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Why don't you smile?

Riding to work yesterday without my helmet, I was just enjoying the leafy neighborhood when another cyclist, a man more or less in my age bracket, shouted as we passed, "Protect your head!" and tapped on his own, insectoid-style, helmet.

It took me a day or so to realize why that bugged me so much.

Throughout my younger years I was carless, and walked a great deal around the towns I lived in. One of the most frequent assaults on my personal sovreignty until I was almost 40 was men in the street shouting out at me, "Why don't you smile?"*

Am I alone in this experience? Seriously, it was such a regular occurrence that I don't even remember specific instances, just the general trend.

I used to make up answers in my head ("Well, my father just passed away, and I was evicted yesterday and I'm about to lose my job, and I've just been diagnosed with [XYZ terrible illness]..."), but of course verbal assaults like that are comprised of rhetorical questions, and the privileged individuals who thought it was okay to pose them were interested in no response but a smile, so I never got the gleeful chance to inflict terrible guilt on them. (Why they thought a smile--rather than, say, a rock through windshield--was likely is outside my ability to guess.)

I was well over 40 before I figured out what was really wrong with that whole scenario: men felt they could dictate the behavior of a complete stranger, and honestly expect her to comply, just because she was a female; and the behavior they dictated was to be more decorative and pleasing for the sake of complete strangers just because they were men.

So, back to Mr Bike Helmet. See the connection? I would bet my next paycheck that if I were a MAN my age and had ridden helmetless past this guy, he'd have said nothing. He certainly wouldn't have tapped his helmet and shouted the sort of slogan you use to instill good practices in six year olds.

Having escaped the expectations that privilege has of a woman still young enough to be seen as female, I have no plans to be infantilized by the same damn assholes because of my gray hair.

I'm seriously gonna have to start carrying some rocks.

* Variations included "Hey, honey, smile for me!" and "Give us a smile!" and "Don't look so serious!"


( 21 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 19th, 2010 03:18 am (UTC)
If you get that again, just say, "Stop, drop and roll, asshole!" and see how that goes!

Yep, I hate that crap too. Even when I was in my 20s, I remember being sooo irritated with some cute guy I'd been flirting with for a few weeks when I said something about having contact lenses, and he said, "Ohhh, that's such a good idea!" I thought, "Of course it's a good idea, and who fricken asked you?"
Mar. 19th, 2010 03:30 am (UTC)
You mean you thought of contacts on your own? And tried them with no male guidance? Why, that was clever of you.

I'm told by women considerably younger than myself that things have gotten better, that young men's sensibility or political correctness or whatever has improved. I hope it's true.

Men MY age, apparently didn't get the memo. They might never say anything untoward to a hot young female stranger, but apparently it's still A-OK in some of their books to pull a there-there-little-lady on older women.
Mar. 19th, 2010 03:49 am (UTC)
I'm sure I read about contacts in some book some guy wrote.

Miss Manners has written that it's totally uncool to tell someone to smile. (She wrote about being told "You look like you lost your best friend" when, in fact, she had.)

BTW, coat pic post coming up in moments!
Mar. 19th, 2010 03:58 am (UTC)
So much of politically incorrect fuckwittery could be solved by manners, seriously.

I'm now madly refreshing my reading pages to see the coat!
Mar. 19th, 2010 03:45 am (UTC)
Haha, you pushed a button with me, so I have to respond. I generally consider myself pretty easy going about clueless male shit, but this one just annoys the hell out of me. Precisely *because* they get this chance to pat themselves on the back because YOU are the one being bitchy and touchy.

Now, if given half the chance (i.e., not flying past on a bike) I say either "So glad you approve" with a strong 'who tf asked you' look, or "I didn't ask for your approval" with the same look.

It's not witty, it's bitchy, but frankly, I don't care anymore. They either learn or they stay far away. Some guys actually get it, btw. Like it doesn't occur to them how messed up that is until someone calls them on it.

I partially blame the women in their lives, frankly. I think some women still seek that from men, and you know, people learn to do what gives them positive responses. It's a vicious circle to break into and fix.
Mar. 19th, 2010 03:55 am (UTC)
I think this little incident would have been worse if the guy had been basically approving of my helmet, as you say; but he was admonishing me for the lack of one--so maybe marginally less offensive? Ostensible "real safety concerns?"

Nah. It's still infantilization, isn't it, either way?
Mar. 19th, 2010 03:57 am (UTC)
To me, the 'proof' is in the question of whether he would've said the same to a man of your age. Maybe, but *highly* doubtful.
Mar. 19th, 2010 04:20 am (UTC)
You're quite right, and possibly the most useful response to an incident like this would be to pose that question to the man.

Alas, as with the verbal street-assaults of my youth, this was a hit-and-run, a drive-by, not a chance to respond (at least, not without yelling after him and making him stop, while delaying my own arrival at work). I suspect that's all part of the game.
Mar. 19th, 2010 04:25 am (UTC)
Oh man. Have you ever tapped into A Thing That Is Guaranteed To Make My Head Explode. WORD to EVERYTHING you say here. Every. Single. Word. And a great big damn GO YOU for putting that right exactly where it fucking belongs because omg.

I rarely got this kind of shit in school or college (Engineering, which is to say, the only girl in my classes in a place not known for its progressivism) but when I started working in an office? Holy gods. That it has generally been men older than me (older than my father, often!) who feels free to say this to me is just another level of asshole. My response these days is the same as it is to any inappropriate question, which is, "Why would you think it's acceptable to say that to me?" Though secretly, I'm thinking, "Be glad I didn't just shove your foot in your mouth where it belongs, asshole."

