I was walking home from the SkyTrain one night when out of the shadows emerged a hooded face with a gravelly voice. “Smile, beautiful, it’s hard to keep a straight face like that,” he said to me as I hastened my pace and evaded his gaze.
This is a familiar narrative to a lot of women: that tale of being jolted out of a reverie by some exhortation about smiling. I wish I could offer an explanation as to why the command is so commonplace; regardless though of why certain men feel they ought to tell women what to do with their faces, it’s a tired request that keeps getting older. Women are becoming increasingly fed-up with the manhandling of moods.
While I know many men might not see it this way, asking someone to smile is a questionable cocktail that’s both sexual and patronizing. Sexual, because it’s often accompanied by some proclamation about the woman’s appearance—generally “You would look prettier if you just smiled.” Patronizing, because the commander assumes a position of authority over a stranger by telling them what to do.
More than patronizing though, it can be a form of intimidation. Comedian Nikki Glaser, for a NowThis Rant, said that while she never wants to smile in response to these commands, she does so anyways “because I’m a little bit scared.”
That’s the crux of the matter: this street harassment becomes an assertion of dominance. I doubt very much that a hetero man would, in all seriousness, say to another man “Smile, handsome!” Encounter a young woman walking alone though, and suddenly it’s open season on unwilling participants.
Most men don’t see telling women to smile as anything more than a teasing or flirtatious remark. As Damon Young writes for Ebony.com, he used to see the act as “playful and innocuous”; he acknowledges though that it’s “not about a legitimate need for women to be happy as much as it’s that smiling/pleasant-looking women are easier on the eyes and more inviting to approach. It’s really not about the women at all.”
To me, the point of telling someone to smile is to tell them what to do, and assert some alleged dominance—the goal isn’t actually to make the woman smile. I get what Young is saying about women being more approachable if they’re smiling (still not a good excuse), but haven’t you already approached the woman by telling her to smile? You’re either forcing a woman to smile in order to make her more approachable for yourself, or you’re forcing her to smile for the sake of it. Regardless, the woman and her actual happiness get lost along the way.
Artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh started the project Stop Telling Women to Smile to address “street harassment, particularly gender-based street harassment,” as she states in the project’s promotional video. Stop Telling Women to Smile began in the fall of 2012 in Brooklyn, and is Fazlalizadeh’s call-out to her harassers; rather than staying silent, she created a platform through her art to respond, and shared that platform with other women.
Instead of keeping her response in the confines of a studio or gallery, she chose to bring it where the harassment happens: the streets. Fazlalizadeh interviews women on their experiences with gendered street harassment, gathering accounts from real women about their fears, anxieties, and reactions. From there, she takes the women’s photographs, draws their portraits, and captions the portraits with what the women want to say to their harassers. The result is a series of poster portraits, plastered around New York and emblazoned with words like “I am not here for you”; “I am not outside for your entertainment”; and “You can keep your thoughts on my body to yourself.”
The commands to smile are, as Fazlalizadeh articulately describes, “unwelcome … unwanted … aggressive, and assertive, and really make you feel uncomfortable and harassed.” I don’t care whether or not the intention is to be “playful”; the fact is it’s a bizarre request that belies any innocuous intentions, and it can’t be ignored as white noise. Give women a reason to smile, don’t tell them to.