Troublesome Tropes: The Eyebrow Cock

“Don’t look at me with your eyebrows all up. It’s so annoying.” ~Liz Lemon, 30 Rock

Eyebrows are the punctuation marks of facial expressions. The lift that indicates surprise, the furrow that denotes anger- the right eyebrow maneuver adds the perfect finishing touch to expressed emotion.

The singular raised eyebrow has to be the king of eyebrow movement. There is no better way to punctuate dry amusement or haughty superiority than with the one eyebrow lift.

Thing is… it seems everyone and their mother can (and do) cock a singular eyebrow with fluid ease in literature. If I have to read about one more character “quirking an eyebrow,” I swear I’m going to throw a book through a window.

It’s like a requirement for fictitious characters. 1) Not real. 2) Has mastered independent eyebrow movement… and uses this talent with great frequency.

My problem with this is that I actually don’t know many people who employ this particular eyebrow expression. So few who use it regularly enough that I’ve noticed, in fact, that I actually associate the eyebrow cock with a mere two people in my acquaintance. As a result, I find it difficult to believe the ability is so incredibly widespread and commonly used that every goddamn character in literature can do it.

I decided it was time to ask science about this whole eyebrow phenomenon.

Contrary to popular belief, the ability to cock one’s eyebrow is not a genetic trait. If you want to learn to raise just one eyebrow, you can- it’s just a matter of muscle training.

That being said, the ability comes almost naturally to some, while others have to practice for hours and hours in front of a mirror to gain the skill… you know, like all the Trekkies do in an attempt to emulate the master of the eyebrow quirk:

So… why do some have the gift, while other have to work for it?

Frankly, most science-types don’t actually give two shits about why eyebrow cocking is easier for some people and a laborious learning process for others. Thankfully for us, dear galleons, there’s one who (sort of) does: Dr. Bridget Waller of the University of Portsmouth.

Dr. Waller published a study in 2008 detailing her work examining the facial muscles in cadavers. What she found was that the musculature of the face can vary among different people. In other words, the muscles that control our facial expressions are not common to everyone.

Now, all humans share the same five core facial muscles. But there are up to 14 more that may be present… and not everyone has a full set.

“Everyone communicates using a set of common signals and so we would expect to find that the muscles do not vary among individuals. The results are surprising – in some individuals we found only 60 per cent of the available muscles,” Waller said.

Which just might explain why some people have a knack for eyebrow quirking from birth- they were born with the right set of facial muscles.

That being said, we know raising one eyebrow can be learned. How can we learn to do something if we’re lacking the proper muscles? As Waller herself points out, people can compensate for a lack of one muscle by using another to develop a similar expression.

And she even touches directly on our issue, commenting that, “someone who is unable to raise one eyebrow without raising the other could in fact learn to raise just one.”

Science has spoken.

Of course, Waller didn’t go into detail discovering the percentage of the population who had the right muscles and were almost preternatural eyebrow quirkers since birth, while the rest toddled around in front of reflective surfaces, attempting to achieve the same magical eyebrow power as their properly-muscled peers. So we’re still left wondering just how many people have (through birth or training) the skill.

Data from the few studies that have been conducted have found that about 24% of the population can raise one eyebrow independent of the other. This does not take into account those with the seemingly innate gift vs. those who spent hours doing one-man eyebrow trapeze shows in the bathroom mirror to gain the ability. It’s a composite of the two. Still, this tells us roughly the amount of people who are walking around with the current power of eyebrow solo flights.

24% of the population. Not every goddamn person, authors of the world. While it’s true that everyone has the power (given time, patience, and dedication) to learn the singular eyebrow lift, not everyone currently has the skill. For the love of Feynman, stop making every character in your novels one of the 24%. That’s not how life works. Give your characters some real depth and think of the particular quirks of their expressions and speech that can indicate something similar to the eyebrow cock.

Basically, stop being lazy writers.

***

To be clear here, I am merely ranting about the profusion of the eyebrow cock in literature. I have nothing against the expression itself. I am envious of people who can do it- despite years of attempting to teach myself to do it every time I pluck my eyebrows (or, lately, when driving… I’m going to crash and die one of these days), my eyebrows are apparently learning disabled.

Not only do I like the expression, I tend to find the singular eyebrow quirk dead sexy. Which may be part of the reason I adored David Tennant’s Doctor:

***

While wading through the internet sludge during my brief eyebrow obsession this morning, I found an amusing comment on the subject that I feel like sharing with you now:

A long time ago Sam told me that if he could raise one eyebrow he would do it all the time. I let it pass as one of those things, but it stuck with me somehow, and came back after a couple of years. So I looked in the mirror, expecting that if I really tried I could learn to raise one eyebrow, and impress Sam.

The thing is, as soon as I tried it, it was so easy that I knew I must have been doing it all along without realizing it and that’s what he was getting at to start with.

Now we hate each other. But I don’t know if that has anything to do with eyebrows.

8 responses to “Troublesome Tropes: The Eyebrow Cock

  1. Guilty of overusing eyebrows in my fiction, but I found your post because I was searching for other ways to use expressions. So, guilty, but willing to do penance 🙂

  2. I wonder if a large percentage of authors fall into that 24% of the population. When I’m writing I’ve noticed I describe my main characters’ expressions based on my own. I tend to use my eyebrows a lot. Most people around me use theirs to great effect as well. I never thought it was something that only a few do, so I’m sure my writing has a lot of eyebrow raising. I’m going to pay a lot better attention to who does and doesn’t use theirs. And how the non eyebrow raisers get across the same emotion without eyebrows. I’m also excited that I’ve found another thing that can infuriate and frustrate my characters. A whole new world opened up! 🙂 Thanks for the post. 🙂

  3. I am guilty of using the eyebrow cock in my writing. But I think most of us don’t always mean one eyebrow, sometimes I just use it instead of “raised her brows” or something, so I actually mean both brows were cocked. I’ve had a lot of other writers tell me they do the same thing! I think there might be a misconception of what the meaning of eyebrow cocking means

  4. I can do it and I’ve been able to do it since I was eight. I write about it in my stories because I always thought that everyone could do it naturally. But lately my left eyebrow can’t do it anymore…

  5. I’m one of the 24%… with a huge left eyebrow cock…..being the only cock I have I use it loads…Hmmmm…. I’m also a romance writer and damn right my hero cocks his brow… I find it incredibly sexy….ah…. David Tennant..yummy…BTW… love your post. Shayne

  6. Pingback: Writing tics, and the tale of a Comparison that slipped its leash – Jiggery-pokery's Soup of the Day

  7. I like the expression. It implies skepticism, the sardonic eye, easy facial facility, taciturnity, confidence, a jokey and off-kilter personality; depending on what you do with context the word ‘cock’ can set up for either cockiness or crude masculinity or both. A cocked eyebrow is a powerful expressive gesture, and I think the phrase can be powerful if used with deliberate consideration.

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