I've read many posts on feminist blogs about this very phenomena. I wish I could dredge up one of my favorites, which talks about how biologists believe the human smile has its origins in a signal of submission or fear, and that similar facial displays in animals -- especially primates -- has well-documented coding and hierarchical body language that determines social standing in an interaction.

Men + gender privilege = apes QED
Mar. 19th, 2010 04:34 am (UTC)
QED indeed.

I do think the problem is diminishing--many younger men were raised by women like me (only, you know, with kids) and would no more dream of saying these kinds of privileged shit to women than flying to the moon on gossamer wings.

And I'll say to the credit of men of my generation: they may not be fully trained, but many of them are least well-trained enough to acknowledge the fault when it's pointed out to them.

Social change happens slowly. And I've learned a LOT from you and other women in your generation, especially online, and especially in fandom. \o/
Mar. 19th, 2010 04:44 am (UTC)
Oh, and I meant to add that I'd never run across the concept of a smile being biologically submissive, but it makes perfect sense.

Not that all smiling is a show of weakness: it's not surprising that this mark of submission in fear situations would evolve in humans to be a signal of non-harm-->friendly intent-->willingness to interact that makes it so fundamental to social interactions.

Wow, that is a really interesting idea.

Edited at 2010-03-19 04:44 am (UTC)
Mar. 19th, 2010 07:04 am (UTC)
You know, this totally reminds me of some essays and discussions I do with my classes, especially Amy Cunningham's Why Women Smile. It's an issue that most of my female students never even notice until I make them think about it---but that's true of a lot of issues, honestly.

But the rocks are probably a good idea.
Mar. 19th, 2010 01:19 pm (UTC)
That Amy Cunningham piece is wonderful! Thank you for pointing it out. I love her first premise, and I love her (partial) retraction of it. Both are worth considering. I've noticed how much more easily, openly, and often I smile since menopause set in. I think the ubiquity of my "Why don't you smile?" experiences as a young woman is actually a fair indicator that I did NOT smile in the way that Cunningham is decrying in her original essay; I have vivid physical memories of a tight little stretching of the lips when confronted by some external pressure to smile.

The fact that that smile-repression reflex has largely vanished with menopause, and the pleasure of real and open smiling has replaced it, actually follows Cunningham's own arc.

Thanks again. That was quite an uplifting little read.
Mar. 20th, 2010 11:28 am (UTC)
You're welcome! I'm glad you enjoyed it.
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 19th, 2010 01:22 pm (UTC)
As I mentioned to another commenter over on DW, part of the reason it took me a day and a half to figure out what was wrong with the guy's behavior was that his shout pinged on my own ambivalence about the surface issue--helmet, safety, prudence, etc. If I had zero conflict on the subject, my "Oh fuck you, you middle aged middle class privileged asshole" response would have been a lot more immediate.

I did wear my helmet the following day. But damned if it didn't feel like giving in to the Man.
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 19th, 2010 01:54 pm (UTC)
Yup. Me and Mr Acklebury: not wanting to put a foot wrong.
Mar. 19th, 2010 04:26 pm (UTC)
People are weird.
I think you're right that this kind of thing probably happens more often from a man to a woman, but I've been yelled at on the street a few times for not wearing a helmet as well, once from a guy in a huge truck. I thought that was rather comical.

In general, I think what is most offensive about this to me is the simple presumption that the other person knows better what you should be doing than you do, which is a huge presumption. Humans, and I think Americans tend to be a particularly good example, like control. They like an environment where they can know exactly what to expect, and often times people will go to the lengths of pretty extreme oppression in order to make that happen (not that telling you to smile is extreme oppression, but it's a symptom of that desire for control).

Thankfully, you are still fully entitled to ride your bike however the hell you like, and smile or not as it suits your mood. It's good you realize that and aren't eager to let anyone tell you otherwise.
Mar. 19th, 2010 04:34 pm (UTC)
Re: People are weird.
You're absolutely right that the unconscious behaviors of privilege aren't limited to man-to-woman interactions, though that's how I've tended to experience them. The idea of a guy in a truck yelling at you to wear a helmet IS comical, and is of course as perfect an example of privileged behavior as any I've experienced.

I know that before I started riding a bike, I used to see helmetless riders and think (NOT say), God, get a helmet, you idiot, and I'd be the first to admit that my thought was not for the bike-rider's safety, but to appease some sense of discomfort in myself, about their free spirit, or their superior fitness, or who knows what. Like, if I could just get them to follow "the rules" more, MY world would be more comfortable.

I've learned better since joining the other side. :D
Mar. 19th, 2010 04:57 pm (UTC)
Re: People are weird.
I think a lot of people have that same reaction about helmets and other bike safety gear. I think we all at least subconsciously realize that it would be pretty easy to injure or kill someone with our cars, but we are set in our patterns of behavior, and we also tend to believe ourselves rather entitled to our patterns of behavior, so it's easier for us to push the responsibility on someone else than to make sure we're driving in a safe, responsible manner, or to push for changes to roads and laws that would make things safer, at the expense of our patterns of behavior.

It takes experiencing something different, in all areas of life, to really change our perspective, myself included. Unfortunately, that makes it really frustrating trying to explain your position to someone who clings to a particular opinion which is not based on experience.
Mar. 21st, 2010 05:45 pm (UTC)
A friend of mine was constantly harassed by a patron at the library a few years ago for not smiling. It's still going on :-\
Mar. 21st, 2010 07:07 pm (UTC)
Oh man. That's distressing.

A woman walking down the street is arguably less of a captive audience for this kind of treatment than a worker in a public institution.

And the word "patron" takes on all its icky connotations here.

Sorry to hear it.
( 21 comments — Leave a comment )



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