Saturday, March 19, 2016

Stop Telling Women to Smile

Even if it feels like it's a circus of constant conflict, the 2016 election season has done a lot to get the American public to talk more about gender. The latest piece of news to catch my attention in this regard came on Tuesday, March 15, when Hillary Clinton won big in Florida, Ohio, and North Carolina. By Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, all of my newsfeeds were abundant with complaints that male commentators had been calling for Clinton to "smile" and look happier about her victories.

Needless to say, many male commentators and audience members couldn't understand what the big deal was.

Catcalling women is a huge issue, but the explicitly crude remarks aren't all that is sinister. I remember walking around the Bronx in my Catholic grade school uniform, having older men telling me to "smile." Intuitively, something about that interaction didn't seem okay. You grow up hoping you're as polite as your parents raised you to be, and being told to "smile" doesn't seem bad, at least not on its face. But even when you're young, something about it that you can't explain feels wrong.

What was worse was that I ended up internalizing this kind of attitude as the right thing, and I too expected women to smile, though I couldn't explain why I expected it. I too took part in the "Why doesn't Kristen Stewart smile?" jokes. Again, I wondered, "Isn't smiling the polite thing to do?" and spent many years being part of this problem.

Now, I naturally have a vaguely surly demeanor, so imagine how both annoyed and relieved I was to discover one of my favorite truths:

Women have no obligation to smile for anyone but themselves.

I eventually realized that compulsory smiling wasn't necessarily about being "polite." After all, if a guy doesn't smile, he might be "dark," "broody," or "mysterious." If a woman doesn't smile, she has "resting bitch face" (there is supposedly a male equivalent of this, but I would argue that it's not used with nearly the same frequency). Telling a woman to smile is just one of many forms of appearance and behavioral policing of women to make others more comfortable (one sociologist called this "emotional labor," and rightfully so). It's emotionally exhausting to fake a smile, and that's just one exhausting thing on top of other ways that systemic misogyny is already exhausting.

As I often argue, one important way to remedy these attitudes is by remaining aware of what we teach kids and how they are expected to behave. If we can tell more little girls that smiling is not compulsory (especially when weird older men tell them to do so) we empower them sooner than later. One mom titles her post on the NY Times Parenting Blog, "I Do Not Want My Daughter to Be ‘Nice.’" The writer is happy that, instead of feeling forced to smile for others, her daughter is "deeply kind, profoundly compassionate," and ethical, while only smiling if she is "genuinely glad to see you or you're telling a joke" that she finds genuinely funny.

Oddly enough, I found this article because my stepmother shared it on Facebook (to which I commented, "Congratulations - you have succeeded because this daughter of yours is definitely not nice"). It feels around twenty years too late for her to impart this knowledge on me, but I'm definitely grateful that such teachings are becoming increasingly normalized.

What do we gain when we teach the next generation that women don't have to smile? For starters, we could get powerful women running for the country's highest office without having to sit through men trying to police her demeanor. We could get to the real issues much more quickly.

That's definitely a world I hope to live in soon.


Liz said...

I appreciate your post on this issue, especially when I have female friends who have been told by a male law professor at King Hall to "smile more." I personally have never understood society's concern with women smiling. The message this sends is that as women we need to look pleasing to others and I assume we are not visually pleasing when we don't. I am all for women smiling whenever they feel like it even if that means never. There are other ways women can show politeness towards others that doesn't involve the act of smiling.

Your reference to Kristen Stewart also reminds me of another famous individual who gets a lot of flack for not smiling — Victoria Beckham. For some reason, the news media still wonders why she doesn't smile (if you didn't know, spoiler alert... she doesn't like to). I don't believe I have heard the media make a big deal and call out male public figures. These double standards about how we treat women versus men need to stop. At the very least, the whole women should "smile more" shouldn't even be an issue that needs further discussion in 2016.

Ari Asher said...

While reading your post I thought about street harassment in New York City. Though street harassment is a problem everywhere, I have experienced it at a heightened degree in NY. As a teenager walking through the city, it was often unnerving to have strange men tell me to smile. The first few times I was hurled a “smile beautiful,” I absolutely obliged. I’m glad I learned quickly that I don’t have to smile for anyone. It’s a good lesson to remember.

Jenna said...

Thinking back on the street harassment and catcalling I have experienced in my life I often think that the "smile" or "you should smile more" remarks are one of the first ways that strangers (or sometimes even friends or family) introduce young women and girls into the still too prevalent societal idea that a woman's job is to take care of those around her. First it is something as seemingly harmless as our smiles. However, soon it is our emotions, our bodies, our time, our money, our sense of self, etc. All of these things that should be ours to decide to share or not are demanded from us at such a young age that by the time you become an adult, it is often hard to tell if you are truly giving or doing something because YOU want to or if it is you have subconsciously realized it is easier to just give in then it is be pestered, harassed, and ridiculed until you give them what they want.

Sonja said...

Closely linked to the "smile, beautiful" phenomenon is the innocuous and sometimes complimentary comment on the street phenomenon. The type of comment when people say something that objectively isn't offensive, but still feels invasive and unwelcome, none-the-less. For example, my friend was at a coffee shop the other day and yawned, and an older white man said: "is it nappy time?" On the surface, the comment was not offensive, but there is an underlying implication that all unsolicited comments should be welcomed and responded to in a polite manner. I'm all for being polite and courteous and greeting strangers on the street, but there is something different about feeling obligated to respond to people who are burdening you with their commentary, or who expect you to smile for them.

Lisa R. Pruitt said...

From NPR today on this very topic:

Amanda said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kate said...

This post reminds me of interacting with an older male partner at my firm this summer, when we were discussing what I "bring" to the firm. He said a lot of nice things, but the only thing I remember is him saying "We can tell that you've been well brought up, your parents did a great job." He went on about me being polite and classy, and I couldn't help but wonder 1.) if this is ever a consideration when thinking of hiring men and 2.) just how 'polite' I will continually have to be to stay in the good graces of the older male partners. I have a hard time assuming that a man's level of breeding would be part of a hiring discussion. It's also frustrating to continually walk a line between being sufficiently "aggressive" to be respected as a female litigator and sufficiently "polite" to be a nice lady that all the older male partners decide to respect.

Amanda said...

The underlying assumption, that you and many of the commenters have picked up on, is that women should accept unwelcomed, offensive, or misogynistic comments with a smile—that we're expected to accept that these comments are natural, and that our place in the world is not to push back. That women would be referred to as bitches, or asked to smile, more than their male counterparts indicates not only unequal treatment, but some underlying bias against women. It's just one small way that policing gender rears its ugly head.

On a lighter note, see women doing their thing—and not smiling—here: