The “smile” command

Alas, A Blog has a fascinating post (an old one, but new to me) about the issue of how to respond to an embarrassing intrusion. I think I’ve seen this happen before: a total stranger commands a woman to “smile,” and apparently expects compliance. I’ve seen it much more often at things like family reunions, where relatives seem to be suggesting that cousin Betty would be so much prettier if she’d just smile every once in a while.

Clearly, such behavior on the part of the asker is incredibly rude, whether at a family reunion or in the grocery store. The question Lucia at Alas takes up is whether it’s also a feminist issue. So, when such an effrontery occurs, are we supposed to be politically charged, or merely annoyed? The argument for the former is that the “smile” command is directed more at women than at men, and more at attractive women than other women.

Funny thing: my wife, who I consider to be very attractive, has never been told to smile. My daughter, who if possible is even more attractive, hasn’t either, except by her mother (and as we all know, parents are allowed to do things that would be considered rude in any other context, otherwise the world would be full of slouching, mumbling, unkempt grumps with both elbows on the table). Apparently mere femininity or good looks aren’t enough to incite the dreaded “smile” command. So either there must be something about their behavior or their dress and grooming that stifles the “smile” command, or they both just happen to only associate with exceedingly polite people. I imagine it’s some of each. The point is, avoiding the “smile” command seems to be a matter that women do have some control over.

Let’s take an extreme analogy: If a woman wears low-cut dresses and hangs out in seedy bars, she’s likely to get whistled at, patted, and propositioned on a regular basis. Now she might argue that she has every right to wear low-cut dresses and hang out in seedy bars, and those men are wrong to assume she wants to be pinched and leered at, but the fact of the matter is that if she doesn’t want to be around people who behave that way, there are steps she can take to easily avoid them. If she doesn’t like the people in seedy bars, she should stop hanging out there.

The commenters over at Alas say they get the “smile” command just walking down the street or at the grocery store. However, empirical evidence suggests that some women do walk down the street and go to the grocery store and are not accosted with rudeness. I suspect anyone who is bothered by the “smile” command could take a survey of her friends and find several who are never asked to smile, and then modify her behavior and appearance to match her friends, thus avoiding the problem. The obvious response to this suggestion is “why should I have to dress and act a certain way just to avoid rude people?” The answer is, of course, you don’t. But then you shouldn’t be surprised when the inevitable rudeness appears.

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