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Elizabeth Warren: why telling the politician to “smile more” is so disappointing

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Hannah-Rose Yee
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The presidential hopeful has revealed that she has been told to “smile more” in order to appeal to male voters. It’s a comment often levelled at women in the public eye, and it has to stop.

Elizabeth Warren just joined a not-so-exclusive club.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a member. So is Hillary Clinton. It’s not just a club for politicians: Victoria Beckham, Brie Larson and Chelsea Handler are also card-carrying members. It’s a club for women told that they should “smile more”. By men.

Presidential hopeful Warren was speaking at an event this week when she was asked by a woman in the audience how to get men to vote for her.

“How about we give them a tough, smart woman to vote for?” Warren responded. “I’m out here every day trying to talk to people about [my campaign platform], trying to bring more people in the fight – but if you’ve got ideas… I was told what I needed to do was smile more.” Here, Warren cracked a sarcastic grin, while the audience broke into laughter and applause. 

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It’s funny, yes. And Warren is certainly able to make a joke out of the situation better than most. But it doesn’t change the fact that women in the public eye – particularly in politics – are all too frequently told that they’re not likeable enough to win the male vote. That they need to smile more. And this needs to end here. 

Elizabeth Warren

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Because what this criticism really means is that unsmiling women are unlikeable, and unlikeable women are unelectable. Recently, Warren sent a fundraising email in which she implored her fans to “own” their anger for this very reason.

“Over and over, we are told that women are not allowed to be angry,” she wrote. “It makes us unattractive to powerful men who want us to be quiet. And it’s not just women. When we speak up against Wall Street and Big Tech – when we make our voices heard against injustice and greed – we are told that everyone who has less power should be quiet.”

Warren added: “This fight isn’t really about anger, or emotion, or civility. It’s about power – those who have it, and those who don’t plan to let go of it. Well I am angry, and I own it. I’m angry on behalf of everyone who is hurt by Trump’s government, our rigged economy, and business as usual.” 

What Warren so perfectly pointed out was that telling women to smile more, or criticising them for being too angry, reinforces the sexist idea that women should be as quiet and unassuming as possible.

Thankfully, Warren doesn’t have any time for being either quiet or unassuming, and rightfully so. And she’s far from alone in standing up to this kind of criticism. Ocasio-Cortez was criticised for not being “warm” enough at Trump’s State of the Union Address earlier this year. 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.” 

When sexist trolls criticised Larson for not smiling enough as Captain Marvel, she had the perfect response: “Breaking news: You can be you. That means you can smile or not. You can be strong in the ways you want to be. You can own who you are. If anyone tells you different don’t trust them.” 

Brie Larson as Carol Danvers in 2019's Captain Marvel
Captain Marvel: Brie Larson doesn't owe anyone a smile.

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 Reince 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.” 

Chelsea Handler hit back at Priebus on her Netflix show Chelsea Does Online: “So here’s my message to all men. 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.” 

No woman owes a man anything, not least her smile. By asking for one, men are treating women – like Warren, Ocasio-Cortez, Clinton and Larson – like objects whose emotions exist purely for the manipulation of others.

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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. We smile in order to put everyone at ease. We smile to make sure that they are not perceived as miserable or moody or angry. We smile to seem more appealing. We smile to ensure their own safety in murky social waters. We smile because it is demanded of them.

An uncoerced smile is, therefore, a powerful thing. A spontaneous smile is an act of unguarded openness, without artifice or pretension.

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 Warren does that we have nothing to smile about, then we don’t have to make ourselves appear approachable or affable. No woman, not Warren – not you or I – need to make ourselves look or feel anything that we do not.

Images: Getty, Marvel

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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.

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