Pyeongchang Olympics Quagmire: The Crushing Success of Nearly Winning

One of the peculiarities of the Olympics is how the podium is structured, with the silver and bronze medalists typically standing at equal heights below the winning, gold medalist. Is that design meant to simulate a spirit of harmonious equality? Or is it actually a nod to the reality that silver medalists often feel more like they’re “second banana” than “second best” given high hopes of winning it all?

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The reaction of members of the women’s hockey team when Canada “won” the silver medal after a long history of Olympic success on the ice rink speaks to a common emotional reality. Note the downturned corners of the mouth of these players and their teary, unfocused eyes. Even more obvious was Jocelyne Larocque’s reaction: almost immediately removing the silver medal she received, only to later issue an apology for “letting my emotions get the better of me.” See The Washington Post’s coverage.

It’s not easy almost winning, as several studies have shown. Should you need evidence of that conclusion, check out:

Then again, coming in 3rd isn’t necessarily a picnic, either, as Slovenia’s Zan Kosir’s face confirms.

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Unexpected victories are among the sweetest, of course. The victory by the U.S. in men’s curling was astonishing, as the team’s jaw-dropping surprise looks confirm.

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To others, however, nothing has been more surprising than how much the U.S. athletes have struggled to reach the podium at this year’s winter Olympics in South Korea.  Theories of why America has been buried by Norway in the medal count range from “we always struggle” in events with names like Nordic Combined to having athletes this time around who are either too old to hold up physically or too young to handle the stress. What could be the way forward, at least emotionally speaking when buckling under stress is apparently a major issue? Based on my own studies of great athletes in my upcoming book, Famous Faces Decoded, as well as a previous blog on tennis stars, let me suggest a novel solution. Groom winners by having the U.S. Olympic trainers focus on developing athletes prone to disgust. A curling upper lip and a wrinkled nose are the classic signs of disgust, an emotion about rejecting what doesn’t taste or smell good: like not being a winner. My conclusion is that disgust, not anger, can propel athletes forward to victories as much as any other emotion around.

In that spirit, I noticed the reaction of Finland’s Livo Niskaen on winning gold in the 50-kilometer mass start event.  Note the raised upper lip that accompanies the whoop of joy.

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Michelle and Barack Obama’s Official Portraits: Emotive Pseudo-Realism

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The two smiles that stick in my memory and soul are not only Mona Lisa’s inscrutable smile but also Barack Obama’s tender, joyful smile. From where Da Vinci’s masterpiece sits in its place of honor at the Louvre in Paris to a rented ballroom in Des Moines, Iowa, is quite a stretch. But in that ballroom in Des Moines the night that Barack won the Iowa caucuses contest in 2008, launching him toward the presidency, I watched and wondered at how he smiled as he greeted well-wishers. The smile on display that evening crinkled his eyes, vibrantly yet softly, with a conveyed sense of gratitude, wonder, and authenticity; absent was stern gravitas or over-the-top, hackneyed, thumbs-up waves to the crowd. Alongside him, Michelle Obama came across as even more subdued as well as humble and grateful.

So joining the nation in seeing the official presidential likenesses unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery on Monday was something of a shock. I applaud both the former first man and first lady choosing distinguished African-American portrait artists to depict them, breaking the former monopoly of white artists depicting white presidents in mostly a vanilla style. In Barack’s case, Kehinde Wiley has gone with his penchant for painting other African-American subjects prior to Barack in fairly regal poses.  At the National Portrait Gallery installation ceremony, Barack admitted that Wiley had tried putting him atop a horse and a throne, before settling for a formal chair nestled amid greenery.

As to Barack’s smile, the one I saw in Des Moines that January evening has long ago been eaten alive by Mitch McConnell and other Republicans who sought to obstruct Barack’s progress in office. The smile evident in Wiley’s portrait is slight and overwhelmed by seriousness. The eyebrows pinched and pulled down, the lower eyelids raised and taut, the lips pressing together firmly enough that a bulge is vaguely evident beneath the middle of the lower lip all contribute to a sense of a thoughtful, frustrated, even brooding man. Abraham Lincoln comes to mind. But where that comparison Barack invited himself by launching his campaign in Springfield, Illinois a decade ago breaks down is that instead of Lincoln’s sadness, here we have disgust hinted at by a slightly raised upper lip but mostly evident from how the cheeks pouch on either side of Barack’s nose.

