6.28.2011

Oh, look, a feminist post!

Back in the day--May, I think, before I came to realize how incredibly busy May and June were going to be for me--one of my funny, thoughtful friends asked me what I do when men on the street tell me to smile.  She wanted a good feminist comeback.  She wrote:

I've actually said once--this was in a bar, way back when, "it's not my job to smile for you." But that didn't have the impact I was looking for. The person followed up with "but you have such a pretty smile." Which, of course, he couldn't have possibly even known having never seen me smile....so annoying.

When I've talked to male friends about this--none of whom would ever say such a thing--they insist that the guy is just trying to "cheer me up." I've even gone so far as to speculate that I have a naturally turned-down mouth and it can look like I'm in a foul mood when I'm really not....but no, I don't think that's it because too many women have this same experience.  And what stinks is that these men actually think they're being nice with this comment! Ugh.

If you do come up with any interesting comeback, let me know. And of course, feel free to blog about it.

Let me just assure you that this person doesn't walk around looking like she's in a foul mood.  And she's right that many women have this experience.

Sadly, this is an area where I have little advice to offer.  It may be that because I'm so tall, I get this sort of comment less often.  And I'm such a Southern woman that sometimes when I do get told to smile, I smile!  Damn training.  I mean, I'm not opposed to smiling.  But it is an annoying phenomenon that men in the world think that women should be smiling, and that they--the men in the world--have the right to encourage them to do so.  It's a clear double standard.  How often do women in the world walk around encouraging men they don't know to smile?

Perhaps that's what we should do:  start asking men to smile for us.  Although that strikes me as quite creepy.  Okay, readers:  if you have great responses, share them!

17 comments:

allisondcarr said...

Sara Ahmed has lots and lots to say about this in The Promise of Happiness (2010). Check out the chapter on the "Feminist Killjoy." Very smart.

krlr said...

If you're the polite Southern sort, you can opt for the Miss Manner's recommended expression of shocked incredulity that they would be so bold as to speak to you. "I beg your pardon!" Or my less polite version of the WTF face and a scowl. I'm tall too & usually walk with a "don't bother me" face - a remnant of urban living - so it doesn't happen often, but the few times it did I just saw it as a weak pick up line. You could just cut to the heart of the matter and respond with, "married."

Robin Barrow said...

What I *want* to do when men tell me to smile is say, "Tell me a good joke." I haven't yet remembered to do that. Sometimes I just look at them blankly and move on. More often I just smile.

The fact that I've thought about this gives you some idea of how often it occurs.

erniebufflo said...

I always get the urge to tell them something that will make them feel like the jerk they're being. Something like, "But my cat just died." or "But I just found out I have a horrible illness." Because seriously, they have no idea what my day is like or what's going on in my life. But truthfully, my default expression is apparently a broad smile, as more often than being told to smile, I get asked what I'm so happy about. You just can't win.

Trey said...

I think you *should* tell men to smile. And I don't think it would be creepy. I mean, definitely no more so than a man saying it to a woman.

I guess it could feel kind of invasive. A lot of times, I hate it when a stranger takes it upon themselves to talk to me. I didn't ask for that. But, there are a lot worse things for someone to say to you than to smile.

Anonymous said...

In a different context, that of teaching and taking yoga classes, I've had women teachers encourage me to smile, and (as a teacher) I've encouraged my class to smile. Because sometimes we get so focused on maintaining the pose, we forget that we're supposed to be enjoying the yoga. Of course, I also do lots of other things that would be socially incorrect outside of that context -- 'stick your butt up in the air more' -- 'lift your rib cage' -- 'inhale.' So in the context of a yoga class, reminders to smile can be very useful to get you to loosen up.

Outside that context, it seems unbearably rude to tell someone what kind of mood they should be in.

At the beginning of every Fantasy Island episode, right before the planes landed and the new guests disembarked, Mr. Rourke would tell all his employees, 'Smiles, everyone! Smiles!' So my reply to a stranger would be either: "You don't look like Mr. Rourke" or "Put on a white suit and take me to Hawaii if you're going to tell me that."

--judson

mary said...

i like what robin said. i think i could actually remember that line! i wonder what it is that makes someone think it feels good to be told to smile... it seems to me that people who do that/who think it's not annoying haven't been pushed to exhibit a specific outward emotion on the spot by others. my neutral face isn't doing anything wrong. go smile at yourself!

starrlife said...

Let's see... It all depends on my mood how I respond to intrusiveness. I can be pretty rude with an f-you response or, if I am feeling relaxed and secure I just smile and take the comment at face value - a way to connect perhaps. Catcalls however I just ignore!

sarahmartin said...

Wow. This must really be a Southern thing because I cannot, under any circumstance save a class picture, recall anyone ever asking me to smile. That would be considered downright rude in the Midwest where your business is your own, thank you very much. Bizarre.

Anonymous said...

OK, you guys just don't get the "dagger in the throat" approach that stops the sexist and stupid comments made by the male fragile ego.

Look from his chest to his face and say:
"I see NOTHING to smile at"... or
"You have something between you teeth" ... or
"Use at Tic Tac"

The Dad

Alison said...

Thank you all for this great feedback! And it popped up quickly! It's fun to see who's been lurking.

Allisondcarr, I've ordered Sara Ahmed's book--thanks for the recommendation! And it's nice to see you again!

I'm very amused by the range of responses. I can share with my friend the WTF face, the request for a joke, or the dagger in the throat. Or perhaps I should encourage her to respond with, "Stick your butt up in the air more." That would be confusing in a fun way.

Quiche said...

My daughter was complaining about the same thing, particularly at work, and neither of us are the shit eating grin kind of people.

Give them one of those Jack Nicholson, the Shining "Here's Johnny!" smiles, with hand gestures and the head movements and they'll quickly move on.

Reminds me of the thing Walt and Kenneth used to do walking across the outside of the grocery isles...I am sure they both would have interesting suggestions for responses.

Biffle said...

what did Kenneth and I do at the grocery isles, Quiche?

allisondcarr said...

I'll look forward to reading your thoughts on Ahmed when you're able to fit it in...

MaryG said...

I'd like to suggest a different possible perspective. Is this really a case of a man attempting to encroach on your space or is it possibly the attempt at the latest annoying "come on" of the less-evolved? I suspect that I am older than the rest of the women making comments here. In fact, I suppose I would be considered a "second wave feminist" since I've been of this mindset for more than 40 years.

One thing I've learned is that there are greater issues to be addressed (violence/abuse, money, glass ceilings) than to worry about the latest trend in pick up lines. Often, by taking the position of trying to squelch the speaker, you miss an opportunity to educate.

Cindy said...

wow...this is so foreign to me. I am in California and I can honestly say, that noone, I mean noone, have ever uttered these words to me.
I guess one positive thing about living in CA...

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's just a regional thing, though. I've always lived in the South and I've never had anyone (male or female) tell me to smile. Hmmm...At the risk of sounding pollyannaish, I kind of like the idea of spreading joy in the world by smiling at complete strangers. It's not so much an "I'm happy" or "I think you're hot" kind of smile as a "I'm glad we're both humans with the capacity for joy and making connections with others" kind of smile that I'm talking about though. I don't think of it as someone policing my mood because of my gender so much as wanting to be a force of kindness (if only in a small way) in a world that often isn't.
Okay. I understand the underlying feminist principle, here, Alison, but the more I think about this in terms of my own life--I'd rather be smiling more at people rather than less. This doesn't feel like blatant gender socialization to me though, as I sit here overanalyzing and totally personalizing...
Deandra