be inappropriate. This explains why we rarely see smiling portraits of the aristocrats from that period; smiling was seen as lewd and unseemly, something only those from the lower classes did. Aristocrats preferred to adopt solemn, courtly gazes, in line with the sombre atmosphere of the courts.

The social mapping of impropriety to smiling can be explained by a simple, biological fact: most people had decayed or decaying teeth by their forties, and open-mouthed smiles risked revealing the unattractive sights and smells of tooth decay, gum disease, and bad breath. 

The dental revolution in the 17th century, however, ameliorated some of these risks, and led to what historian Colin Jones called “a smile revolution” in 18th century Paris. The dental revolution changed long-standing social attitudes towards smiling, and coincided with increasing optimism and public displays of gaiety on the eve of the French Revolution. 

Yet, Jones traces how the Reign of Terror quickly wiped the smile off people’s faces, and how the smile became a suspicious symbol of protest. 

The Execution of Marie Antoinette on October 16, 1793, Late 18th cent. Private Collection. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
In June 1789, the National Assembly passed a decree stipulating that there was to be no laughter in its debates. While the ban on public laughter did not prohibit smiling, it triggered what a pamphleteer called “the laughter wars” in post-revolutionary France, where laughter was seen as “the sign of counter-revolution”. 

While smiles in the early days of the revolution had once been about openness and transparency, and was thought to be progressive and egalitarian, smiles quickly became suspect, in part because the scaffold smile was becoming an emblem of political resistance

The scaffold smile refers to political prisoners’ deliberate act of smiling before imminent execution, a gesture that unnerved both executioners and bystanders. Considering how public executions were a form of mass spectacle or public theatre, we can consider the scaffold smiles the equivalent of the biggest “Fuck You” prisoners could give to the regime. 

To this end, scholar James Scott defined the expression of smiling as “a hidden transcript by which the powerless symbolically critiqued and cocked a snook at the powerful.”

Fast forward three centuries, and the birth of digital media has given new visual language to the smile, through symbols like the smiley face—similar to the icon drawn on Jolovan’s placard. 

A brief (corporate) history of the modern smiley face suggests that it was first conceived in 1963 by an American graphic artist Harvey Ball, who was commissioned by an insurance company to design a smile that could be used on promotional material to raise employee morale. Legend goes that Ball designed the Worcester smiley in ten minutes, and was paid $45 for his design. 

Smiley face creator Harvey Ball autographs posters in his office on July 6, 1998. (Paul Connors/AP)
Ball never trademarked his design. But a French Journalist, Loufrani, did. He first used the Smiley in 1971 to spotlight feel-good stories in the newspaper France Soir, and the smiley unexpectedly turned into a licensing juggernaut. Today, The Original Smiley Brand, founded in 1972, owns the rights to the smiley face logo in over 80 countries, and rakes in more than US$265 million each year. 

The smiley face transformed from a symbol of American corporatism to counter-cultural icon in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when it was appropriated and subverted by the acid house scene and other musical subgenres like punk rock. 

Acid house posters prominently featuring smiley faces proliferated in the 1980s, and the smiley came to be seen as an icon of youthful rebellion, associated with rave culture, ecstasy overdoses, and psychedelic culture during the Second Summer of Love. 

The smiley’s seemingly mild, bland, and innocuous look arguably makes it ripe for subversion, particularly in signaling dissent. Outside of music, several contemporary artists such as Banksy have also deployed this icon for their own politically motivated work.

Flying Copper (2003) by Banksy (Sotheby's)
The Flying Copper (2003) is one early example, presenting an officer in full riot gear, whose face is replaced with the disarmingly friendly visage of a smiley. In an era where police brutality is becoming more common and where violence is systemically enacted on citizens—particularly racial minorities—Flying Copper highlights the paradoxical roles police officers play as both peacekeepers and agents of violence, calling attention to the need for skepticism towards those in positions of power. 