Why the anger shown on Barack’s face? That isn’t his most signature emotion. A joyful, eyes- twinkling smile might qualify instead, or even more so than disgust the contemptuous smirk that crept into Barack’s facial expressions repertoire the longer he stayed in the White House. Is it that anger signals being in control, as indicated by the former president learning forward in his chair rather than drifting above and away from the partisan fray, as was to a fault Barack’s natural tendency?

As for Michelle’s portrait by Amy Sherald, it’s if anything even more unexpected.  The striking white patterned gown is arguably as much the focal point as the woman wearing it. But for me, it’s Michelle’s facial expression that intrigues most. The pressed lips, the narrowed eye, the cheek pouched on the opposite side of her face: in those ways Michelle’s feelings are shown mirroring those of her husband. But that I think is only, in part, who Michelle is emotionally. Outer eyebrows raised higher would more faithfully reflect her tendency to be surprised, even a little fearful, which she fights through with a big hearty smile that isn’t as effervescent as Barack’s smile at its best: more like beer with a good head of foam in Michelle’s case, as opposed to Barack’s champagne smile.

That said, there’s this final oddity about Michelle’s portrait: she’s in repose. Her legs seem to be crossed beneath the gown, and her head is resting on the upside-down palm of her hand in a way that to me suggests some measure of slightly dainty passivity. In short, the two portraits are a relief from the usual, vanilla-flavored portraits of past first couples. But if this pair of portraits doesn’t quite come home for me, emotionally, it’s because whereas Barack is portrayed as too tense and assertive, Michelle is portrayed as not as wide-eyed, innocent, and frisky as I believe she’s remained.

The Incoming Tide: How Facial Recognition and Facial Coding Will Feed Into A.I.

I pioneered the use of facial coding in business to capture and quantify people’s intuitive emotional responses to advertising, products, packaging, and much more. So I’m a believer in Cicero’s adage that “All action is of the mind and the mirror of the mind is its face, its index the eyes.” Yes, an awful lot is in the face: four of our five senses are located there, and it serves as the easiest and surest barometer of a person’s beauty, health, and emotions. But Cicero’s adage also leads to the question: whose eyes serve as the interpreter, and how reliable are they?

An article in last Saturday’s edition of The New York Times, “Facial Recognition Is Accurate, If You’re a White Guy” raises exactly those questions. Usually, in “Faces of the Week” I focus on what I guess you could call the rich and famous. But in this case I’m showcasing Joy Buolamwini, a M.I.T. researcher whose TED talk on algorithmic injustices has already been viewed almost a million times on-line. Hooray for Boulamwini for documenting just how accurate facial recognition technology is to date. Take gender, for example. If you’re a white guy, the software has 99% accuracy in recognizing whether you’re male or female. But if you’re a black woman, like Boulamwini, then for now you have to settle for something like 65% accuracy instead.

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The implications of such errors are enormous. The Economist, for one, has written about the emerging “facial-industrial complex.” In airports, cars, appliances, courtrooms, online job interviews, and elsewhere, a tidal wave of uses for automated facial recognition software, emotional recognition software (facial coding), and how both will feed into artificial intelligence (A.I.) systems is well under way.  So it’s no laughing matter when, for instance, a Google image-recognition photo app labeled African-Americans as “gorillas” back in 2015.

In my specialty, I’ve doggedly stuck to manual facial coding in researching my newest book, Famous Faces Decoded: A Guidebook for Reading Others (set for release on October 1, 2018). And the reason is accuracy. A knowledgeable, experienced facial coder can exceed 90% accuracy, whereas the emotional recognition software that forms the second wave behind the identity recognition software that Boulamwini has investigated is, at best, probably in the 60% range as companies like Apple, Facebook, and others weigh in. As Boulamwini has shown, even getting a person’s gender right can be tricky. Then throw in not one variable—male or female—but seven emotions and the 23 facial muscle movements that reveals those emotions, often in combination, and you can begin to see why the task of automating emotional recognition isn’t a slam-dunk.

