Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

What's a Matter, Girl? Don't You Want to Smile?

Written by Rachel McCarthy James
Illustration by Molly Schulman
In the abstract, this is the way that smiling works. I feel happy or wish to express good wishes, and so I arrange my facial muscles in one style or another to project this emotion outward. It's a simple and wonderful concept; for me, it's a natural expression that communicates something meaningful.

But in the practical world? Smiling is not just an expression of happiness and friendliness; as with everything wonderful, it's a little more complex than that. Women are trained, expected, and ordered to smile in most situations.
My ease in smiling places me at an unfair advantage in many environments. When I beam, people assume that I am particularly nice, pleasant, or polite—not wrong exactly, but I know plenty of people nicer than me who grin less. It's also a reflection of my various privileges: my white, cisgender* body and feminine presentation contribute to the benefits I receive when I smile. My smiling is not solely and purely a representation of my disposition—it's a response to social conditioning.
The training to smile begins early and often for children being raised as girls. Feminist and queer writer Satah Cameron writes (here) about how that training kicked in during an uncomfortable conversation with eir** family: “I affix a wide, children’s-show-host grin to my face—they taught me in girl guides to always look happy when you’re tying to sell cookies over the phone, because the potential customer can hear the smile—and nudge the phone between my chin and my shoulder . . . my cookie-selling smile falls off of my face the moment the phone leaves my ear.” For folks like Cameron, who were assigned female genders at birth and later found a non-binary gender identity, this kind of response reinforces the gender binary ey** rejects.
Pressure and training to smile is disproportionately targeted at women—and so they smile more, and are expected to smile more. Pressure to smile is applied regardless of sex in some professional situations—salesmen and male retail workers, for example, are also encouraged to smile. But as these men climb the ladder to higher positions of authority, they smile less, while women climbing professional ladders continue to smile at the same rate. Social psychologist Nancy Henley has researched how women are conditioned to smile. She found that in social situations, women smile 89 percent of the time, whereas men smile only 67 percent. Furthermore, an additional 26 percent of female-to-male smiles are unreturned. Women’s smiles are expected and taken for granted, whereas men’s smiles are worthwhile of being sought out.
Men's smiles are not conditioned, but rather are positioned as objects of desire for women—many women's magazines offer advice on how to get a man to smile. Media, such as the notoriously misogynistic Daily Mail and Glamour, also advise women to use false smiles as a way to seduce and manipulate men, suggesting that we smile thirty-five times an hour and offering tips on how to coax smiles out of men. Again, women's smiles are expected and taken for granted, whereas men's smiles are reflective of their feelings.
Coercing people into smiling through random or friendly-seeming admonitions is one of the ways the kyriarchy*** exercises its muscles. Smiling or not smiling does not necessarily indicate happiness or sadness—people can fake expressions, and people can feel happy and content without moving their facial muscles in that particular way. It's an indicator of, not just sexism, but ableism: people who are clinically depressed may not want to express happiness, and to expect them to grin despite sadness betrays deep disrespect for their disability.
Even with people like me who do like to smile, the expectation that I must smile can be a bit of a pain. I find myself making eye contact with women far more often than I make it with men, because men often take this eye contact as an invitation to hit on me. I feel particularly vulnerable at rock concerts. As long as I have my male partner with me, I'm fine and friendly. But should I be alone, I immediately feel the gaze and keep my face stony to avoid confrontation. These concerts are also the only places where I receive such commands. “Smile, baby, it ain't that bad!” is the most memorable of these, yelled at me on a damp April day before a Dead concert; it shocked me, made me feel threatened and scared, to be singled out for my sex and my inadequate expression.
Ordering women to smile is not about reminding them how nice a day it is or how lovely the world is. It's enforcing a cultural expectation that women constantly prioritize their appearance over their emotions and feelings.
This expectation is not always threatening, but instead posed as "a concern" in professional and social situations. Kristen Stewart of the Twilight series has endured calls to “look happier” throughout her career. Carmen Sambuco, a librarian in Baltimore, says: "My natural, at ease face is neither a smile nor a frown, but it's so often interpreted as an indicator that I need assistance from someone in order to enjoy myself. I get asked so many times at parties if I'm having fun, or what's wrong, when I'm just listening to people talk. And I enjoy listening." Sambuco says that attempts to police her expression do not make her feel more welcomed, comfortable, or at ease; instead, they make her feel self-conscious.
I love to smile. But I hate the expectation that I must always smile, and the way people interpret my smile. I hate that folks who are read as women are trained to smile, and that their expression is prioritized over their selves and their identities. It's yet another symptom of the kyriarchy: micromanaging the appearance of its subject, making us vulnerable and pliable without consideration or care for the impact of its expectations.
*cisgender: not transgender.

**to avoid any confusion, eir and ey are the pronouns writer Satah Cameron uses. Check out this helpful explanation by Cameron. 
***kyriarchy: a neologism coined by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and derived from the Greek words for “lord” or “master” (kyrios) and “to rule or dominate” (archein) which seeks to redefine the analytic category of patriarchy in terms of multiplicative intersecting structures of domination.

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