megavetosblt said: Your consent comics are amazing and I love them, but as I was scrolling along your blog I found the comic in which you accuse men asking you to smile of being selfish and abusive. I don't really understand that. I've seen people looking like they've had a crappy day and tried to say hi to them, compliment something they were wearing, etc in a fleeting attempt to brighten their day a little. Isn't it healthier to assume that is what some of these men are doing? Smiling isn't inherently sexual...
Hello, and thank you!
So, here’s where I’m at with smiling:
There’s a huge difference between saying “hi!” and telling someone to smile then calling her a bitch when she reacts negatively to your instructions.
I have never heard an adult woman ask any person over the age of 10 to smile unless she was holding a camera in her hands. But I hear adult men telling women of all ages (and rarely younger men) to smile all the time. Smiling may not be inherently sexual (more on that later) but telling a stranger who is an adult to do what you say is pretty insulting.
I’m a language geek and one of the things you learn when studying languages is the various ways that people can request an action. Some of the ways they can do that in English is as a literal request (“I respectfully request a reply”), a suggestion (“You should come over here some time”), and a statement of fact (“I’d like your answer by noon”), but the rudest way to request action also happens to be one that suggests a power imbalance: an imperative, which is a command or order (“Smile”).
Imperatives are most frequently addressed to children or subordinates - they are really only appropriate linguistically when an adult is telling a child to do something or when a superior is giving instructions. Can you imagine saying to an adult friend of yours “Come here!” or “Eat!” or “Stand up straight!”?
Think about this. Really, really think about this. What is a command that you’d be comfortable giving to another adult? In the US we don’t even place food orders as imperatives most of the time - “I’ll have a…” or “I’d like a…” is a lot more common when speaking to a server than “Give me a…” or “Make me a…” - and in that kind of situation imperatives ARE acceptable because a server is supposed to be subordinate to a customer during a service interaction. So what order would you give to a stranger? “Shut up” is a pretty common imperative used between strange adults, but it’s also seen as pretty damn rude.
"Smile" seems to be an imperative that society has accepted, but imagine if it was "Flex" and it was mostly said by adult women to men of all ages. Flexing isn’t inherently sexual, and tensing your muscles makes you feel stronger and can actually make you healthier in the long run, so they’re probably only saying it to make him feel stronger and cheer him up, right?
Well, maybe not.
Because here’s the thing - smiling, like a baby smiling because it’s looking at a mobile or something, is not inherently sexual. An adult woman smiling because a man told her to isn’t inherently sexual either, it’s just fraught with overtones of the centuries that women could be tortured, imprisoned, killed, or stripped of their property if men didn’t think they smiled enough. Happiness is not something that women find desirable in men but it is something that men find desirable in women and throughout history women who were not happy enough were denied access to their children, thrown into asylums, and sexually assaulted by their doctors. Historically if a woman hasn’t smiled enough or has NOT smiled at the “appropriate” times she gets to live out the rest of her life in a Charlotte Perkins Gilman story.
Here’s the other problem that I have with being told to smile: it’s incredibly insulting to tell someone how to feel. None of you out there in the great wide world are inside of my head, none of you know what I’m feeling, so suggesting that I configure my facial muscles to mimic an emotion that I’m not feeling is ridiculously inappropriate. What would happen if I went around telling people to frown? Or telling people to stop being so flighty and cheerful and to be an angry realist instead? I don’t think it would go over well. And that one isn’t even gender based - if a woman tells me to cheer up I will be just as angry as I would if a man told me to cheer up. Someone says “cheer up” or “smile” and I hear “I’ve noticed your mood is depressed and it’s kind of harshing my mellow, so could you get over your petty little problems or leave?” That’s probably just the depression talking though - too bad the depression’s going to stick around a lot longer than the person who told me to smile.
Even trying to talk to someone or compliment them is problematic, in my opinion. I don’t like being talked to. I’m tired, I don’t want to chat. I want to hide under a blanket and read for an hour then sleep for a week.
There is, however, a way to brighten up someone’s day without making any of those assumptions, though: smile at them.
Instead of telling someone else what to do, commenting on their mood, or making assumptions about their desire for a conversation put the onus on yourself. Humans tend to engage in mimicry when other humans are around. If the barista at the coffee shop seems down in the dumps don’t comment on it - just smile at him and he’s likely to smile back. If the girl on the train acts tired or sad, smile at her and there’s a decent chance that she’ll smile back.