Don’t Tell Me to Smile

Don’t Tell Me to Smile

Being a woman is enough hassle without throwing a resting bitch face into the mix. What I think is a neutral expression must actually resemble the visage of a troll with stomach troubles because I have been plagued my whole life with concerned relatives, teachers, even complete strangers, who want to know why I’m so upset. I’m not. This is just my face. The ironic thing is, having people constantly assume I’m angry when I’m usually just absorbed in an intricate daydream (one where I am an international media mogul) has produced a self-fulfilling prophecy. Being told to smile, especially when there is no specific reason to be, provokes a rage in me not unlike that of Frankenstein’s monster. Maybe not kill-someone’s-entire-family rage, but you get the picture.

Not too long ago, this anger made its debut appearance. I usually brush off requests to smile with an obnoxious grimace, but even my quick wit has its limits. There’s a particular bouncer on the Leeds nightclub scene who has made it his life’s work to implore me to smile every time he checks my ID. I wasn’t in the mood for his nonsense one night so I told him that I refuse to be controlled by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy and whether I smile or not is none of his concern. He proceeded to deny me entry into the club for ‘shouting’, when all I did was communicate my right to exert control over my own face. I was furious. Not because some old codger had told me to smile, but because he thought he had any say in how I choose to present myself.

I suppose that bouncer thought I was overreacting, that he was just being nice and I was being a grumpy cow. And maybe the fact that I was slightly inebriated made me seem quite brash (I’ve been told I’m a very confrontational drunk). But the fact remains that his actions speak volumes about the sense of entitlement men have concerning women’s bodies. I do not know this man. I owe him nothing, least of all my beautiful smile, yet he feels that he has the right to police my behaviour. But it’s just a smile, I hear some of you cry. Why are you making a big deal about nothing? Because, dear readers, Mr. Bouncer would not have asked me to smile if I were man. A frowning man is cool and mysterious but a frowning woman is an unbearable shrew who needs to fix her attitude. Him asking me to smile has approximately nothing to do with smiling and everything to do with the gratification he gets from trying to boss a woman around.

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It’s infuriating that in the twenty-first century, a woman can’t even leave the house without a man offering his unsought for opinion about her appearance. Last October, Hollaback, a non-profit organisation targeted at ending street harassment, released a video giving a brief insight into one woman’s experience of being catcalled in New York City. Most of the things said to the woman, an actress named Shoshanna Roberts, were fairly innocuous – how are you doing, you look beautiful, and, of course, smile. None of them touched her or hurled abusive comments. But this is still harassment. These so-called compliments were not without an agenda: they sought to intimidate and degrade her, to reinforce the patriarchal divide that reduces women to sex objects for the viewing pleasure of men. When men approach women in the street, it’s not to show their admiration. It’s about power. One of the men in the video actually followed Roberts down the street for five minutes, which was clearly not intended to flatter her. Yet another chilling reminder that male entitlement knows no bounds.

My encounter outside a nightclub is very different to being catcalled, but both acts suggest that a serious dialogue needs to be had. The sad truth is, men refuse to accept that remarks they make with good intentions can actually be quite sexist. The comments underneath the Hollaback video reveal that men across the globe are outraged that Roberts did not swoon at the chivalrous efforts of leering strangers. How dare this woman ignore that kind man’s advances? He just said you have a nice ass – kiss him at once, wench! Why do women have to be grateful for men acknowledging our existence? We do not leave the house with the hope that Lecherous Larry will blow kisses at us. Our days are not brightened by Sleazy Simon telling us that we should smile. Men of the world: have you considered that the reason I’m not smiling is because every time I go outside, I have to navigate my way through a jungle of creeps, and doing so takes a lot of concentration?

Melissa Gitari

Image credits: Underground CinemaWikimedia.

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