Add in the influence of money to be made, and credibility suffers because the big claims of accuracy never go away. Plenty of firms offering automated facial coding services claim in excess of 90% accuracy, knowing that they won’t be able to attract customers by acknowledging a lower rate.

That makes for embarrassing moments. One company claiming 90% was appalled when they asked my firm to test and confirm their accuracy. When we found it to be at maybe half that level of accuracy, they rushed to provide us with the results from an academic contest in which they placed first by achieving 52% accuracy (based on standards we weren’t privy to learning). Another company’s software we tested showed all seven emotions flaring into strong action at a certain moment in time. In actuality, however, the person’s head had merely tilted a little—with no big burst of feelings having actually taken place just then. In another instance, automated facial coding software reported that the three judges in a mock appellate hearing had been so endlessly angry that about 75% of their emoting had supposedly consisted of anger during the proceedings. If so, that would have been an astonishing rate considering that the rapper Eminem was, at 73%, the single most frequently angry person in my sample of the 173 celebrities I manually coded for Famous Faces Decoded.

I could go on and on with such examples of automated facial coding not yet being ready for prime time. The case of another firm’s software supposedly detecting emotions in a plastic doll placed in front of a web cam to watch a TV commercial also comes to mind. Meanwhile, the reactions of the three companies Boulamwini tested for the accuracy of their facial recognition software are equally telling. China-based Megvii ignored requests for comment before the NYT’s story was published. Microsoft promised that improvements were under way. As for IBM, the company claimed to be on the verge of releasing identity recognition software nearly 10x better than before in terms of detecting dark-skinned women more faithfully. What’s the old saying in Silicon Valley? If you’re not embarrassed by your initial launch, then you waited too long.

Most Super Bowl Spots Didn’t Score a Touchdown This Year

The 52nd Super Bowl sizzled instead of fizzled, with a record amount of offensive yardage and drama down to literally the last play. Some years the ads that run during the Super Bowl are better than the game itself, but not this year. “A pretty lame year,” said one advertising agency president; “a little quiet” was the quote from another ad agency executive regarding the game’s first quarter, when often the best ads appear. Plenty of commentary will analyze why, but only here will you learn the biggest reason why so many TV spots, Super Bowl vintage or not, are losers year after year.

“I’m ready for my close-up” says the faded movie star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950), one of Hollywood’s most famous lines and yet one the agencies—and their paying clients—seem to forget all the time. With the average 30-second spot costing the sponsors over $5 million to air (over and above the production costs), Norma’s request isn’t just worth heeding; it’s essential.

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For two decades, I’ve been a market researcher using the tools of eye tracking and facial coding to learn people’s intuitive, natural, see-and-feel response to TV spots— and the results are crystal clear. As much as 70% of people’s gaze activity centers on the actors’ faces, and a similar percentage of all the emotional response to a TV spot will be linked to viewers taking in the emotions shown on the actors’ faces—especially during close-ups—because emotions are, frankly, so contagious. What the actor shows (if authentically rendered), the viewers feel because in life we’re looking for personalities that interest and matter to us. In business, never forget that the words “emotion” and “motivation” come from the same root word in Latin: movere, to move, to make something happen (whether a purchase or inspiring an employee to be more engaged).

A few spots this year heeded Norma’s request better than others. The Sprint ad full of robots with more animated faces than their stern human colleague was as close to a commercial with striking production values as any ad aired in the game’s opening moments. A Ram pick-up truck ad brimming over with Viking warriors offered us plenty of angry-faced close-ups of men who were as intense as they were lost. A T-Mobile ad used the strategy of resorting to babies or puppies by giving us a diverse rainbow of surprised, open-eyed infants.

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But against those minor successes, the commercials shown during Super Bowl LII featured the usual reliance on lots of action—too much—with often too little reason to care. A Kraft spot showed us far too many faces, and too quickly, for any of them to light an emotional spark. (When will agencies stop being so enamored by machine-gun-paced editing?) And while Intuit’s “The Thing Under the Bed” ad wasn’t so bad, its “Noise in the Attic” ad failed to leverage the power of facial expressions by showing us a cloaked ghost, then a CPA’s tiny face on a laptop computer, and finally the equally distant face of a spooked homeowner opening his attic’s trap door to see what was going on. Emotionally speaking, the answer for viewers in their homes: almost surely nothing.

