The Sexist

Sexist Comments of the Week: “Smile, Baby” Edition

Last week, in a discussion of how to not harass people on the street, a few commenters floated a possible harassment loophole: Isn't it okay to call out people on the street if you're just insisting that they turn that frown upside-down?

I have previously delicately explained why people on the street should refrain from asking me to smile for them ("Don't Fucking Tell Me To Smile, Baby"). This time around, let's hear an involved and eloquent dissection of "smile!" from commenter Saurs, who enumerates the many reasons why she is not going to be smiling for you. My name is Amanda Hess and I approve this message.

It’s really very simple, actually. Men like these believe they have the right to intrude on a woman’s time and space whenever they sense or hope doing so might increase their chances of pulling, irrespective of what that woman is doing or what she wants, subtle signals or obvious ones (like headphones) be damned. They don’t acknowledge that a woman has an intrinsic right to remain mired in her own thoughts in public without being harassed, questioned, propositioned, interrupted, approached, or otherwise bothered. They don’t respect her enough to leave her alone and they’re bull-headed enough to believe their childish need for attention trumps the wishes of everyone else. Shapely Prose and Yes Means Yes also have useful blogposts on the subject.

The same sense of entitlement informs men’s decisions to approach random female strangers in the street and demand that they “smile!” Because a woman’s job is to brighten your day and make you feel better, and to be “pretty” and “sweet” and “happy”! “Smile! It can’t be that bad!” Effectively informing you, because as a woman you exist in a perpetual state of ignorance until some random fuckwad comes round with an illuminating piece of homespun male wisdom, that your life is great because you’re female and pretty, so don’t take anything too seriously lest you harsh the temporary high he gets from harassing you, eyeing you up and down, and making it his business to tell you how lucky you are. You dumb, hysterical bitch.

I use public transport often, both on short day-trips and longer, cross-country trips. As a grown-up type person, I know I’m going to have to occupy myself during such trips, quietly and without disturbing my neighbors. Often I become deeply absorbed in the tasks I plan for myself, including reading and writing. I don’t enjoy being interrupted and I can’t imagine why anyone would. I know for a fact that the men who interrupt me do so not because I am so entrancing and they are so mesmerized by my beauty and so frightened at the possibility of never seeing me again that they simply must speak to me. I’m not that good-looking or fascinating. The men who bother me when I’m clearly engaged in a task of my own choosing do so because they’re bored, and they know, from socialization, that a demure, female creature is much more likely to put away the book or notebook she has at hand and devote herself for a few moments to the needs of any male creature in the near vicinity who needs immediate attention, regardless of whether or not she actually enjoys his facile charm, his meager intelligence, his limpid attempts at humor, his ludicrous compliments. I do not gladly suffer such fools. They are singularly exhausting, like children.

When Woolf speaks of a woman’s need for a room to herself, that’s what she means; a physical and mental space wherein a woman can be the sole master of her own thoughts without interference from men she knows and from men she doesn’t know. It’s a sign of disrespect when a man intrudes upon a woman’s thoughts because he believes he is desperate need of her attention.

This is far different from people who have a mutual desire for conversation. I do this all the time on trains, with men and women. There are clear signs that we’re open to speak, to share a meal or a drink, to chat. We’re not wearing headphones, the books on our laps are closed, our pens are capped. It’s perfectly obvious when someone is interested in speaking to a stranger and when they aren’t. That men overwhelming choose to interrupt women when they’re engaged elsewhere and in other business in public is a clear example of men taking up mental and physical space and acting like pigs.

It also shouldn’t be difficult to see, acknowledge, and condemn the sexism in the casual exhortation of women to smile and look pretty. I’m forever being accosted and told to be happy, or, rather, to look happy, for the explicit gratification of my interlocutor. I generally walk down the street, for example, busying myself with my own thoughts, absorbed by a particular problem, flight of fancy, piece of recitation, something that interests and excites me. I don’t expect strangers to be interested in the contents of my mind, but neither do I expect them to demand that I neglect my own desires in favor of looking “pretty.” I don’t know from pretty. It may surprise some men to find that there are hordes of women who could not care less about looking pretty. When I’m in the midst of contemplating something that interests me, I don’t look pretty; I’ve probably got forehead wrinkles, I’m frowning in concentration, I might even go cross-eyed. I don’t care.

