Yesterday, an iPolitics reporter was in a media scrum at Queen’s Park, the seat of Ontario’s provincial government, but instead of getting an answer to her question, she received a hearty dose of sexism. Journalist Marieke Walsh was pressing Greg Rickford, the Minister of Energy, Mines, Northern Development and Indigenous Affairs, about a proposed merger between the province’s electricity utility, Hydro One, and a US-based company Avista.
The exchange—posted by the Walsh on Twitter—went like this:
— Marieke Walsh (@MariekeWalsh) July 24, 2018
Now, you probably didn’t need to see the journalist’s name to catch on to the fact that this was a conversation between a man (the politician) and a woman. This particular dynamic—the unsolicited demand that someone smile—seems to be a uniquely male-to-female one, and it’s almost always a misogynistic power move.
In this particular case, the smile request (whispered, for extra patronizing creepiness, if you hear the audio of this incident) was a double-whammy. Not only was it a distraction technique—she was asking a questions he clearly didn’t want to answer—but it was also a not-so-subtle reminder that Rickford felt threatened by Walsh, and he wanted her to revert to an amenable demeanour, more fitting of a woman in the workplace. *eye roll* (That said, it’s worth noting here that Rickford later called Walsh to apologize, and she accepted).
The Queen’s Park incident is, of course, just the latest in a long, long, long history of men telling women to smile. Sometimes it’s in the classic creep-on-the-street way, where a woman is going about her business and suddenly commanded to render her expression more pleasing to the male gaze. Other times, smiling isn’t explicitly demanded, but a pleasant facial expression required of women in a way that it wouldn’t be of a male counterpart.
One of the oddest experiences of my interning life, for instance, was standing just off camera with a grin plastered to my face so that the politician I was working for would have a “friendly” face to look at while he was delivering an interview for a news broadcast. Similarly, another FLARE colleague had a male professor penalized her for not smiling enough in a presentation about environmental practices (tbh, not exactly a cheery topic). Maybe not as direct, but still a product of how we’re socialized, is the number of women I know who reflexively laugh or smile in uncomfortable situations. We’ve been told to smile so often that we’ve basically internalized it and can’t control our own facial muscles. Cheers, patriarchy!
What underscores all these experiences is that they’re really about power, about a man subjugating a woman to his desire—whether that’s for her to be more attractive, less intimidating, or as in the Queen’s Park case, to shut up because she’s doing something he doesn’t like. And this is not to knock smiling; smiles are great! Friendliness, openness and warmth are all wonderful characteristics, and yes, smiles have a soft power all their own. The key, however, is where the grins comes from, and what they’re actually meant to convey.
While the Queen’s Park incident was an unsavoury reminder that the patriarchy is alive and well, Walsh took action and called out the behaviour. With that in mind, the next time someone asks me to rearrange my facial expression for their pleasure, I won’t (excuse the pun) grin and bear it—if only for the sake of 20-year-old me, standing on the steps on a legislature, smiling for a politician’s benefit.
Reminder: Stop Asking Women To Smile (And That Includes Bella Hadid)
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I Can’t Stop Thinking About Ellen Asking Constance Wu Where She Is From