In that way, “Noise in the Attic” joined many of its fellow Super Bowl spots this year in being the commercially still-born equivalent of how Sunset Boulevard opens—with a man floating face down in a swim pool, utterly, irretrievably dead.

Trump’s State of Suffering

Comparisons are always tricky: reach too far afield, and you risk looking preposterous. But despite his surname being German (Trumpf), as I watched Donald Trump deliver his first State of the Union speech, I found my mind drifting further south in Europe, to Italy, and in specific to a pair of Italian leaders: Silvio Berlusconi and Benito Mussolini. Comparing Trump to Berlusconi is inevitable enough, two businessmen turned politicians with sexual misdeeds part of their legacy. But due to Trump’s vainglorious nature and related poses, comparing Trump to the man who boasted of having conquered Ethiopia in an earlier era is inevitable, too.

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Nevertheless, forget the repetition of Trump’s chin stuck out in anger and his chin raised in a sign of anger, disgust and sadness. Trump surveying his “troops” from the podium, namely, the Republican members of Congress seated before him, wasn’t the most emotionally memorable part of the speech. That would be all the attendees honored by name among those sitting in the chamber’s balcony. Like Trump, some of them were proud. Like Trump, almost all of them were given to sadness –many profoundly so. I’m thinking now especially of that pair of parents, each of them having lost a daughter killed by MS-13 gang members, as well as the parents of Otto Warmbier, the young man let free by the North Koreans at the point where he was already practically a corpse.

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You have to hand it to Trump: he’s as egocentric as anybody who’s ever walked the earth, and yet his campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” had more of a memorable “we” to it than anything Hillary Clinton summoned during the 2016 campaign. Tuesday evening in giving his State of the Union speech, Trump invoked the personal stories of fellow Americans far more than the single time Ronald Reagan did so in initiating the practice of naming guests during his 1982 State of the Union speech.

Was Trump being Reaganesque, however, or still Trump? For my money, I’d say still Trump. Both Republican presidents might be known for signaling resolve, but Reagan is also associated with hope, whereas for my money Trump will forever be associated with grievances and, in a word, suffering. Those parents were clearly still grieving as they sat there in the balcony, the women dabbing away tears, the men likewise with faces contorted by sorrow.

Meanwhile, nearby sat Melania Trump, a fellow sufferer given the recent Wall Street Journal revelation that her husband likely paid $130,000 for Stormy Daniels to remain silent during the 2016 campaign. Why the alleged pay-off? Apparently, Daniels “slept” with Trump back in 2006, four months after Melina gave birth to the couple’s only child: their son Barron. There Melania sat mostly close to stone-faced in the chamber’s balcony last evening, as if playing den mother for all of the suffering on display around her.

It’s enough to make you wonder how both Barron and the country alike will turn out over the long run. Just ask his White House staff. When Donald Trump is involved, happiness is a rare bird. An old joke is that the shortest book in the world is Italian War Heroes. The second shortest book might be Donald Trump Happy. Instead, being satisfied with a state of being endlessly dissatisfied is often about as good as it gets with our current president.

An “Insidious Monster”: Olympics Gymnast Guru Dr. Nassar on Trial

The sentencing hearing for the disgraced sports medicine “guru” Dr. Lawrence G. Nassar has now finally ended in a Michigan courtroom, with judge Rosemarie Aquilina imposing a 40 to 175 year prison sentence. She delivered it with this news for Nassar: “I just signed your death warrant.”  In all, over 150 women—U.S. Olympic gymnasts in particular, as well as dancers, rowers and runners—testified against Nassar during the seven-day hearing, but questions linger.  How could this sexual abuse have gone on for over two decades? To what degree if any did Nassar’s employers, including Michigan State University and the U.S. Olympics Committee, turn a “blind eye” to what was happening? Those are among the obvious questions. But another is wondering what the face of the man called an “insidious monster” by the mother of one of Nassar’s abuse victims might reveal. Did Nassar show signs of remorse as he listened to his victims testify?