I happen to find surly, moody expressions attractive on men and women. Nevertheless, I don’t go round my neighborhood asking strangers to pout for me because I happen to like a good pout. It’s none of my business what expression a stranger chooses to don, consciously or unconsciously. And yet women’s bodies are constantly on display, constantly in a state of being judged, critiqued, and closely examined. Women’s physical selves are always in need of being checked, our expressions guarded, in order to please and gratify strangers by succumbing to certain conventions, like “prettiness,” a kind of passive, pleasing attractiveness that seems to delight some men. There are also some men who don’t care what a woman is actually feeling, so long as she masks those unattractive or complicated feelings by wearing a pleasing grin on her face, devoid of intelligence. Some men don’t want to acknowledge that women have inner lives that may not revolve around pleasing men. Even women who are not by convention good-looking, even ugly by convention, are still expected to “make an effort” towards conventional attractiveness — they are expected to wear make-up, care about their hairstyles, wear restrictive clothing, feign or adopt submissive, feminine mannerisms. Women are often found wanting, even by strangers.

The men who approach me and ask me to smile are being sexist. That some women also choose to engage in sexism by asking strangers to smile does not negate the sexism in their behavior. Some women like women. Some women treat other women like objects. This is no surprise.

Photo via Hendricks Photos.

  • Kim Chi Ha

    hahaha people tell me to smile a lot, so i end up doing that half smile half grimace thing.

  • Partaria

    Well said!

    Also, Amanda, the link to your previous post seems to be busted...

  • Steven Capsuto

    The problem with this theory is that people do the same exact thing to men. It's one of the few circumstances in which I almost feel tempted to slap someone: you're having a lousy day and a complete stranger tells you to "smile" or "cheer up."

    There are folks who were raised to believe that people are morally obligated to show the world a cheerful face at all times, and are prepared to "correct" anyone who doesn't live up to that ridiculous standard.

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/sexist Amanda Hess

    @Partaria Thanks. Fixed!

  • michelle

    @Steven What you're talking about =/= to what this article is talking about, IMO. I've experienced both types of "smile!" comments, and there's a particular brand that is sometimes directed towards women that has a creepy, "smile because I want you to smile" feeling about it. I am not a fan of either.

  • astraea

    This always makes me so angry because I reflexively smile when I'm nervous, and since a lot of social interaction makes me nervous I tend to smile and laugh when I really want to give a withering glare.

    I got it a lot when I worked retail.

  • ambrose

    Man. This cosmo-informed, disempowering, imitation-feminist crap is really getting old. You are not fighting for women's rights here. Just refusing to cater to the occasional dude's bullshit and complaining about it is not going to do anything useful. You are doing the same thing you accuse my gender of, in the very first paragraph, which is assume you know our motivation for doing whatever it is that annoys you about us. You have battles to win and you can't get there doing this.

    Do you honestly think that we think we have any kind of chance with you on the bus of all places? We know that the bus is an excellent place to go and expose to the world the fact that you are very, very fucking broke. If some dude asks you to smile, it is probably not because he is flirting with you or hitting on you or trying to make you prettier. It is much more likely that he sees someone who appears to have had a similar day to him and would like you to not feel like we are all toolsacks who don't notice when people are upset. Well, apparently you take issue with that too. Smile is pretty much the last thing we are even allowed to say thanks to needless legislation that disempowers women by making it the government's responsibility(Primarily composed of? You fucking better believe it) to keep people from trying to be even a little friendly. On the bus, honestly. We KNOW, I repeat KNOW, that we aren't taking you home from that bus.

