Opinion

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s powerful message to people telling her to smile

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Hannah-Rose Yee
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The congresswoman sat stonily through Trump’s State of the Union address, and she isn’t going to apologise for it.     

As President Donald Trump looked out over the audience for his State of the Union address, he saw a sea of women wearing white.

They came in white pantsuits, white dresses and white blouses. The female Democrats turned up to the president’s annual address at Congress in the colour of the suffragette movement to make a powerful statement for women’s rights. 

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 29-year-old representative from New York’s 14th district of the Bronx, wore white trousers with a matching white cape, like a modern-day political superhero. Pinned to the lapel was a badge bearing the image of Jakelin Caal, the seven-year-old Guatemalan child who died in custody last year.

The women in white at Trump’s State of the Union speech

All throughout Trump’s speech, which spoke about Trump’s economic plan and hope for “bipartisan unity” as well as his desire to strengthen America’s borders, to meet with North Korea’s Kim-Jong-Un for a second time and his intention to regulate abortion on a federal level, Ocasio-Cortez sat perfectly still. 

When those around her stood on their feet to applaud, Ocasio-Cortez remained seated. Not once did she cheer or smile. The only time she clapped was when the President noted the record numbers of women elected to Congress in the midterm elections, of whom she is one.

As Ocasio-Cortez put it – and to paraphrase the great Julia Roberts in Notting Hill – when it came to the State of the Union speech, she had nothing to smile about. The congresswoman has been vocal of her dislike of the president and his inaction on climate change. Why should she smile for this man she is at loggerheads with, a man she has called “racist“? 

But that didn’t stop commentators from singling out Ocasio-Cortez for criticism. “AOC had a rare bad night, looking not spirited, warm and original as usual but sullen, teenaged and at a loss,” Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan wrote on Twitter. (“So you’re saying she should have smiled more?” someone responded to Noonan’s tweet. “Classy.”) 

“Why should I be ‘spirited and warm’ for this embarrassment of a State of the Union?” Ocasio-Cortez fired back. “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.”

Ocasio-Cortez isn’t the first female politician to be criticised for not smiling on command.

Appearing in public without a rictus grin plastered to her face was one of the jibes hurled most frequently at Hillary Clinton. During the 2016 presidential elections, commentator Rence Preibus wrote on Twitter that Clinton was “angry + defensive the entire time [at a recent event] - no smile and uncomfortable - upset that she was caught wrongly sending our secrets.” 

Comedian Chelsea Handler hit back at Priebus on her Netflix show Chelsea Does Online: “Who the f**k 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 reason that smiles are so expected of women is because they are part of the gendered social contract of likeability that women are all beholden to by the patriarchy. Women smile to make others around them comfortable. They smile in order to put everyone at ease. They smile to make sure that they are not perceived as miserable or moody or angry. They smile to seem more appealing. They smile to ensure their own safety in murky social waters. They smile because it is demanded of them.

Being told to smile, or to appear “spirited, warm and original” as opposed to “sullen [and] teenaged”, is akin to women being told that they are objects whose emotions exist purely for others.

An uncoerced, unforced smile is a blisteringly powerful thing. It’s a moment of interpersonal connection as big as a shared, private secret or as small as locking eyes at the coffee shop over a particularly good-looking pastry. A spontaneous smile is an act of unguarded openness, without artifice or pretension. 

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez should smile only when she wants to

Which is why no woman should ever be told to force one onto her face. If we don’t want to smile, or feel as Ocasio-Cortez feels that we have nothing to smile about, then we don’t have to make ourselves appear approachable or affable. No woman, not Ocasio-Cortez – not you or I – need to make ourselves look or feel anything that we do not.

Women are too emotional, and yet when we don’t show emotion we’re told off. Women are too flippant, and yet when we don’t crack a smile we are told we aren’t warm enough. Ocasio-Cortez is blasted by critics for being vocal and outspoken, and yet when she refused to acknowledge the speech of someone she doesn’t agree with, she’s dubbed “sullen”. Dress the part of a politician, they told her, but how much did you spend on that coat? Don’t be hysterical, but make sure to show emotion. Be serious, but smile.

Women can’t win. We just can’t.

And last night, Ocasio-Cortez reminded everyone of that fact. It’s not a good feeling to know that the deck is always, always stacked against you – this isn’t the kind of thing that makes me smile. But as Ocasio-Cortez noted: “I’m not here to comfort anyone about that fact.” 

Images: Getty

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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer, podcaster and recent Australian transplant in London. You can find her on the internet talking about pop culture, food and travel.

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