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That last question is the easiest to answer. As might be expected given the tear that rolled down Nassar’s cheek in court the other day, sadness and fear constituted nearly half of the emoting the guy showed in court. But right alongside those two emotions was an equal amount of surprise and anger, plus truth be told an occasional slight, would-be Mona-Lisa type smile. Remorse? Yes, apparently. Fear? Why not, given that Nassar had already received a 60-year sentence for child pornography and surely knew that the newest sentencing would be even more severe.

Nassar’s other three emotional responses, however, were at first blush bewildering. Could he actually have been surprised to learn about the physical and psychological pain he inflicted? Did the anger mean that to some degree Nassar was resisting the validity of the graphic stories being shared in court (if even just out of psychological self-preservation)? And most of all, what about the slight smiles? One can only hope that deep-seated chagrin masquerading as muted happiness explains those expressions.

One other question remains. From his photographs publically available over the past two decades, did Nassar ever betray by his emoting patterns a hint of what has ultimately unearthed regarding his abusive conduct? There, the answer is equally clear: no. Various degrees of happiness, and not enough anger or fear to raise a red flag was the emotional portrait on display in the years preceding the trial. The patterns here aren’t new. The case of assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky at Pennsylvania State University is an obvious antecedent. But farther back in time, so is what Hannah Arendt wrote about the trial of Adolph Eichmann, the architect of the Nazi’s Final Solution for the European Jews unfortunate enough to live—and die—within the borders of the Third Reich. Not a monster but somebody instead “terribly and terrifyingly normal” is how she described the man sentenced to hang in Israel, in coining her much-debated term: “the banality of evil.”

 

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While U.S. Government Reopens, Can McConnell, Schumer, Ryan and Pelosi Ever Get Along?

As if party loyalty and public policy issues weren’t enough of a barrier, consider the personality differences that keep Congressional leaders from finding common ground. Sure, the leaders on Capitol Hill have found a way to stumble along until the next funding crisis threatens a new government shutdown on February 8th. But then, as now, the top Republican and Democratic leaders in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives are emotionally an uneasy mixture of characters.

The highlights of my facial coding all four of these politicians:

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  • Mitch McConnell is 10x more negative emotionally than the next most negative person among these leaders (Nancy Pelosi).
  • Almost 50% of Pelosi’s emoting involves being alert to danger (surprise and fear).

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  • Chuck Schumer is at once both the happiest and angriest of these four leaders. Those two approach emotions make him the likeliest wheeler-dealer of the leaders here.

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  • Paul Ryan and McConnell are 5x more prone to sadness than their Democratic counterparts, so they rarely harbor high hopes.

In depth, let’s start with McConnell. The wily boss of the Senate engenders so little trust across the aisle that Senator Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, uses the same phrase Ronald Reagan used to apply in dealing with America’s arch-enemy, the Russians. “Trust but verify” King says regarding any promises McConnell makes. For his part, who does McConnell trust? Probably no one, as he registers the highest levels of the scorning emotions of contempt and disgust among these four leaders.

For example, does McConnell trust Schumer? Not since 2008, when a Schumer-led Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee funded attack ads accusing the Republican leader of being to blame for the Great Recession. Attacks fit the style of the anger-prone Schumer, whose tendency to feel anger means it accounts for fully 40% of the New Yorker’s emoting.

If there’s any chance of finding some emotional chemistry on Capitol Hill, Schumer and Ryan negotiating with one another might actually be the way to go. They’re the most given to joy of these four leaders, a mark of creative thinking in trying to hammer out compromises. Both of those men also suffer the least from fear, which McConnell and Pelosi have in common to a degree that must make it hard for them to craft bipartisan deals.

Minnesota Miracle Brings Range of Emotions to NFL Fans

It takes two players, working in tandem, to complete a pass play, let alone a desperation pass in an NFL playoff game with time expiring.  But afterwards, quarterback Case Keenum and receiver Stefon Diggs weren’t on the same page emotionally.

