Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Smile Imperative

Yesterday morning, as I was walking up the busy street to the train station, a truck driver yelled at me "You don't look very happy today!" I was surprised out of my normal walking (minding my own business, thank you very much)reverie, and smiled at him rather lopsidedly the way you do when someone shouts something at you that you don't immediately process. Afterwards, I felt stupid for smiling at him, the dolt.

All of my life (and the same is true for many women, from what I can tell), I've repeatedly had strange men telling me to smile. I've had "Come on baby, things can't be that bad", "Show me that beautiful smile," "Come on momma, smile for me now," "You'd be beautiful if you smiled," and more variations on the theme than I can even remember. My reaction is almost always the same. Since the comment usually interrupts me from some daydream, I smile slightly at the guy as I become aware that he's saying something to me, but before I register what that something is. By the time I get what he's just said, I've usually passed him, and it's too late to make a biting comment the way I'd so often like to.

What I'd like to say is: "DON'T TELL ME TO SMILE, MOTHERFUCKER!!"

It's a constant mystery to me as to why some men think it's acceptable to demand that a woman put on a facial expression purely to please the man. Because I can't see a woman saying that to a strange man, can you? "Hey buddy, where's that smile?", "Hey guy, you'd be more handsome if you smiled." I'm sorry, but not going to happen. And men certainly are not going to say that to other men. What's with guys who think they have the right to comment on a woman's facial expression?

The funny thing is, that I've noticed that I'm much more likely to get attention from passing men if I look visibly upset than if I'm happy. Last summer, walking tearily through 3 am urine-soaked streets in New Orleans after a stressful, sweaty week, I had more men express concern to me than in all my years of bouncing around happily, grinning, laughing, and dancing. Granted, I didn't trust that any of them had my best interests at heart, but it was nice to feel like someone cared, even if only for a fleeting moment. What is that? On one hand, I'm supposed to be smiling all the time, but on the other hand, I don't get any attention unless I look upset?

It's an old saw, that women are supposed to be happy and content and sexy and virtuous and maternal and glowing and beautiful and all that. We've all heard it before. But it's 2007, man! Haven't times changed at all? Isn't it generally accepted that women have brains and can use them? That we're not just arm-candy anymore?

Some of my guy friends have suggested that these smile guys are trying in their clumsy way to flirt with me. I suppose I can buy that. Men aren't always known for their social prowess. But far from making me interested in talking to the poor uncreative sap, it just makes me want to make some snide comment that'll burn his ears with shame.

One thing I've noticed with chagrin is that after a man requests that I smile, I actually feel self-conscious about my normal resting facial expression. "Do I look too serious?" I ask myself anxiously, "Is that why guys don't seem to want to date me?" I find myself walking around with a strange sort of half-smile expression on my face. Not really a full smile, because that would be weird, but not really my normal expression either, because I was just told that that's not acceptable to men. And when I find myself thinking these things, I want to go find the smile-demander and make a comment on the size of his package. Or something equally as demeaning.

I've recently begun to get interested in why these men say things like this, and one day I'd really like to stop and ask one of them. It's the same feeling I have about those guys who will slow down in their cars as I walk on the sidewalk and ask me if I want a ride. I always want to ask "Does that EVER work?" But since most of the time I'm wandering in my own little cranial world when some genius utters the suggestion that I smile, I've never once been quick-witted enough to stop and talk to him. Right now, I'm working on curbing my Pavlovian impulse to smile automatically at anyone who's blabbing anything at me. Smiling, in some species, is thought to be a sign of deference, of indicating that the smiler is no threat to the smilee, and it's something women habitually do more than men, as if to say "Don't hurt me, big strong he-man!" While I enjoy smiling, and will willingly smile when I think of it, I am most certainly not going to do it on demand. Next time, guys, just try hello.


Larissa said...

The best part of living in New York is it's perfectly acceptable to look snarly. In fact if someone talks to you it's acceptable to look MORE pissy. I love it.

It seems like on one hand the smile pick-ups are relatively innocuous (nothing particularly offensive or impolite) but in some ways that's what makes it more irksome. Because it's usually said by someone that you can't discount as an idiot trying to be shocking or some player on the prowl. It's not rude or improper but still it's someone obviously flexing their assumed authority in the situation. It seems all at once subtly aggressive and bad social skills. Whether they realize it or not, they are asking you to be deferential to them.

I get annoyed arguing with men about these points because they always seem to think "Well! I certainly wouldn't mind if a gorgeous Grace Kelly-esque woman walked up to me at the bar and told me that!" It seems hard to explain the inherent power-dynamic that women feel in these situations. That seems very frustrating to me.

Mrs. Micah said...

I worked as a library shelver for a number of years, and while I loved my job I disliked some of the attention I got from men.

Particularly one guy who would come up and ask why I wasn't smiling. I wanted to say "I'm moving 791.4372L back into its own section from being in 791.4572, jerk. I'm concentrating!" As it was, I just ignored him completely. After a while he gave it up.

Turned out he probably was flirting too. He went after another coworker of mine before ending up with a girl who didn't work at the library but was always there after school. She was just out of highschool. He was at least 40. It was very very sketch, but I think she felt that at 6 feet tall and 200+ pounds she didn't have a good chance of landing a guy. Which is sad for her.

I don't know how it turned out, but the guy was def. a creep. So whenever a guy tells me to smile, I think of him.