When Men On The Street Tell Me To Smile

Artwork by Anna Jay
The other day, I was tagged in a Facebook photo that confronted me with one of my greatest fears. The picture was of an audience of smiling faces watching a stand-up comedy gig, and sitting conspicuously in the front row was me – head furrowed, eyebrows arched, eyes narrowed. Instead of looking like I was enjoying the naff improv show like everyone else – or at least pretending to like it (support the arts guys) – my angry expression actually read, “Fine! You can have everything! But I’m keeping the kids!” This was an exemplary case of what has commonly come to be known as "Resting Bitch Face". Suddenly, all the times men have said “Cheer up, love” to me on the street seemed to take on a painful new significance. The term "Resting Bitch Face" has been knocking around for a few years, but like everything we know and love and hate, the term only became ubiquitous because of the internet. As comedian Taylor Orci jokes, "Bitchy Resting Face is a disorder that affects millions of women every day." She quips: "Together, we can face the problem.” Orci was judicious enough to temper the RBF with the inclusion of a male equivalent: The Asshole Resting Face (ARF). But regardless of her humour and evenhandedness, the idea of the RBF is a gendered one, and leaves a sour taste in my already naturally downturned mouth. So, what’s my problem? Maybe I don’t have a sense of humour? Sure, I don’t find London’s open mic night scene, or the term Bitchy Resting Face particularly funny, but I wouldn’t call myself a humourless person, far from it. I mean, I know at least three Frasier quotes! I think the problem for me is that, aside from RBF’s already dubious wording, one glaring issue is the media's bias in fixating only on the disposition of the "fairer sex" and complete neglect of the corresponding male temperament. Almost daily, the press dole out diagnoses of Resting Bitch Face to celebrities like Kristen Stewart and Emma Watson. If a female celebrity isn’t smiling, she is scrutinised for being moody and miserable.

Women actually smile more than men, but that doesn’t necessarily indicate that they are happier

Dr. Marianne LaFrance, Professor of Psychology and Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Yale University
I spoke with Dr. Marianne LaFrance, Professor of Psychology and Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Yale University, and author of the brilliant Why Smile, which explores the science behind the facial expression. Dr. LaFrance says that "women actually smile more than men, but that doesn’t necessarily indicate that they are happier". In fact, it’s probably reflective of a power inbalance, as LaFrance’s studies have found that people with low status tend to smile more, to display compliance to those with high status (and in most countries and settings, women have less power than men). Another reason that men may smile less than their female counterparts is that they can associate smiling with weakness. Additionally, says Dr. LaFrance, women are traditionally socialised to be more communal, and tend to be employed in occupations that require smiling as part of their job every day, such as teaching, nursing, assisting, and PR etc. However, despite the fact that women are more smiley on average, the assignment of the term RBF to women who are not smiling seems to be an extension of a pre-existing phenomenon that men expect women to be smiley and happy all the time.
The reaction to last month’s announcement that Harriet Tubman – the abolitionist and humanitarian who risked her life countless times to emancipate slaves – is to be the new face of the $20 bill clearly showed the gender dissonance when it comes to smiling. It was greeted by numerous men on Twitter telling her she needed to cheer up. Male pundits’ constant commentary on Hilary Clinton’s appearance and demeanour in her campaign is another example of the subtle prejudice that is saved exclusively for one gender in the presidency race. But we don’t just have to look to the media for sexism; on the street, women are constantly told to "Show me a smile!" or asked, "Why so serious?" This condescending behaviour may seem harmless, but it’s an insidious reminder to women that their body is not 100% their own, and is there for men’s aesthetic entertainment. The other day I was walking down the street when a man walking towards me told me to, "Cheer up love, it might never happen!" I mean, do I have to be grinning all of the time? I replied that my Mum had just died and watched the colour drain from his face before tripping up, scuffing my new trainers and ruining my small triumph.
It’s hard, however, to know how to feel about and react to these seemingly small intrusions. It’s easy to brush them off and just accept them as another requisite annoyance of being a woman, along with caring too much about the standard of our handwriting, being expected to identify with Audrey Hepburn quotes, and bleeding out of our vaginas every month. But how can we challenge these kinds of comments if they're bothering us? Initiatives like Hollaback and The Everyday Sexism Project aim to catalogue instances of sexism experienced on a day to day basis. They have created places where you can document your experiences, no matter how severe or minor the offence, or how small and niggling the upset you may feel. The platforms allow women to share their stories and highlight to the world that sexism does exist; it is faced by women everyday and that it’s a valid problem to discuss.
Recently, Hollaback have been partly responsible for bringing Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s brilliant project "Stop Telling Women To Smile" to the UK. The Brooklyn-based artist uses street art to tell the stories of women who have been cat called, and challenge everyday sexism. The artist begins by talking to women about their street harassment experiences, she then draws their portrait, along with a caption inspired by something they have said, and puts the provocative art back on the street.

Telling a woman to smile is a sexist microaggression in that it’s seemingly not harmful; because it seems small, it seems like it’s not a big deal, but it is

Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, artist
Tatyana’s work doesn’t aim to stop interaction between men and women, but seeks to encourage the right kind of conversations. When talking on the subject of smiles the artist says, “Telling a woman to smile is a sexist microaggression in that it’s seemingly not harmful; because it seems small, it seems like it’s not a big deal, but it is. When you take something like that and you pile it up and it happens to you multiple times a day – like it does to so many women – then we get to see the effects of that.” The benefit of these large-scale initiatives is that they encourage thoughtful consideration about the effects of the casual degradation of women. On a more personal level, however, it's hard to know how to react in a productive, positive manner. Dr LaFrance says that, if we are commanded to smile, "women should glare at a stranger (probably male) and walk by without giving him a second look."
In one of my favourite Broad City moments, Ilana and Abbi respond to one of these comments by sarcastically plying grins on their faces. It’s important to remember that it’s not women who need to adjust; it’s the offenders who need to be educated. No one has the right to tell a woman to smile just because she's not beaming after standing in a Post Office queue for twenty-five minutes. There has been a hugely positive increase in women (and men) whistleblowing everyday sexism and reacting against prejudice via social media and it’s imperative we continue on this trajectory so we can stamp out these seemingly innocuous, but damaging, events. Because – and here's the ironic thing – if fewer creepy guys tell me to smile, I may actually have more of a reason to be happy.

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