There was a Twitter question doing the rounds this week asking women for their memories of the first time they were called a “f***ing bitch” by a bloke, and what action had prompted such a response.
The replies were many and varied. For me it was as a young teen, turning down the offer of a drink from a stranger in a bar. You don’t forget that kind of unprompted vitriol readily. For many others answering on Twitter, it was a refusal to smile on demand and not be “such a miserable cow”.
“Cheer up darling, it can’t be that bad,” used to pass for a conversation kickstarter that could lead to who knows where in many a man’s head. It probably still is. I’ve lost count of the times it was said to me, be it on a bus, or in a bar, by men who seem to think women should grin inanely whenever they appear, like some kind of full-time, life-long magician’s assistant.
Of course smiling is a sign of friendliness, but it should come unprompted; no-one should be obliged to plaster on a grin for the sake of someone else’s fragile ego. Yet women are forever being told to do so, and while it might feel like small beer, it does have reverberations.
Research has shown time and again that women’s opinions are not taken as seriously as those of men, and yet serious women are regarded as seriously dull or “f***ing bitches”. Being ornamental, with a smile on your face, is apparently much more important than expressing a view, displaying your intellectual prowess, or being allowed to control your own facial expressions.
One particular survey found that 98 per cent of women have been told to smile at work at some point in their lives by a male superior, with 15 per cent saying it happens weekly, if not more often, the implication being that being pleasant in this way could just help them get on. How exhausting and demeaning.
Another new piece of research underlines the point. Analysis of the extent to which women were represented in images from ten countries’ pavilions at the Astana Expo, a global scientific showcase ,showed, unsurprisingly given the subject matter, there was no balance between the sexes: Germany, Greece, Italy, and Luxembourg displayed no women at all, while the only woman Spain presented was shown in a kitchen to demonstrate innovations in improved stoves.
But when images did include women, they weren’t scientists, but onlookers, and guess what – they all had smiles on their faces, while men were the main focus with serious expressions. Magician’s assistants again.
The Everyday Sexism Project has also looked at the pressure on women to smile. They say it’s one of the most common ways in which “women’s privacy is invaded in public spaces” and is “part of a spectrum of behaviour that normalises the idea that women’s bodies are public property: fair game for comment and instruction from strangers”.
It too has received multiple reports from women in which the man asking reacts angrily when a woman declines his order to smile.
Though, of course, most of the time women just do it. The cheek muscles flex just so they can get on with their day without the aggressive verbal response, or maybe worse. Just so they can leave the bar safely, or get out of the cab or store, or even get the promotion.
One upside of the new normal of Covid-19, then, is the wearing of masks in public. Perhaps now the ridiculous demand from random blokes for women to constantly smile will end because no-one can see what we’re really doing with our mouths under our face coverings.
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