NS June 9th, 2009
Why the long face, sugar pie?
It can’t be that bad, can it?
Let’s see a nice smile, love — go on!
You’d be so much prettier if you smiled.
Ooh, stay out of HER way, she looks mad!
If you’re a woman and have ever walked down the street deep in thought, in a foul mood or with worry creasing your brow, you will most likely have heard at least one of the above, if not all of them, from strange men passing by.
I don’t get it as much now that I always have children in tow (maybe because they think mothers don’t have much to smile about, or perhaps because until you’ve had a man’s children you are anyone’s to be had?) but before they came along I would get it on a regular basis. It irritated me — no, infuriated me — long before I even called myself a feminist with any enthusiasm. From the time I was old enough to be considered a sexual object (pretty much from adolescence), I’d been getting comments about my body, my face, my clothes, mood, emotions, mannerisms…you name it; if I was doing or speaking or wearing it, it would be remarked upon by men I didn’t know. I used to just find it slighly irritating and accepted that it was just “how men are.” But as I grew older and more weary of this phenomenon, so my anger grew alongside. What gave them the right to tell ME to smile, or that they liked my top (while leering at my chest) or that I’d be more pleasing to their eye and expectations if I just did x, y or z?
It all came to a head one day several years ago when I was walking back to my downtown apartment from the grocery store. I was a full time student and working 25-30 hours a week at a bar and restaurant. I was stressed out and pissed off about something and doing the 20 minute walk home, laden with bags of food in the oppressive summer heat, wasn’t doing me any favours. On my way there I’d been told to smile no less than two times, by different men — one in a suit and with a briefcase, the other a scrawny teenage redneck type. Already on the verge of exploding in anger, I knew that one more comment would be the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.
Sure enough, on my way home another man passed by in the opposite direction — all swagger and trailing the telltale scent of midday boozing — imploring me to smile while giving me the once over. I didn’t manage a tight, thin smile or just ignoring him, as I usually do. This time I hardened my scowl and shot him a look that said I was going to do no such thing. Looking bemused, he turned and followed me, again calling out, “C’mon baby, it can’t be that bad. Whatsa matter? Smile for me and you’ll feel better.” I glanced over my shoulder and took in his cocky stance and patronising words. I turned to look him in the eye and said in an even, clear voice: “Fuck off.” I saw his expression turn from one of amusement to shock and anger. I walked away quickly, my heart pounding in my chest. I’d finally stood up to one of the bullies and it felt great!
My pride in myself was short-lived because suddenly, as I stood at the intersection waiting for the lights to change so I could cross, a voice like gravel growled into my ear, “Bitch!” and a pair of hands pushed me from behind, square in the back. I fell forward onto my knees, letting go of my grocery bags to break the fall. A car swerved to avoid hitting me and I watched as the tires whizzed by, inches from my face. My canned goods rolled out of the brown paper bags and onto the glittering asphalt, heat rising from it in visible waves that appeared to melt into the objects surrounding it. My rage bubbled to the surface and before I even had time to make a considered, conscious decision, I grabbed a tin of pastry dough that had landed beside me (those Pillsbury cinnamon rolls — American readers will know what I mean), stood up and spun around with it held aloft. I brought it down on the side of his forehead and the tin burst open with a satisfying THWACK! before the dough popped out and landed on the pavement between us. A comic moment, looking back, but not funny at all at the time.
A small gash opened up on his forehead and blood trickled out. Nothing life-threatening, for sure, but enough to daze him and knock him back a few steps. At that point a valet across the street came running to assist and my attacker turned and fled. I must’ve looked a sight: teeth bared, flashing eyes, mangled tin in my clenched fist as I let loose a string of expletives after him. I was terrified, exhilirated, vindicated and embarrassed all at once. I wasn’t proud that I’d reacted violently to the situation but reminded myself that he could’ve gotten me killed by pushing me into traffic.
In shock, I waved away the valet who offered to call the police, saying I just wanted to get out of there and forget about it. I went home and got ready for work, still running on adrenaline, but when I arrived late and my manager admonished me, I found my hands shaking and my eyes welling up with tears as I explained the reason for my tardiness. To this day I regret not going to the police but I figured they’d never catch the guy and was afraid that because I’d relatiated, I could get into trouble.
