The Sexist

Dear Abby Takes On the “Smile, Baby” Guy

Via Heartless Doll, I'm pleased to report that Dear Abby has finally taken on an issue of paramount feminist concern: The etiquette of reacting to the strange man who insists that you smile for him.

Abby, to her credit, suggests that the recipient of the "smile!" command drop the formalities and get the eff away from her harasser. But not before she engages in some dubious psychoanalysis of the "Smile, Baby Guy."

But first, the letter:

DEAR ABBY: I am a 29-year-old female who would like to know why people feel compelled to tell random strangers to "smile."

I was in the market the other night and a man came walking by me saying, "You dropped something," and was pointing to the floor. I looked down and said, "I don't see anything." He then told me, "You dropped your smile."

Abby, I was SO not amused. I turned around going back to my business saying, "Oh, OK." The man proceeded to walk away mumbling, "Don't look so serious. It's only the grocery store."

I hate when people do this. It happens to me a lot and has most of my life. People—especially seniors—say, "Don't you dare smile for me, don't you dare!" Or, "Smile! You're too cute not to smile." An old gentleman said, "Oh, she's like ice — so cold, never smiles."

What can I do if this happens again? I don't see the need to walk around the store or sit at my desk at work with a Cheshire cat grin on my face all day. Any suggestions? — OFFENDED IN GILROY, CALIF.

Offended in Gilroy is actually posing two questions here: Why are these strangers telling me to smile? And what should I do about it?

Interestingly, Abby's response to the second question—get yourself to safety—contradicts her answer to the first question, which positions the "Smile, Baby Guy" as a hapless social misfit, not a harasser.

DEAR OFFENDED: The man who asked if you had "lost" something may have been making a clumsy attempt to pick you up. That sometimes happens in markets. As to the "older people" who comment on your expression—or lack thereof—they may consider themselves so "senior" that they can "coax" you into doing as they would like—like "coochy-kooing" a baby to make it laugh on cue.

Making personal remarks to strangers is, of course, rude. My advice to you is to distance yourself from those individuals as quickly as possible. Speaking personally, if I was approached the way you have been, the last thing I'd be inclined to do is smile or engage them at all. I'd be offended, too.

In Abby's view, strangers who demand that women smile are harmless, "clumsy" romantics who are just following standard behavior or what "happens in markets." Interestingly, Abby comes around when she addresses the behavior of the "older people" who tell people to smile. Abby theorizes that harassment from the elderly is born of a sense of entitlement.

Actually, anyone who instructs a stranger to smile does so because they feel entitled to exert their power over another person's private emotions. The fact that these casual, grocery-store power plays disproportionally target youth and women says a lot about how our social hierarchy works—and the harasser's dismissal that it's "only the grocery store" shows how this sexism is far-reaching enough to be excused as "normal" behavior.

  • Christy

    Where is the elderly gentleman involved in this? I would love to hear what his true intentions were? This is a really long discussion based on a lot of speculation of what this guys intentions were.

    I do appreciate reading this as I am writing a persuasive speech about smiling at the person you walk into on the street (In my opinion its better than putting your head down) It seems there is a pretty split opinion on it though, and it helps me to understand an audience.

    When I do my speech, I'm going to wear my "SMILE" shirt and tell people to smile! I hope they don't think I'm a creepy 39yo SWF!!

  • jerrod

    I think the most disturbing theme in many of the comments is focusing on the reaction of the recipient of someone elses' behavior. If someone feels that they have the right to say or do something that I find inappropriate or offensive, I at least have the right to say how it affected me. Why are we not supporting someone who speaks up for themselves? The focus shouldn't be on the recipient but the initiator.

  • Lo Down

    People are missing the fact that if you are a woman, walking down the street smiling just invites attention. Some men may think you are smiling at them, and try to engage you. That's one reason why most women don't walk around with big grins on their faces.

    As for people (men, mostly) who command other people (women, mostly) to smile: it's dehumanizing. If I order you to smile, I'm asserting my authority over how you look and present yourself. I'm also asserting my sense of entitlement to your time and attention.

    Thought experiment: Would you, as a man, respond well if some stranger told you to stand up straight? Or to take your hands out of your pockets? Or to get your hair out of your eyes? Or to do or not do anything at all with your own body? I'm guessing most men would bristle at such interactions. Well, it's the same for women because (I know this is a shocker to some people), women feel as entitled to control our own bodies as men do. And we get just as offended by others telling us what to do with our bodies as men would.

    The "smile, baby" guy is not the most important issue facing women today, but that doesn't mean he isn't problematic. He is indicative of a larger pattern of norms regarding women's bodies, autonomy and roles in society. If men didn't feel entitled to women's attention and bodies, and entitled to control how women look and behave, then the "smile, baby" guy wouldn't exist. Neither would the anti-abortion movement, slut-shamers and rapists.

  • Lo Down

    On second thought, "dehumanizing" isn't the right word. "Demeaning" is better.