“Gizza smile love, it may never happen”: why it's time to take a stand against Bitchy Resting Face

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Ask A Feminist is Stylist.co.uk's regular column tackling issues on feminism, sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st Century context. This week, writer and Women's Aid press officer, Alice Stride, explains why she's had enough of being told to smile, and why 'Bitchy Resting Face' is a term steeped in sexist patriarchal ideals.

Feminist Alice Stride says:

As Hillary Clinton rocketed past Bernie Sanders on Primary Day on 16 March, cementing her position as the leader in the race to become the Democrat Party’s candidate for President, you may have been thinking about what an awesome moment it was. History in the making! A vagina could be on its way to the White House! A President with a First Gentleman! Extraordinary!

If so, you are a chump. Because, as made patently clear by several leading American news pundits on Twitter, the real thing to focus on was not that Hillary was making history. Oh no, sir. It is that Hillary wasn’t smiley enough after her victory. That’s right – she’s wasn’t smiley enough. They don’t want Hillary Clinton – they want Hillary Grin-ton.

The social media commentary about Hillary that evening made me despair - especially as it was coming from influential men who can set an example.

As a society, we are still threatened by the idea that a woman is not there to be purely decorative - that’s she’s not there to be adorable, and biddable, whilst men get on with The Big Stuff. This is what women being told to smile by men is; an insidious, tired little reminder that you exist only to please the chaps around you. That you exist only to be a grinning sexbot with ceaseless charm and a pneumatic arse.

To paraphrase Queen Feminist Caitlin Moran – is ‘being smiley enough’ something the boys are worrying about? Are the male Presidential candidates concerned with their cheeriness?  Bernie Sour-Face Sanders wasn’t jumped on by news pundits on social media. Nobody berates Donald Trump, or his wig, for failing to smile (however, as his smile is evocative of that horrid guy who deliberately splashes you with his car on a rainy day, it’s probably best for us all if he doesn’t).

I am regularly told to smile by random men as I am going about my daily business. It is tiring.

I am generally a very cheery person - and being told to smile as I am lost in my own thoughts is jarring. It is an invasion of mind-space – a draining demand on my time. I could be having a brilliant idea, or be ranking my top three cheeses, or be thinking over a family problem. And I am told to smile, and I come back to earth with a thud.

Once, I was told to ‘cheer up, give us a grin’ on the day my beloved uncle had died. The implication that there is nothing so pressing going on in my head that I can’t afford to tear myself away from it to smile at some dude is so offensive, it makes me want to scream.

I used to attribute my vaguely sour demeanour to Resting Bitch Face, or Bitchy Resting Face. When I first heard the term a few years back, and watched the YouTube video, I laughed at it and thought, “Terrific! Now I have an explanation for my angry mug!”

But now I realise that it’s really bloody sexist. It’s a way of us proving that we are still ‘nice’, still ‘feminine’ – “Oh, don’t mind me, it just the way my face is, I have serious Resting Bitch Face!” We have to turn women just walking around, living their lives with their face, into an adorable quirk, with a silly name, to make it comfortable. 

That’s what women being told to smile is; it’s making other people, usually men – feel comfortable. Joe Scarborough’s tweet about Hillary Clinton showed that he is threatened by her power, and uncomfortable with the idea of a female president. And so he was compelled to remind the world that as a woman, she should be smiling. It was a way of putting Hillary firmly back in her place, to make himself comfortable.

This is why I am abandoning the term Resting Bitch Face. I will not use it to describe myself, or anyone else. I am not going to feel that I have to explain why I am not smiling on cue ever again – just as Hillary Clinton should not have to - nor any other woman.

Send your feminist dilemmas to Ask a Feminist editor, harriet.hall@stylist.co.uk and we'll get one of our brilliant panel of feminists to cast a discerning eye on the issue at hand.