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After the 61-yard completion, a stunned Keenum kept saying “Oh my God.”  In contrast, Diggs, devoutly assured that God’s will had shown its hand in a play that marked the first ever, fourth quarter walk-off victory in NFL playoff history, was instead proud: a mixture of happiness and resolute anger.  As for the Minnesota Vikings’ long-suffering fans, there were tears of joy and relief.  After four Super Bowl losses, four NFC Championship losses, blown field goals in playoff games (29-yards against Seattle in 2015; 44-yards against Atlanta in 1999) how could any of their fans have welcomed another field goal attempt in order to win the game against the New Orleans Saints?  The Saints’ Mardi-Gras fans often party; Vikings fans normally weep.

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Senator Perdue Denies the Undeniable, Trump’s “Shithole” Comment

There’s no sure-fire way in which a person’s face reveals lying, but one can look for patterns. Consider three patterns from Sunday’s interview of Senator David Perdue (R-GA) by ABC’s “This Week” host, George Stephanopoulos:

  • First, count up all the nervous blinks by Senator Perdue when the interview starts and he knows he’s about to deny the undeniable: a minimum of 28 blinks within the first 50 seconds, or nearly two blinks per second.

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  • Next, when Senator Perdue calls the reported use of the term “shithole countries” by Donald Trump a “gross misrepresentation” of what the president said in a White House meeting on immigration reform in reference to Africa, Haiti and El Salvador, what does he do? Why, the guy closes his eyes—a look that often conveys sadness in cases of dishonesty because people are disappointed in themselves for not telling the truth. Senator Perdue’s eyes also partially close when he insists later in the interview that Trump “did not use that word.”

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  • Finally, when confronted with the reminder that Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) had basically affirmed the incident at the White House, Senator Perdue’s mouth pulls wide with fear. That give-away happens not once, but actually four times during Senator Perdue’s interview, including when Stephanopolous asks: so “what did the President say?”

How bad were Senator Perdue’s odds in denying the undeniable? Pretty steep. Consider, all of the other disparaging comments President Trump has made about other places, from “Paris is no longer Paris” to calling Germany “a total mess” and of course his infamous remark suggesting Mexico is full of rapists. As to President Trump, he vaguely denied making the comment but admitted to using “tough language.” Coming from a germaphobe who won’t shake hands with people and seems to have a thing about orifices (remember his comment about Megyn Kelly and “blood coming out of her whatever”), hey, Senator Perdue you did the best you could. It’s tough first failing to recall what President Trump uttered in that meeting, only to then remember that it wasn’t supposedly memorable.

Oprah’s Phenomenally On-Emotion Golden Globes Speech

In life, we dance to the music, not the words. That’s a reality forgotten by those speakers who may get the words right, but don’t express their feelings in natural rhythm with their words. No matter how eloquent, they’re on-message, but not on-emotion: by failing to show the right emotions at the right time in sync with their words, they don’t move us nearly as deeply as they otherwise might.

And then there’s Oprah Winfrey. Let us note other good moments at the 2018 Golden Globes awards ceremony, from host Seth Meyers’ opening line (“Good evening, ladies and remaining gentlemen”) to Natalie Portman inserting “all-male” into her introduction of the Best Director nominees. But neither compares to Oprah’s tour-de-force on receiving the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement. Among the highlights of Oprah being on-emotion:

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Eyes wide, in recalling the revelation of being a young girl watching Sidney Poitier receive Oscar for Best Actor in 1964: “I’d never seen a black man celebrated like that.”

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Skin below the eyes wells up, in sadness, also expressed by a raised chin; both that upward thrust and the pressed lips show determination and fortitude simultaneously: Paying homage to women who have endured “years of abuse” because of “bills to pay and dreams to pursue.”

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Lower lip pushes down and out in disgust: Beginning to recount the story of Recy Taylor, a black woman kidnapped and gang-raped by six white men in 1944, who weren’t ever prosecuted.

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A welcoming though not obsequious smile in inviting support for the #MeToo movement from “every man who chooses to listen.”

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After her eyebrows have been furrowed in concentration, a stretched mouth sounding the clarion call: “A new day is on the horizon.”