    If you want to argue against catcalling, argue against it for everyone and instead of arguing against catcalling, you're arguing for common decency. 1) Tell off people who wolf-whistle or whatever at you. Make him feel embarrassed. That unpleasant feeling will make him think twice about doing it again. That is what unpleasant feelings are for. 2)Find an ally. Don't let drivers shout and throw things at pedestrians. Maybe try and protest excessive honking. Find some damn common ground. Repeat as needed. 3) Problem solved through cooperation.

    Same with surgical birth control. You want to be allowed to get an abortion, funded by taxpayer dollars I cannot argue with that. I think that, except for the tax funding(I am against federal taxation) it's one of the only worthwhile free services we offer. But why, when it costs less and is permanent, can I not get a state funded vasectomy? It makes absolutely zero sense.

    You want to wear comfortable clothes, I for one would be fucking thrilled to see D&G or whatever the fuck is popular right now never see another cent of business. Same goes for all this designer label commercial bullshit. Organize a boycott or a protest or something useful. Read some Emma Goldman instead of some Cosmopolitan. Volumes of feminist literature exist condemning the commercialization of beauty. Stop making it profitable to be sexist. I'm already doing my part, I shop at the goodwill. What are you wearing?

    As for the demeaning of women's intelligence and education, I have very little sympathy. One of my best friends(Who happens to also be an ex-girlfriend) happened to skip two years of mathematics in high school beyond the honors curriculum. Two other young ladies, who I did not know as well but still occasionally speak to as we are involved in some of the same community action groups did the same thing. They had Calculus III at the college branch down the road their senior year of high school. You all are capable. Anyone who says different, is probably not capable enough to be worth your time. So remember to tell kids that about that time where boys and girls start to notice each other, and maybe let them focus on what Junior High is for, to train you to wake up and obediently go to a menial dead end job.

    And while we are on the subject of education, do you think that maybe, just maybe this abstinence-only sex ed bullshit you treat as a tangential issue in the mainline feminist community could be a big part of the reason for the declining state of women's rights? Between teen pregnancy and not dealing with the issues surrounding inter-gender interaction(Relationships?) in a direct and clear way it's a wonder things aren't worse! Deal directly with the issues and maybe, just maybe more women can grow up to be critical thinkers rather than victims of raging hormones and misinformation.

    Empower people by encouraging them to do the right thing, and show some backbone.

  • http://www.sarahsadventuresinmediocrity.blogspot.com Sarah

    I have also struggled with this a great deal. I have been commanded to smile often, and the command absolutely has patriarchal undertones. Heck, they're not undertones, they're overtones. The idea that a total stranger is allowed to tell me what to do with my face, and get angry with me if I don't immediately comply, is ludicrous. That's why I'm running a campaign against pleasing smiles in general: Down With Smiles; Call and Response: Tips for the Hollaback Girl.

  • http://suchavegan.blogspot.com Megan

    Bill Hicks had a great thing about this phenomenon (well as it applies to men and women):

    Random person: "Hey man, it takes more energy to frown than it does to smile!"

    Bill: "...you know it takes more energy to point that out than to leave me alone? Get the fuck away from me."

    Ha.

  • http://twitter.com/cdog_ cdog

    I've gotten this for years, walking to and from work, or on the train. Sometimes while I'm wearing headphones. It's pretty damned insulting – especially when they say, "c'mon sweetie, it can't be that bad!" I've had guys say that after a death in my family, during my divorce, etc. Excuse me, do we not have real lives too? I'll smile when I'm happy, damn it!

  • Eddie

    Meh. I'm a guy. Women and men have thrown out the "smile" word to me in the past. Sometimes it's nice, sometimes it's annoying depending on my mood. Not a big deal, really, and quite a stretch to claim that those who say "Smile" are somehow sexist, especially when it appears to be applied equally. I agree though that my mood is no stranger's business and certainly not his or her place to try to "correct" it.

  • Emily WK

    I love it when men who haven't experienced this level of sexism reassuringly mansplain to us that it isn't sexism, ladies, because they are told to smile, too.

    It's like the read that entire, wonderful post above and then it immediately flitted out their ear.

    The only people who can possibly claim that we can't tell what the intent is of these interactions are the ones who aren't on the receiving end of them for their entire lives.

    That's great, guys. Thanks for letting us know that sexism is something we're imagining! We almost thought we were on to something here. Great to know we're just hysterical bitches.

  • http://toysoldier.wordpress.com Toysoldier

    @michelle:

    The brand of “smile because I want you to smile” is also directed at men, usually by women. The experience is not unique to any one group. I think it is important to acknowledge that telling other people, particularly strangers, how to respond or react or otherwise present themselves is very presumptuous and rude. However, it is also important not to take one's own experience and treat it as the experience or draw some conclusion about such impolite demands being "sexist."

  • astraea

    Thanks for mainsplaining, guys! Here I was with my lifetime of experience with interacting with other human beings thinking that I could grasp the difference between people being patronizing and people being well-intentioned but annoying. It's a relief to have some men around to help me understand that I'm actually just stupid.

    And LOL@ambrose. That's such a perfect mansplainer it's a parody of itself.

  • http://twitter.com/cdog_ cdog

    For those who think we're crazy: Yes, there are people who are just being nice and sympathetic. That is a completely different animal. There are genuinely well-intended people who just don't know anything better to say, and actually hope they can cheer you up for a moment. And that's nice, even if a little clumsy at times. I still appreciate the sentiment, when it's there.

    But this is something else. It's when a dude won't stop staring at you, usually with a weird smile on his face, and then regardless of how involved you might be in doing something else (you may even be perfectly happy, just pensive), he starts pressing you to go on and smile. It's creepy. Then usually he keeps going, saying 'what could be that bad?' etc., all while grinning weirdly and staring fixated at you. It's not sympathy. It's just plain weird and creepy, and you'd likely agree if you experienced the same thing.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/bogotron/ Michael

    I think when men do this they're basically neglecting to treat a woman like an actual human being with free agency who has a right to frown if that's what she feels like doing at the moment. I wouldn't ask anyone to smile for me, not my girlfriend, not my sister, not my mother. Rather than asking them to smile for me I'll try and make them happy instead.

    I haven't ever had anyone say 'smile for me', but if it happened I definitely wouldn't be too happy about it. Don't tell me to smile for you. I'm not your monkey.

  • http://galacticteabag.blogspot.com Alex

    @ Ambrose - I think you need to read this post here: http://kateharding.net/2008/03/24/giving-a-shit/

    Feminists are interested in all the stuff you've mentioned there too. Our capacity for giving-a-shit about this kind of thing is limitless. However, if we want to look at this as well, because some people (myself included) think it is a valid problem that needs addressing as part of the larger problem that is sexism in general, then that is our right to do so, and not yours to dismiss our experiences and tell us what is important and what we should be giving a shit about.

    Plus, @ everyone-who's-mentioned-that-"but it happens to men too", check the last paragraph of the OP, where it is specifically stated that, yes this happens in reverse, and no, that's not acceptable either.

  • Theresa

    When I was in grad school, an animal behaviorist friend described at lunch the placating "primate grin" of chimps, and theorized that's what men want to see. So whenever a male friend approached our table that afternoon, we gave him a chimp-like grimace (admittedly undeserved by these guys). Some guys did not know what to make of this, but one (a psychologist) came over, and started to pantomime picking bugs off our heads and eating them. ;)

  • Lizrd

    I used to work in a dinky dollar store after 8 hour shifts in an industrial factory. Normally I'm pretty good with people, but let me tell you, I was usually too exhausted to give a shit on that shift. On one particularly bad day, a customer, instead of telling me to smile, bought a candy bar and gave it to me. Now, I'm not suggesting that people should to do this, but she demonstrated the difference between genuinely caring about how someone is feeling, and telling them to smile because you feel entitled to. Which I think Michael is saying. If you want someone to feel better, try to make them feel better. Telling someone who's upset to smile is a band aid solution.

