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Last week, in a discussion of how to not harass people on the street, a few commenters floated a possible harassment loophole: Isn’t it okay to call out people on the street if you’re just insisting that they turn that frown upside-down?
I have previously delicately explained why people on the street should refrain from asking me to smile for them (“Don’t Fucking Tell Me To Smile, Baby“). This time around, let’s hear an involved and eloquent dissection of “smile!” from commenter Saurs, who enumerates the many reasons why she is not going to be smiling for you. My name is Amanda Hess and I approve this message.
It’s really very simple, actually. Men like these believe they have the right to intrude on a woman’s time and space whenever they sense or hope doing so might increase their chances of pulling, irrespective of what that woman is doing or what she wants, subtle signals or obvious ones (like headphones) be damned. They don’t acknowledge that a woman has an intrinsic right to remain mired in her own thoughts in public without being harassed, questioned, propositioned, interrupted, approached, or otherwise bothered. They don’t respect her enough to leave her alone and they’re bull-headed enough to believe their childish need for attention trumps the wishes of everyone else. Shapely Prose and Yes Means Yes also have useful blogposts on the subject.
The same sense of entitlement informs men’s decisions to approach random female strangers in the street and demand that they “smile!” Because a woman’s job is to brighten your day and make you feel better, and to be “pretty” and “sweet” and “happy”! “Smile! It can’t be that bad!” Effectively informing you, because as a woman you exist in a perpetual state of ignorance until some random fuckwad comes round with an illuminating piece of homespun male wisdom, that your life is great because you’re female and pretty, so don’t take anything too seriously lest you harsh the temporary high he gets from harassing you, eyeing you up and down, and making it his business to tell you how lucky you are. You dumb, hysterical bitch.
I use public transport often, both on short day-trips and longer, cross-country trips. As a grown-up type person, I know I’m going to have to occupy myself during such trips, quietly and without disturbing my neighbors. Often I become deeply absorbed in the tasks I plan for myself, including reading and writing. I don’t enjoy being interrupted and I can’t imagine why anyone would. I know for a fact that the men who interrupt me do so not because I am so entrancing and they are so mesmerized by my beauty and so frightened at the possibility of never seeing me again that they simply must speak to me. I’m not that good-looking or fascinating. The men who bother me when I’m clearly engaged in a task of my own choosing do so because they’re bored, and they know, from socialization, that a demure, female creature is much more likely to put away the book or notebook she has at hand and devote herself for a few moments to the needs of any male creature in the near vicinity who needs immediate attention, regardless of whether or not she actually enjoys his facile charm, his meager intelligence, his limpid attempts at humor, his ludicrous compliments. I do not gladly suffer such fools. They are singularly exhausting, like children.
When Woolf speaks of a woman’s need for a room to herself, that’s what she means; a physical and mental space wherein a woman can be the sole master of her own thoughts without interference from men she knows and from men she doesn’t know. It’s a sign of disrespect when a man intrudes upon a woman’s thoughts because he believes he is desperate need of her attention.
This is far different from people who have a mutual desire for conversation. I do this all the time on trains, with men and women. There are clear signs that we’re open to speak, to share a meal or a drink, to chat. We’re not wearing headphones, the books on our laps are closed, our pens are capped. It’s perfectly obvious when someone is interested in speaking to a stranger and when they aren’t. That men overwhelming choose to interrupt women when they’re engaged elsewhere and in other business in public is a clear example of men taking up mental and physical space and acting like pigs.
It also shouldn’t be difficult to see, acknowledge, and condemn the sexism in the casual exhortation of women to smile and look pretty. I’m forever being accosted and told to be happy, or, rather, to look happy, for the explicit gratification of my interlocutor. I generally walk down the street, for example, busying myself with my own thoughts, absorbed by a particular problem, flight of fancy, piece of recitation, something that interests and excites me. I don’t expect strangers to be interested in the contents of my mind, but neither do I expect them to demand that I neglect my own desires in favor of looking “pretty.” I don’t know from pretty. It may surprise some men to find that there are hordes of women who could not care less about looking pretty. When I’m in the midst of contemplating something that interests me, I don’t look pretty; I’ve probably got forehead wrinkles, I’m frowning in concentration, I might even go cross-eyed. I don’t care.
I happen to find surly, moody expressions attractive on men and women. Nevertheless, I don’t go round my neighborhood asking strangers to pout for me because I happen to like a good pout. It’s none of my business what expression a stranger chooses to don, consciously or unconsciously. And yet women’s bodies are constantly on display, constantly in a state of being judged, critiqued, and closely examined. Women’s physical selves are always in need of being checked, our expressions guarded, in order to please and gratify strangers by succumbing to certain conventions, like “prettiness,” a kind of passive, pleasing attractiveness that seems to delight some men. There are also some men who don’t care what a woman is actually feeling, so long as she masks those unattractive or complicated feelings by wearing a pleasing grin on her face, devoid of intelligence. Some men don’t want to acknowledge that women have inner lives that may not revolve around pleasing men. Even women who are not by convention good-looking, even ugly by convention, are still expected to “make an effort” towards conventional attractiveness — they are expected to wear make-up, care about their hairstyles, wear restrictive clothing, feign or adopt submissive, feminine mannerisms. Women are often found wanting, even by strangers.
The men who approach me and ask me to smile are being sexist. That some women also choose to engage in sexism by asking strangers to smile does not negate the sexism in their behavior. Some women like women. Some women treat other women like objects. This is no surprise.
Photo via Hendricks Photos.