“If you smiled more you wouldn’t have to walk so much, bitch.”
Smiling was the last thing I wanted to do as I walked to the Subway station from my retail job where I had just spent eight hours with a “cheerful” expression plastered to my face as a deterrent to negative Yelp reviews. When this very imperfect stranger deigned to give me his unwarranted advice I was filled with a volcanic rage. In this particular case, this failed Casanova wrongly assumed that my life’s goal is be chauffeured around by some dude, which was infuriating, but there were even bigger elements at play here. Getting catcalled on the street is so much a part of daily life in the city that it has become a sort of ritual that I just grin and bear my way through. However, this is exactly the problem. I don’t feel like smiling when I have had a terrible day and want to be alone but still have an hour of public transportation in front of me. I don’t feel like smiling when I am getting harassed and in fact feel quite threatened. Above all, I don’t feel like smiling just because someone says I should. Out of all of the dumb pick-up lines, disgusting gestures and kissy face noises, it is the command to smile that puts me over the edge and it is all too common. While telling someone to turn that frown upside down may not seem like the most violent example of street harassment, in reality it thinly veils deeper issues. The “Smile, baby” and its many iterations suggests that the whims of an absolute stranger deserves attention and that a woman’s expression is not her own. Depending on the vocal delivery and physical stance of the perpetrator, this seemingly innocent comment can be intimidating, scary, and totally negating of any sense of personal security.
So what makes men catcall? In the past, I have gotten into debates with male friends who felt that nonviolent forms of street harassment should be excused because they often come from men with low income backgrounds and a lack of education so that “they just don’t know any better.” As someone who has been harassed by frat boys and wealthy businessmen, I know that this patronizing idea is a farce. For further proof that socioeconomics are not indicative of the male urge to police the female body we only we need only to look at the media’s gendered treatment of presidential hopeful, Hillary Clinton. The former Secretary of State has been on the receiving end of appearance based criticisms since vying for the 2008 presidency. From her haircut to her clothing to her tone of voice, sexist comments have prompted Clinton to defend herself again and again with statements such as,“First of all, I’m not shouting. It’s just when women talk, some people think we’re shouting.”
In March, Clinton celebrated huge wins in the state primaries of Ohio, North Carolina, and most importantly, Florida. Like all political candidates following a significant victory or a loss, Clinton made a speech. However, unlike most male candidates, it wasn’t her main points (job creation, national security, and equal pay for equal work) that were focused on, it was her facial expression, or supposed lack thereof. Following her statement, MSNBC media pundit, Joe Scarborough, decided that Hillary Clinton did not look happy enough and tweeted “Smile. You just had a big night.” His white collar equivalent of the “Smile, bitch” proved that misogynistic comments have walked past the construction site and into the high-rise tower of mainstream news.
Smile. You just had a big night. #PrimaryDay
— Joe Scarborough (@JoeNBC) March 16, 2016
For years women have caved in to the pressure to smile. So much so, that 2nd-wave feminist Shulamith Firestone’s “Dream action for the women’s liberation movement” was “A smile boycott, at which declaration all women would instantly abandon their ‘pleasing’ smiles, henceforth smiling only when something pleased them.” In her 2004 essay, “Why Women Smile,” Amy Cunningham states “Too many of us smile in lieu of showing what’s really on our minds. Indeed, the success of the women’s movement might be measured by the sincerity-and lack of it-in our smiles. Despite all the work we American women have done to get and maintain full legal control of our bodies, not to mention our destinies, we still don’t seem to be fully in charge of a couple of small muscle groups in our faces.”
Flash forward to the next decade and with street harassment being a significant issue in fourth wave feminism, some women are countering the demand to smile in very creative ways. In 2012, Brooklyn artist, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, began Stop Telling Women to Smile, a public art campaign that confronts street harassment by displaying portraits of women with captions that address pavement perpetrators. While being commanded to look happy is no laughing matter, a genuine smile is always a welcome release. In an ironic twist to the stale stereotype of the “angry feminist,” comedy seems to be one of the most effective ways that women are countering sexism today. In 2014, comedian Janelle James created a parody video called “Smile Bitch Training Camp,” a fake advertisement that teaches women to “smile like a lunatic at all times.” Politically minded women are also using comedy to tackle issues surrounding sexism. The day after male critics berated Hillary for her Super Tuesday speech, Broad City aired an episode where actress Cynthia Nixon played a fictional Clinton campaign manager who preps volunteer cold callers by saying, “We do not answer questions on make-up, bras, panties,…and no, Hillary does not cry at the office.” Most recently, spurred on by Scarborough’s demeaning comments, comedian Samantha Bee created the Twitter campaign, #SmileForJoe, which featured women frowning for the camera.
While it is amazing that street harassment and sexism in the media are being confronted we still have a long way to go. There are some issues that just aren’t funny, no matter how you spin them. It’s 2016, women’s rights are eroding and yet many of us are still over-smiling to the point that those who aren’t incessantly pleasant looking are accused of having RBF or “resting bitch face.” If we can’t control our own simple facial expressions how can we possibly keep reign over the rest of our body? The personal has remained political and I’m With Her on this issue. Just as Hillary Clinton is done with catering to the whims of sexist media moderators and debate opponents, I’m done with betraying my true emotions. This is a call to keep it real, smile when you mean it but otherwise show the world how you really feel.
Jasmine Williams for The Untitled Magazine
Image 1 courtesy of CNN.com
Image 2 courtesy of StopTellingWomenToSmile.com