Stop telling women to smile

Stop asking girls to smile. When was the last time a stranger demanded you do something you didn’t want to do? It doesn’t happen very often. So why is asking girls on the street to smile a common occurrence?

Smiling is the ultimate friendly gesture. The half-smile and nod we offer to the passer-by signals friendliness. But asking or demanding a woman you don’t even know to smile for you? That’s overbearing, creepy, and invasive. Are these same men commanding men to smile?

If we haven’t smiled at you of our own accord, it’s probably because we want you to leave us alone. In New Zealand, a man assaulted a woman because she smiled at him, claiming that “women who smile are inviting men to follow them” – and this isn’t a singular incident.

Let’s think back to when Hilary Clinton was tweeted at by Joe Scarborough to smile. Did he tell Trump to smile? Did he tell anyone else but the woman running for president to smile? No. She was reduced and subjugated to just a “pretty face that should always smile”. It’s patronising and yet another way to reduce women to their outward appearance: we are meant to shut up, sit still and look pretty. 

The “Give us a smile, love” taunt is how men get their foot in the door to passively engage into an unwanted conversation. It is gender-based street harassment. The reason it makes our skin crawl is that we know what comes next. You’re probably going to say something disgusting, or hurl insults because we didn’t meet your demands. We are people — not puppets. 

But why do men tell women to smile? Who knows. Maybe it’s because society conditions men to think women merely live and breathe to exist for the male gaze and their pleasure (see: The Warwick rape chat scandal). Maybe it’s because men think they have the right to control women’s bodies or use negative language to describe women if they don’t get what they want; typically a great warm-up act before the pièce de résistance, which usually escalates to either sexual slurs or hurling insults. 

If we want to smile, we will smile. If we want to smile at you, we will smile at you. If you must ask, I’m sorry, hun, but we are not interested.

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