Beyond the smiley, the specific use of smiles as a  form of political critique in art is also seen in the work of Yue Minjun, a Chinese contemporary artist. 

Armed Forces (2009) by Yue Minjun (Weng Contemporary)
His show, ‘Yue Minjun and the Symbolic Smile’, opened in 2007 at Queen’s Museum of Art in New York to great critical acclaim. Yue is known for his iconic surrealist smiling self-portraits that are meant to parody the smiling, Soviet-style posters in communist China under the Cultural Revolution. Yue hopes to debunk the tradition of Community party mythologizing, and to encourage more critical reflection by the general populace on the myriad narratives produced by the state. 

Said Yue, “A smile doesn’t necessarily mean happiness; it could be something else.”

The inherent ambiguities behind a smile means a single smiley can encapsulate several layers of meaning, and its adaptability makes it a useful term in circumventing oppressive laws. In China, netizens have developed elaborate codes and cultures around evading censorship on social media platforms, for instance by using the seemingly innocuous smiley face to signal contempt.

Tracing through an expansive but by no means exhaustive history of the smile and smiley face suggests that smiles have a long and storied history, intimately connected with various artistic subgenres, social cultures, and political histories. 

In light of these histories, perhaps the choice of the smiley icon in Jolovan’s placard is one that is not simply endearing but also strategic and loaded with meaning. 

My own editor speculated, “Aiyah, maybe he use smiley just cos cute leh?” 

(Thankfully), Jolovan swiftly debunked that. 

When asked why he picked a smiley face, Jolovan said, “It was a suggestion from a friend and then I thought about what it would mean for me and decided that it would be a disarming gesture. In Singapore, activists are often portrayed as confrontational, aggressive and combative. What i’m saying here is that there’s nothing wrong with speaking truth to power, and we are motivated by peace, love and compassion.”

The smiley face might draw comparison to the floral motifs of the Flower Power movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which became symbols of passive resistance and nonviolent protest. Then, activists opposing the Vietnam War utilised methods such as offering masses of flowers to policemen, politicians, and the press. 

Jan Rose Kasmir confronts the American National Guard outside the Pentagon during the 1967 anti-Vietnam march. (Marc Riboud—Magnum Photos via Time)
Similarly, the seeming innocuousness of the smiley makes it a brilliant symbol for resisting totalitarian laws, especially when its benign face is juxtaposed against the oppressiveness of state machinery that curtails civil liberties. Whether in 18th century France or contemporary China, authoritarian sensitivity to smiles only exposes their own fragility.

As one contributor wrote in a photo album compiled by Jolovan, Smile in Solidarity, “Smile is subversive. It is dramatic. It tickles, enchants, disarms the ruthless and frigid hearts of those in power.” The ambiguities behind a smile makes it incredibly fluid and prime for subversion, appropriation, and creative dissent. 

In Singapore, we already see signs that the smiley is being commodified and reproduced in creative forms. Local rapper Subhas, together with Rocky Howe, Deesha Menon, and Jean Hew, have launched a campaign to sell smiley tees (proceeds will be distributed to HOME and wares on the mutual aid list). Similar to the edgy “Not a Public Assembly” t-shirt, the smiley tee shows how fashion choices can be used to signal citizen’s political beliefs and test legal boundaries.

White Smiley Tee (Subhas)
The summoning of Jolovan over a smiley face placard will surely make a mark, however little, on civil society’s history, and the broader histories of using the smiley face or smiling as protest. 

In the face of stifling laws such as the Public Order Act, smiling can feel wholly disingenuous.

Yet, absent more fundamental changes to our political system, perhaps the best thing sympathetic parties can do in the near term is to keep smiling. Human rights organizations such as MARUAH have also launched an appeal for smiley images from Singaporeans, to be added to Jolovan’s solidarity smile photo album. For as Jolovan, his supporters, and the various figures in history have shown us, smiling can be one of the greatest acts of dissent. ☺

What are your thoughts on smiling as dissent? Drop us a note at community@ricemedia.co.

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