Everyone loves Purity Sue. They can't help it! She's practically perfect in every way. The Stepford Smiler is much like Purity Sue: she's bright, chipper, and an all-around pleasant person to be with.
It's all a lie, of course.
The Stepford Smiler is obsessed with projecting an image of wholesome happiness in order to be accepted by her peers. Tragically enough, they'd probably accept her for who she is regardless of her self-imposed Masquerade. Her flawlessly crafted facade hides a real person that's usually breaking like so much fine china, in order to keep up the deception.
These are the three main types of Stepford Smiler:
- Depressed: The character seems to be happy, cheerful, is always smiling, and seems to live a perfect life - but inside they are melancholic, if not outright depressed.
- Empty: The character seems to be kind and cheerful, but is actually motiveless and hollow.
- Unstable: The smile hides mental instability, and even madness.
Depressed Heroines or show co-stars that are Stepford Smilers can either be played straight, or played to gain viewer sympathy as they struggle to live up to their own impossible ideals. Villainesses like the Evil Matriarch who are Stepford Smilers are usually played one of two ways: it can either humanize them, much like the heroine, or it can accentuate their evil by contrasting it with their soullessness. Feminine pronouns are used throughout this trope because the Stepford Smiler is a traditionally female role, though there are many male examples too. Sometimes, they're even a couple.
The Empty's mask itself can also hide a terrible secret... there is nothing behind it. The void is either a result of using up so much energy pretending to be normal that nothing is left over, or because there was nothing there to begin with. The trope-naming Stepford Wives fall into this second category, naturally.
Scared yet? It gets worse.
There is a very good chance that she is dosed up on prescription tranquilizers or antidepressants (Valium, Xanax, and/or Prozac are staple favorites)—or good old fashioned over-the-counter alcohol—often to the point of dependence. With or without drugs, if a Stepford Smiler smiles long enough without cracking, she can become the mask and turn Unstable. Some Stepford Smilers buy into the dead Barbie smiles to such a degree that they care for nothing other than maintaining appearances, having money, making sure their hair is just right, and improving their social standing, all of which are pursued with equally Social Darwinistic means. Essentially, they become the materialist equivalent of the Nietzsche Wannabe. Unstable characters sometimes have another kind of smile behind the fake one.
Science does add some credence to the trope, as those who default to a half-smile expression tend to report a generally better mood, regardless of any outside factor. However, this does not extend to a full on fake demi-Slasher Smile, suggesting that even the person's brain chemistry isn't fooled by the facade.
The Stepford Smiler gets her name (as does the Stepford Suburbia in which she lives) from the book and later movies The Stepford Wives, about a village whose men conspire to create the Barbie perfect wife, all with similar eerie smiles.
See also Beneath the Mask, Bitch in Sheep's Clothing, Broken Ace, Broken Hero, Comedic Sociopathy, Evil Matriarch, Extreme Doormat, The Fake Cutie, Faux Affably Evil, I Just Want to Be Normal, Mary Sue, Masquerade, Sad Clown, Think Happy Thoughts, Uncanny Valley Girl, Yandere, and the darker variants of Minnesota Nice. The Crapsaccharine World is basically this trope upscaled to include the entire society.
Compare/Contrast with The Snark Knight (whose demeanor is typically the inverse of the Stepford Smiler), Stepford Snarker (whose motives are the same, but whose mask is made of snark rather than smiles) and Obviously Not Fine (if someone is trying to be a Stepford Smiler, but their sadness is all over their face).
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