Women and the obligation to smile: one story and one anecdote

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First, the story:

Misty Harris in the article  Kristen Stewart and the infinite sadness: Film actress’s frown turning gender roles upside down writes:

“Brain-mapping research by the University of California-Los Angeles suggests that when we see someone smile, it sets off “mirror neurons” that make us feel as though we, too, are smiling. Classic gender roles, however, arguably magnify the pressure on women to thusly put others at ease with a warm expression.

As former Alberta MLA Doug Elniski blogged, bluntly, in 2009: “Men are attracted to smiles, so smile, don’t give me that ‘treated equal’ stuff. If you want Equal, it comes in little packages at Starbucks.”

The most pervasive criticisms of Stewart are that she doesn’t emote, appears ungrateful for her success, and always looks like she has better things to do (translation: her introversion doesn’t follow the Hollywood script for an ingénue). Online, reports of the actress cracking a smile are treated with the Smithsonian-like solemnity of one discovering a rare artefact.

Feminist writer Wendy McClure acknowledges that this cultural response to Stewart “isn’t completely unfounded.” But because the same treatment isn’t given to such stoic actors as Tommy Lee Jones or Sean Penn – whose brooding is interpreted as an investment in their art – she finds herself defending the actress’s right to be the anti-Jennifer Lawrence.”

Read the rest here.

Next, the anecdote:

I was on a long flight recently and thanks to some upgrade coupons I was flying in the executive cabin. The flight attendant serving in the executive cabin was really nice. She provided just the right amount of attention and she kept calling me Dr Frog. I liked that. She smiled lots, she made jokes, got me blankets when I looked sleepy, and I had this odd thought as I was enjoying her attentions. Is she flirting with me?

Seconds after I had the thought, I thought wow, that’s what it must be like to be a privileged man. Of course, she’s not flirting with me. She’s doing her job, keeping passengers in the executive cabin, frequent flyers and the well off, extra happy. In this case her smiles stood out as unfamiliar, more smiling than I usually get on a plane, but imagine what the world would be like if most women treated you that way. Maybe  then a woman who didn’t smile would like a deliberate affront.

Still thinking about gender roles, class, privilege, and smiles.

3 thoughts on “Women and the obligation to smile: one story and one anecdote

  1. Shulamith Firestone called for a smile boycott!

    “In my own case, I had to train myself out of that phony smile, which is like a nervous tic on every teenage girl. And this meant that I smiled rarely, for in truth, when it came down to real smiling, I had less to smile about. My ‘dream’ action for the women’s liberation movement: a smile boycott, at which declaration all women would instantly abandon their ‘pleasing’ smiles, henceforth smiling only when something pleased them.”

    – The Dialectic of Sex: The Case For Feminist Revolution (The Women’s Press, 1979), p89

    (Thanks to radtransfem.tumblr.com)

  2. I’ve always had a soft spot for Kristen Stewart in particular because, like me, she seems authentically awkward and society is always on her case for not being bubbly and perky. I was always being told to smile as a teenager, sometimes by complete strangers. The presumptuousness is astounding. I never understood how grinning nonstop wouldn’t strike these people as being extremely creepy. The whole thing used to seriously aggravate me. Eventually I just learned to fake-smile, which I don’t think I could unlearn at this point.

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