The Sexism Behind Telling Women to Smile

In early September, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, attacked Hillary Clinton on Twitter for not smiling enough during a televised national security forum. Now, less than two months later, she is being criticized for smiling too much. After the last debate, Twitter users criticized her for her smile, and the Daily Mail went as far as to question whether her smile could cost her the election. 

Why do so many people still think it’s okay to tell women what facial expressions to use? Not only is being told to smile uncomfortable, it’s also impossible not to feel self-conscious when someone tells you they don’t like how you’re holding your face. To top it off, telling women to “smile more” or that they’re “prettier when they smile” is incredibly sexist. 

“Essentially what a man is saying when he tells a woman—one he doesn’t even know—to smile, is that his wants outweigh her own autonomy over how she exists in the world,” said writer and activist, Bené Viera, in an interview with The Huffington Post. 

The idea that women can’t be anything but happy continues to push a narrative where women can’t have their own problems. Instead, we’re here to be pretty and pleasant, but never pissed off. Telling women to smile is the same as telling women their emotions are not valid. 

For example, the media is constantly condemning Kristen Stewart for not smiling enough. Googling her name and the word smile brings up thousands of articles with titles like “Kristen Stewart Is Smiling a Glorious, Rare Grin.” As she put it in an interview with Elle US, "People say that I'm miserable all the time.”

Just because she isn’t always smiling, people jump on the idea that she must be upset. While it is nice to see someone smiling, if a woman doesn’t want to pretend she’s cheerful, what right do we have to push her to? Instead of telling a woman who’s frowning to smile, next time try asking her why she’s frowning. The answer might surprise you.