Over at the New York Times, psychologist Lisa Damour theorized that the eye roll—that singular, cutting gesture of contempt—was the champion and only recourse for the oppressed teen in the face of a total lack of autonomy. "By rolling her eyes while putting away the plates, the girl establishes that she's an independent state electing to yield, for now, to the regional power," Damour writes—the "regional power" being the parents.
Though evolutionary theories suggest that the ocular motion is actually a fundamental strategy that women employ to express dominance over other women specifically. Unlike men, researchers say, women act out aggression in less overt ways. The tactics they tend use are categorized as indirect aggression, a category that includes behaviors like "criticizing a competitor's appearance, spreading rumors… and social exclusion." It also, of course, encompasses a pointed eye roll.
"I suspect that women around the world roll their eyes," says Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt, a professor at the University of Ottawa who conducted a 2013 study on the use of indirect aggression by women. "It's a lower-risk aggression strategy. Evolutionary psychologists think that women use low-risk aggressive strategies over high-risk aggression strategies because, historically, women have needed to survive for our offspring to survive."
In other words, men (as non-essential as they are to the child-rearing process, biologically speaking) can react to competition by fighting it out—and risking death—but women have historically preferred to signal to other women that they're the head bitch in charge by using more risk-averse options. This function is said to have primarily evolved for finding, and keeping, a partner. The fictional world of Mean Girls wasn't too far off.
An eye roll can trigger our flight-or-fight system.
"Women typically don't use verbal or physical aggression," Vaillancourt explains. "There's many different reasons for this, but I think that there would have been some selection pressure involved. There are more benefits to indirect aggression. For example, you could harass competitors, and attract more mates, all without engaging in a physical confrontation."
And while this might seem savvy, for every aggressor there's someone who has to play the aggressed; this type of psychological warfare can have distressing effects on adolescent girls. Women and girls—so used to fighting with subterfuge, apparently—have physiological reactions to the mere motion of the eye roll, Vaillancourt says, whereas guys aren't as sensitive to it. "An eye roll can trigger our flight-or-fight system," she says, adding that "there are studies to suggest that [the eye roll is] the most commonly used tactic."
Yet the eye roll endures as protest, petulance, the original shorthand for "I don't fuck with you"—and it's not just for teens. "We need to do some research at a seniors complex to see if they're still rolling their eyes," Vaillancourt jokes, "but I strongly suspect they are."