Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Smile, bitch!

So, it’s currently 5:22 this sunny afternoon* and I just got told to smile about ten minutes ago. What, on earth, does this have to do with anything, you ask? Well, let me share with you that I had just finished renewing my bus pass and was on my way to the bus stop when I noticed a man I’d passed earlier playing his guitar. I’d already given him two quarters and didn’t expect him to recognize me. I wanted to avoid the awkward, “Oh I just saw you a little while ago” partly because I hate not to give what little money I can spare to those in need of it. What can I say? I’m something of a philanthropist. Well, in trying to avoid looking at this man, I, looking in front of me (as one generally does when walking), accidentally made eye-contact with a different man sitting outside a restaurant. I looked away and continued walking and just as I passed him, he said “Smile.”

I most certainly did not smile and spent the next few minutes trying to think of a clever comeback that I would then regret not thinking of right away.  Glutton for punishment, that’s me. The relevance? I didn’t know him; I’d never even seen him before. Thusly, he didn’t know, nor had he ever seen, me either.
Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t like to smile; an open, friendly request for me to smile as one passes me by will do wonders. I may even smile because it’s a particularly beautiful day, but the point is that I smile when I’m happy about something. What right did this man have to try to dictate my facial expressions? It’s also worth noting that he could have benefited from his own advice. And that’s just it.

Men tell me to smile a lot and talking to my female friends as well as reading other accounts on the internet, it seems it’s not just me. Many women get told to smile on a semi-regular basis, and it’s usually by men, but I have to see or even hear of a woman telling a man to smile. I’m reminded of a post I read on deeply problematic where RMJ talked about Kristen Stewart being berated for not smiling. She said, and I agree, that men telling women to smile reflects the patriarchal attitude that women must be happy with their lots, no matter what they are, all the time. The only time a man is expected to smile when he isn’t happy is for a photograph, but women are expected to do the same. And women are also expected to be happy all the time simply for the pleasure of men. Domestic labour with no help? Smile! Just went through trauma? Don’t worry; be happy! Someone creepy paying too much attention to you? Be polite and smile! On the red carpet but just not the smiley type? How dare you? Just walking from one place to another? Smile just in case some random stranger wants you to!

Now, with all that in mind, it is important to note that a woman even accidentally making eye contact with a man can expect that man to feel entitled to an audience with her. Smiling in a man’s direction accidentally or not pretty much guarantees it in most situations. Effectively, this is yet another case of how women just can’t win.

It’s never enough for us to simply be content, we actually have to be happy to the point of smiling just in case we inconvenience any random stranger who happens to be a man by letting him know by our facial expressions that there might actually be some situations where women are not ecstatic just to exist.

And yet when we do smile, for absolutely anything, and amazingly enough it often has nothing to do with men, we are automatically sending out an invitation to any man who wants to think so, and we will be blamed for whatever such a man decides to do to us. By telling women to smile, men are ordering us to send out what they will call inviting behaviour.

By all of this, we are denied our true emotions. We are not actually allowed to feel on our own terms; instead it must be on men’s terms, any one of them, and we have no way of knowing which of them will respect us as human beings, and which will exercise their privilege in trying to dictate any outward display of our inner selves. A man demanding that a woman smile is not being friendly and he is not making a kind suggestion, rather he is exercising patriarchal power over us whether he is aware of it or not.

The title of this post is not metaphorical or hyperbolic. It is a direct quotation of a real life young man. I was seventeen and crying under a tree near a busy road. I had been just about to throw myself onto it, but the tree had caught my eye and I was drawn to it. I still feel a special gratitude toward that tree, silly as that may seem, but then some people believe a talking snake told the first woman on earth to eat a fruit that gave her knowledge, so bear with me. It wasn’t a very good year for me due to a terminally ill loved one, past childhood issues, sexual harassment at school, and pining for my not-yet boyfriend (no particular order). I’d had suicidal thoughts before, but never this intense, and that tree seemed to be the only thing that gave a damn in that moment. And as I stood under it, a voice rang out loud and clear: “Smile, bitch!”

I looked up just in time to see some laughing young men in a red car speed down the busy road I had just considered throwing myself into. I think if I hadn’t already been standing under that tree, that utter denial and inconsideration of my feelings then would have been that last straw that pushed me over the edge.

We have to smile, even when we’re on the verge of suicide, not just for men who might see us as they sit or walk, but even for men driving in a goddamn vehicle on a busy street. And on the other end of the spectrum, even if we’re privileged enough to be celebrities, we have to smile for whomever might see too many pictures of us not smiling. Grin and bear it, no matter what it is.

But, of course, the truth is that we don’t have to smile just as we don’t have to marry, have children, wear makeup, or even self-identify under the woman gender, and men don’t have the right to force or pressure us to do so. We are human beings and whether we simply don’t outwardly acknowledge those who make this demand or whether we tell them off, or even whether we choose (it doesn’t count if it’s forced or pressured) to wear clothing that covers our faces, we are rebelling. When we own with pride and no shame our feelings and the expressions that show them, we are proving to ourselves and others that, yes, we women are human and that, no, we won’t let anyone control us.

*Or it was when I began writing this. It’s now about a week or so after the fact.

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