The reason I’m telling you all of this is to give you some background on why I feel so strongly about being told to smile. I knew that it was a jerkface thing for men to do but I hadn’t really put my finger on why it bothered me so much and what was sinister about it until today. This post on the community boards at Feministing put another spin on the whole being told to smile thing. An excerpt below:
(Note: I’m a customer and overhear this exchange while waiting in line.)
Barista: “Here’s your change… have a nice day.”
Customer: “You know, you haven’t smiled once.”
Customer: “I’m so sick of the attitude of people in the service industry! Is it so hard to give your customers a smile as you’re pouring water through beans? You all are so arrogant, it makes me sick!”
Barista: *eyes begin to well up*
Customer: “Why aren’t you smiling?!”
Barista: “…because my father died last night.”
How utterly horrid.
Upon reading this and remembering my own negative associations with being told to smile, I realised that the reason some people (and not just men) feel entitled to issue this order (usually to women) is because our moods and emotions have always been open for public scrutiny. I mean, we’re the “feeling” sex, right? We wear our hearts on our sleeves and what you see is what you get, no more. So if we don’t look happy, or friendly, or eager to please, we must be miserable bitches plotting someone’s death or the snatching, seasoning and eating of small children. Ahem.
The real issue though is that, to some assclowns, seeing an unhappy woman or one who isn’t laying herself at their feet in service and devotion is an affront to their sense of power, be it through gender privilege or class privilege or just plain obnoxiousness. We’re people pleasers, remember, or didn’t you get that memo? It’s a generalisation that is centuries old, certainly, one that hasn’t really abated even as we’ve progressed.
The scene in the coffee shop really ticks me off, and not just because it was a grieving woman being admonished for not dancing when someone said dance. In this instance, the customer obviously had ‘service’ and ‘subservience’ confused because her attitude towards the person making her coffee was nothing short of proprietal. With her asinine words, the customer displayed a sense of entitlement to “service with a smile” from the underlings catering to her whims and desires by providing goods and services. She’s one of those people who thinks that if she walks into a restaurant or a clothing store, the assistants and servers should come running, smiles plastered on, when she snaps her fingers, falling over themselves to please her. Her idea of good service is undoubtedly where the ‘servant’ is bending over backward in order to kiss her superior ass more thoroughly and reverently.
As we all know, service industries are often those with the least pay, status and rights. The working poor, part-timers with few rights or benefits and students fill the majority of those roles. This doesn’t include just retail and restaurant work though; even professional female-dominated fields that we might not typically count as services fall under this umbrella. Nursing, teaching, administration/clerical work, care in the community, PR, non-profit…all of these are services and all are full of women. What do they have in common, besides their propensity to be chockablock with the female of the species? They’re all areas in which the people (particularly women) are expected to cater to the customer or patient or boss, with — you guessed it — a smile.
No one wants a nurse who does her job thoroughly but doesn’t smile, do they? We expect her to be more caring, more sympathetic, more willing to deal with the shit (literally). But do we expect the same of a male doctor when he walks into the room? Sometimes we do, but often not. If they are brusque and impersonable we may be disappointed or put off but we aren’t usually angered or shocked by it. We’ve been conditioned to be used to the idea that if men are rude or unapproachable in the professional realm, it’s usually because they are too busy, too important, too cool or merely lacking in “people skills” to have the inclination to perform niceties. If you think about it, the only areas in which we don’t use niceness and customer ass-kissing as a prerequisite for measuring success and customer satisfaction are areas which are historically male-dominated: the upper echelons of business and finance, consultant/specialist medicine, law, science, engineering and professional sports, amongst others. In these areas, we just want someone knowledgable and skiled who can get shit done. We certainly don’t criticise them harshly if they aren’t bubbly and full of smiles. Efficiency, not affability, is the key to their success.
In the meantime, mirthless female baristas get told off for being arrogant, non-flirty and no-nonsense admin assistants don’t get promoted and women who tell strange men to leave them alone get pushed into traffic.
What part of this ridiculous double standard is there to smile about, exactly?