  • Shinobi

    I recall reading an article about how the smile may have actually evolved as a submissive singnal, so that when men extort a woman to smile they are actually encouraging her to appear more submissive. (I cannot find this anywhere, a Google search unsurprisingly turns up BDSM dating sites o.O )

  • Saurs

    ambrose, I believe I made it fairly clear in my comment posted above that I don't believe a man necessarily imagines that he's going to successfully pull just because he approaches a woman in a public place, like while riding a bus. He's bored, he's in need of attention or a distraction, and for whatever reason his mobile phone no longer holds his interest or he's out of reading material. Hey, there's a lil lady! Surely she isn't doing anything too important that she can't spend the next five minutes dutifully suffering my sorry ass and tepid conversation, my endless self-reflexive monologues! I know! I'll flirt with her, throw out some ludicrous compliment that'll stroke her silly, vacuous little ego! I mean, women do possess the attention span of a fruit fly, right? What? Lookee there! Boobies!

    I am otherwise unmoved by the rest of your comment, but this pathological obsession with Cosmopolitan bears looking into. Also, every chick's worldview is not entirely informed by sexist glossies.

    "I’m already doing my part, I shop at the goodwill. What are you wearing?"

    Classic derailing for dummies material. Children are starving in Africa! Why are you worried about yourself when there are women, in the middle east, who are literally being eaten alive by giant, Islamo-fascist, antidisestablishmentarianismist child-raping communists who willfully and knowingly inject their pinko, Allah-loving autism bug into the vaccines we are giving our miniature dachshunds right now! Stop being so selfish, feminists! Think of the dachshunds!

  • Tango

    My main issue with the 'smile!' guys is that I have a suspicion that they're the guys who are suddenly, inexplicably pissed off with me when I'm doing my usual iPod zombie walk. I play the music pretty loud, and I let my mind wander, but if I catch somebody saying hello or smiling I hello/smile back. But sometimes (not often, maybe once a month) I get a pissed of reaction when I pass somebody that from my perspective comes out of nowhere, and my guess is that it's because I've failed to react to them. I got one of these just yesterday when I was walking around the neighborhood, where as the guy was passing me I heard a disgruntled 'fine, be that way' or something like it. I felt much worse for him than that guy who once hissed 'bitch' right in my iPod-headphone filled ear (THAT was mega creepy, since I had completely failed to notice the guy until he was right next to me and cursing) because he was trying to be nice and getting ignored is a bad feeling (I know because I read postsecret) but I really enjoy zoning out on a walk. I do it even though a few of my friends think it's dangerous that I'm walking around on a sunny afternoon and yet not in a constant state of ninja-readiness.

  • MissaA

    I'm a law student and have been volunteering at family court, filling out forms for people who don't have legal representation. Last week, I was helping a recent immigrant with two infant children, whose partner had just walked out on her, fill out an application for child support and custody. The advice lawyer on duty came by to check up on me, and before he left he told me that I shouldn't look so serious. I wanted to ask him, "what part of helping vulnerable people through a life-altering interaction with the legal system requires levity?"

  • Saurs

    That facts of the matter are that feminists should always be interested in somebody's else plight before their own, and that anti-feminists are always solving the problem in a better, more reasonable way, say... by shopping at the Goodwill? That solves sexism how, again? I mean, I can see how it personally benefits ambrose, but I fail to see how ambrose being thrifty at all helps women.

  • MissaA

    @Toysoldier

    @michelle:

    The brand of “smile because I want you to smile” is also directed at men, usually by women. The experience is not unique to any one group. I think it is important to acknowledge that telling other people, particularly strangers, how to respond or react or otherwise present themselves is very presumptuous and rude. However, it is also important not to take one’s own experience and treat it as the experience or draw some conclusion about such impolite demands being “sexist.”

    It happens to both men and women, and is demeaning to both men and women. But that doesn't mean that it's not also sexist when it happens to women. Because the structures that support male privilege supports this kind of behaviour towards women. I am willing to bet that in situations where this happens to men, there is some other kind of privilege at work, such as age, or class.

