Writer Robyn Wilder has detailed what really happens when a woman acquiesces to a man’s request to ‘smile’, and it’s truly sobering.
“Hey darling, why don’t you give us a smile?”
Those words, or a variation of them, will be familiar to many women who have experienced street harassment. For the men who say them, the request is simple. Just a smile, a simple smile. What could be the harm in that?
Plenty, according to writer Robyn Wilder, who has detailed the escalating street harassment she has experienced every single time she has smiled at a man on the street who asked her to. She’s been followed, shouted at, experienced verbal abuse and had men try to kiss her. All because she smiled.
“Yesterday a man stopped me as I was walking through the park, gestured for me to remove my earphones, then - when I did - asked: “Why don’t you smile more, love?”, so here’s a thread inevitably entitled THINGS THAT HAVE HAPPENED WHEN I HAVE SMILED POLITELY AT MEN I DON’T KNOW,” she wrote on Twitter.
Wilder shared seven examples, before explaining that she had hundreds more. In one of them, a man on the overground train in the morning – Wilder was on her way to work – suggested they find a hotel room. In another, she was called “slag” and “pricktease” as she walked to her office.
“Just as a reminder, all I have done at this point - in any of these situations - is offer a small, polite smile,” Wilder tweeted.
She added: “I have 100 more examples of unwanted male approaches, AS DO MOST WOMEN. I am not an anomaly. This is why we shut down our fucking faces when there’s a man around that we don’t know, purely in the hope that we can go about our day unmolested.”
“Although also, WHY THE FUCK SHOULD I SMILE FOR YOU? I am not scenery. Go and look at a fucking sunset,” she concluded.
Since sharing her thread, Wilder’s tweets have been liked or retweeted more than 2,500 times. Several Twitter users have used Wilder’s thread as a jumping off point for sharing their own experiences. (Some trolls, though have taken to commenting #NeverHappened underneath the thread, but the less said about them the better.)
Aside from exposing the horrors of street harassment, this thread details the huge problem with people who feel entitled to ask a woman to smile.
It’s not just women in the street who have had to endure the request. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was criticised for not being “warm” enough at Trump’s State of the Union Address. (Her response? “Why should I be ‘spirited and warm’ for this embarrassment of a State of the Union? Tonight was an unsettling night for our country. The president failed to offer any plan, any vision at all, for our future. We’re flying without a pilot. And I’m not here to comfort anyone about that fact.”)
Critics have demanded that Greta Thunberg smile more. They wanted Captain Marvel to smile more. They decried Hillary Clinton for not plastering a rictus grin to her face at all times. They laid into Chelsea Handler for not being cheerful enough.
Handler’s response was on point, actually: “Who the fuck are you to tell someone to smile? This is just another example of how men feel like they can belittle every woman in the world and order up a smile. It’s not just Hillary; they tell actresses to smile, they tell female athletes to smile… even paintings aren’t safe.”
“So here’s my message to all men,” Handler concluded. “Stop telling women to smile. We don’t like that - it’s not an icebreaker, it’s a dealbreaker. And what is your game plan anyway? Do you think we’re gonna go smile and then magically float onto your penis? It doesn’t work that way. Do you know how sexist that is to say that to us? No one ever tells a man to smile. Try it. Go tell Samuel L Jackson to turn that front upside down.”
The point is that no woman owes it to anyone to give them a smile. And yet women are constantly expected to smile because it is part of the gendered social contract of likeability that women are beholden to by the patriarchy. Men who expect these smiles from women on the street are treating women like objects whose emotions exist purely for others.
And yet, when women smile because it is demanded of them, they can expose themselves to even more dangerous street harassment, as Wilder’s thread revealed. So no wonder, then, that so many women keep their head down as they walk through the streets.
No wonder, then, that for so many women that ‘harmless’ request for a smile can feel like a threat.
Images: Unsplash, Getty