Reader Kate Mauldin writes:
As I was reading your note about the sexism of telling women to smile in the wake of people criticizing Hillary Clinton’s debate face, a man on my train ****touched me on my knee**** to get my attention and tell me to smile. Is that a sense of entitlement and ownership of public space or what?
Since we published that note earlier this week, many women have been writing in to share stories about what it’s like to be told to smile. Rachel A. has a particularly thoughtful analysis:
I remember when I was living in Eugene, Oregon, I was told to smile often by strangers while passing them on the street. I grew up 30 minutes outside of NYC and don’t remember being told to smile in New York. I remember plenty of street harassment, being followed by men while driving, being gawked at, lewdly looked at, etc. But in Oregon, it was different. It was more of a “Let me know I’m an okay guy” kind of message, as if I was telling every man I passed by that he wasn’t doing his job well unless I was smiling.
The strangers (all men) came across as attempting to be friendly to me by telling me to smile, as if to say, “Hey, cheer up, it can’t be that bad.” But I was taken aback, nonetheless. I felt I had tripped upon some unwritten rule and offended the sensibilities of those around me.
But I was also deeply offended in my own way. I couldn’t imagine that my facial expression should affect strangers in any way. I couldn’t understand how I was supposed to just go about life smiling at nothing all the time. It’s pretty nonsensical. Why would I smile for the duration of a 30-minute walk? I felt it was very much about them, not me—as if my facial expression was a reflection of them, I wasn’t a whole person with thoughts and feelings of my own, and I was put on this earth to reassure men they were adequate on a daily basis. And I was viscerally aware that this rule only applied to me because I was female.
I made the opposite move, from Oregon to New York, and can second Rachel’s observation: People in my hometown of Portland have a different expectation of what a neutral face should look like, so that when I moved to NYC, I had to learn to make my expression less open to avoid inviting strangers’ comments. (Have you noticed different demands for smiling in different places where you’ve lived? Tell us about it via firstname.lastname@example.org.) Here’s Rachel’s bottom line on smiling:
I think it’s about being perceived as a threat. We women have to be careful not to make anyone feel threatened. We smile with our women friends all the time, not only when we’re happy but because we need to reduce threat. We need to convey, “I’m on your side. No need to view me as a threat. And I don’t view you as a threat.”
Another reader, Beth, picks up on that dynamic: