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Sunday, September 26, 2004

Smiling

Well, the comments threat at Hugo's blog got hijacked over the debate over whether women should smile or not at men. Ack! I feel kind rotten about it. I think that there are some massive misunderstandings. (Actually, misunderstanding suits his original topic well, which is why men who mean well can honestly get put off by the "guilt" thing.)

Since the focus in this discussion is often on women's very real anger at sexism and fears of violence, I thought I would point out that women are cautious over men for somewhat mundane reasons, too. My example was men who tell strange women who are lost in their thoughts or even frowning for whatever reason to smile. My point is just this--when a man tells a woman to stop doing whatever she is doing to smile at him, he is essentially saying that her obligation to make men feel good overrules anything else that might be occupying her mind at that moment. I could be wrong--maybe there's the whole smile squad, and all I've ever seen is the male members going after women in public. But I don't think so.

Apparently, this touched a nerve. In a very raw and basic way, one of the most sexist demands on women is that they handle the responsibility of prettifying the world--being cuter, nicer, lifting moods, smiling, handling social niceties, etc. It's hard to criticize this, because it's difficult overall to criticize anything that can be seen generally as a good thing. This is why the issue of women's nuturing nature is a big issue--nuturing is a good thing, so it's difficult for people to see why characterizing women as especially nuturing is wrong. The reason is that this isn't about women being better--it's about tearing down stifling gender roles and achieving equality and freedom. Characterize women as inherently nuturing and women who aren't particularly nuturing will get labeled as bad women.

I think we're off-track to talk about whether women should or shouldn't smile or whether it's dangerous our not, and for one really good reason--it's not about "should". It's about freedom.

I am a really smiley person, a huge goofball. Looking through the mountains of pictures my boyfriend takes, in most I'm smiling even and especially if I don't see that my photo is being taken. Or actually laughing. That's my personality--believe it or not, that too can be considered unfeminine because the proper girlie smile is demure, head down, eyes up adoringly, not a big shit-eating grin. Hell, laughing women might be an even bigger threat than those lost in thought or frowning vaguely at stress in their own lives.

It doesn't matter if some women are pleasant and smile at strangers or some can't be bothered and some laugh so hard that insecure men can't handle it. The issue is privacy and freedom. Women have the same right as men not to be under constant survelliance. Our behavior doesn't need to be corrected by strangers who have their own opinions about what makes a person sexually appealing, and nor should our very desire to be appealing be up for debate.

Astarte wondered, and fairly I suppose, if I'm not a hypocrite because I have my times when I like to wear cute clothes and be sexy. No, I don't think so. If I want to wear nice clothes and make-up, I do. If I'm too busy to do those things, I don't. If I'm not in the mood, I don't. If I want to wear them to impress my select friends but I don't care what strangers think, that is also my right and good for me.

It's the same with being a pleasant, smiling female. Sometimes it's sunny and all is right and you feel like you are in a musical and are walking down the street singing and just grinning like an idiot at everyone you see. Sometimes you are busy and lost in your thoughts. Sometimes you are beset by depressing thoughts and are sad. No matter how you feel, you don't owe it to strange men to lift their spirits by having women smile demurely at them.

The only thing I was pointing out is that even in small ways, sexism makes it hard for women to comfortably go about living their lives, something men take for granted. Instead women are under survelliance, having their behavior inspected and corrected out of the belief that our feelings should be subsumed to those of men we don't even know walking down the street.

19 Comments:

Blogger mythago said...

Thank you.

9/26/2004

 
Blogger Astarte said...

My whole point is that the reaction is over-reacting. If we want to change the world, it's not going to be done by running around screaming 'THE SKY IS FALLING, THE SKY IS FALLING!'.

9/27/2004

 
Blogger Amanda said...

I don't think anyone's really doing that--in fact my point was that women can be reluctant to engage with strange men for reasons large and small. It's not just fear of rape. Little things like this can also add up to overall tension that shouldn't have to be there.

Anyway, isn't the whole point of the blogosphere to worry over teeny-weeny details?

9/27/2004

 
Blogger Elayne said...

I think most humans harbor the expectation of a smile once eye contact has been made. It's the way we communicate our lack of hostile intent towards one another. That said, when one party has CHOSEn to initiate eye contact - that is, when the eye contact isn't mutual - this expectation is probably unreasonable. To the extent that men still do expect it from women, it could be attributed to the "center of the universe" theory - white male hets are the Default, therefore everything really DOES revolve around them. Now, THAT said, if you've any question as to whether a man expecting a smile from a woman is de facto sexist, replace the word "smile" with "bow" and see where that gets you.

9/27/2004

 
Blogger Tara said...

I have lived in Montreal for a couple of years now, and one striking difference that I notice is that there is a lot of eye contact with people just on the street, more than in any other city in which I've lived. People enjoy looking at each other and being looked at, people tend to dress dressier, people enjoy the human contact. I enjoy it a lot, and miss it when I travel.

And yet - despite all the eye contact, there is not that much smiling! Smiling is NOT at all a necessary part of human contact, it is NOT necessary to smile to assure a lack of, I don't know, bad intentions. Because looking is accepted as normal, you don't need to excuse yourself or whatever with a smile. Looking is also not generally considered an invitation to conversation, because it is just normal walking-down-the-street behaviour.

It's when looking at each other is not conventional that the whole smile issue comes up, and it makes it that much more clear that smiling is davka not about normal human connections but about exceptional human connections where one person reads a situation differently than the other one - expects a smile while the other person doesn't want to smile/isn't paying attention/etc. The person who wants eye contact and eye contact leading to smiling is the one who wants to create an exceptional situation, and to have an expectation on another person to participate in that reflects a huge sense of entitlement.

When I go to a city where people don't look at each other, I very quickly pick up on that vibe and become a lot more discreet about my looking, if I look at all.

Wow, I appreciate this city more all the time.

9/27/2004

 
Blogger mythago said...

How is saying "I don't smile back at random men because I don't care for the risk of getting harassed" playing Chicken Little?

I've had this debate before, and there's always at least one guy who thinks women owe him friendliness, and at least one woman who believes her God-given right to be charming and flirty with strangers is being threatened. When either of those types has been threatened or harassed for being "friendly," maybe the USS Clue will land. But I'm not holding my breath.

9/27/2004

 
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