Souris, ma Petite: In Which I Justify my Weird Thing About Smiling

This was originally intended for publication in a student magazine, but since that didn’t work out (oh well, next time will be better) I decided to share it here.

Since childhood my sister and I could not go to church without the older members insisting that we smile immediately after saying hello. We never understood why they did this. I always assumed that it would stop when I got older because it would no longer be “cute.” I was wrong. I accepted it as merely annoying and not anything to get worked up over until I heard stories of street harassers using similar language toward their targets. When I realized that the church people never told boys to smile, it dawned on me that the grandfatherly man from church and the creepy guys from the harassment stories may share views on how women should appear in public. I noticed a similar double standard last summer when I worked at a summer camp for children. For the most part I loved my job. However, I noticed that the expectation to appear happy in the presence of the campers weighed much more heavily on female than male staffers. I was told frequently by my superiors that I needed to smile more. When my female co-workers were caught sans sourire they would often hear similar suggestions, but I never witnessed my bosses calling out a man’s facial expression. Similarly, in a volunteering group within the Girl Scouts, the leaders encouraged us to wear our “perma-smiles” when we performed our duties so we would look more friendly and approachable to tourists of the historic landmark where we worked.

Let’s talk about Kristen Stewart. Whether or not you enjoy her films, the way this young actress is viewed by the media is worth examining. Both in her movies and in real life, she is known, and often mocked, for wearing a neutral facial expression. No matter how many photos emerge of her laughing at a joke during her appearance on Ellen or smiling in the audience of an award show, the masses still insist that she needs to smile more because the majority of actresses normally appear bubbly in interviews and on the red carpet. Male actors, on the other hand, can have an overall serious demeanor without anyone questioning them.

I began to look more critically at the so-called inspirational quotes that encourage people to smile after I read a book in which the protagonist had no choice. In Victor Hugo’s L’homme Qui Rit (translation: The Man Who Laughs), the hero is mutilated as a child in a way that freezes his facial muscles in a smiling position. As a result he cannot express his emotions, wants, and needs as an adult and the world fails to see him as more than a carnival clown. If I had read this book before the aforementioned volunteer experience I would have objected strongly to the use of the term “perma-smile.” Since meeting this character, I have encountered several quotes about smiling that have made me uncomfortable such as, “Studies show that smiling when you’re upset will actually make you feel better,” “Nobody cares if you’re sad, so smile anyway,” and my personal favorite, “Smile, you’re designed to.” The majority of these were found on Pinterest and Twitter accounts with something along the lines of “girly quotes” in their titles. In other words, the majority of people who viewed this material were women. The patriarchal institutions that drive women to find these quotes inspirational do so to create les femmes qui rient. There is a scene in the novel when our hero makes an eloquent political speech to the members of parliament only to be written off as a joke. This is an experience to which many women in politics can likely relate because their rich, white, male colleagues only see them as a source of entertainment. This parallel can effectively illustrate the implications of a constant smile keeping someone in a low position.

Next time you tell a woman to smile, I hope that you will at least think about why you want her to. If she were a man would you expect a smile from her? Think really hard about that one. If the answer is yes, then it is permissible. If not, congratulations, you just played a small role in perpetuating patriarchy.

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