  • Matthew

    I think apart from gender etc., when somebody tells you to smile the correct answer is always "go fuck yourself"

  • Mrs. D

    When this happens, it's almost always the creepy dudes, so get off your horse, guys. See, a nice, caring guy, seeing a woman he thinks is in some kind of distress, may flag down a waiter and ask him to check on her (if they're in a restaurant), or ask if she would like help carrying the armful of things she's got (if she's struggling on the street), or, I don't know...SMILE AT HER HIMSELF, if she just looks sad. Seriously, that's the difference between decent dude who thinks you look sad and creep who wants to see your pretty face light up, the decent dude takes it upon himself to take the "cheering up action" rather than insisting that you do it yourself, because, well, I can't think of any better reason than what's been articulated in the article.

  • Mrs. D

    I should amend that to say that a decent guy seeing a PERSON he thinks is in distress would do these things. I have seen plenty of dudes do those nice, helpful, cheering-up things for other dudes, too.

  • Emily H.

    "His limpid attempts at humor..."

    Just to nitpick for a second, they're probably not "limpid" -- either "turgid" or "flaccid" is probably closer to what you meant.

    Great post -- I hate "Smile, it can't be that bad." It's so disingenuous & faux-avuncular, and how does Random Guy know how bad it can be? Maybe the woman is getting evicted & her mom just died. MYOB.

  • Saurs

    No, "limpid" as in innocuous, boring, transparent, inoffensive, unintellectual. Sweet, but stupid. Yeah?

  • b-bop

    @Matthew

    Yup.

  • bellacoker

    When someone comes up and tells you to smile, they are NOT trying to cheer you up, they are telling you to be pretty.

    It's the same command we give when taking pictures and it is given for the same reason. The picture-taker/smile-commander doesn't really care what you are feeling on the inside, they just don't want your face to be showing complicated emotions which ruin their view.

  • MissMaia

    Here's one of my favorite Dilbert strips, which is strangely applicable here:

    http://dilbert.com/2001-02-14/

  • Nicole

    omg. I seriously thought I was the only person who got commanded to smile on the streets. One particularly creepy dude near foggy bottom metro on 23rd has been a repeat offender. Anyone else? It's so exciting to know that other people's naturally relaxed and/or pissed off faces aren't good enough for random creepy dudes either!

    That makes me SMILE!

    And get really pissed off at the same time! I normally accidentally smile as a reflex when creep-meister tells me to... Then I continue walking and get really mad and think up all of the mean and snarky things I could've said to him.

    Yay for not being the only one!

  • regeya

    So I cannot possibly understand having someone I find unappealing commanding me to smile, it can't be that bad, in an objectifying manner, because I have a penis.

    That's not sexist at all!

  • Just a Sweetheart

    There are far more restrictive and debilitating issues for both men and women than this. I think the problem is lack of forgiveness over small issues like this.

    Yes most men enjoy the sight of a beautiful woman, and smiling does make most people more attractive, but you are missing the point.

    i think the more correct assumption, though they might just want to enjoy a smiling lady, is that the guys are really saying "take advantage of what you have". This is a direct recognition of the power of a woman's sexuality. A smiling woman is going to get more of what she wants then a frowning one. I know that when a lady is attracted to me, and guys think that i don't notice, strangers will come up to me and tell me to step up my game. I think that is what this is.

    But even if you are right, enjoy that you got noticed, take pleasure in your appearance and the affects it has on others, and show compassion to those who are not malicious, and just enjoying your presence. There are some lonely people out there, maybe you made his day. I know when that happens to me, i take pleasure in that.

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  • hannah

    @Just a Sweetheart: Now, seriously, can you read? Have you read this article and these comments? Have you? Sure? Read it again, then.

  • Rose

    This has happened to me a lot. Its very simple. The man is hitting on you. "Smile, baby" is always said in the same way as any other gross sexual comment and accompanied by the same looks. At least its tamer then some of the things total strangers seem to think its ok to say to me in public.

    Men, you do not have strangers casually telling you that they want to "tickle your belly from the inside" (or any number of horrible comments) and even if you did it does not take place in the same context of privilege and physical intimidation (often). The type of comment I believe this post is primarily addressing is sexual, at least it has been in my experience.

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