Do Women Owe The World A Smile?
On a recent episode of FASHION POLICE with Joan Rivers, Rivers sat with a panel of three celebrity guests, and the four of them critiqued the individual outfits that celebrities had worn to the MTV Video Music Awards. Rivers is an entertainment veteran, and has a knack for wordplay that sets her audience into peals of laughter. Her comments on singer Rita Ora’s bejeweled jumpsuit, for example, were powerful–almost poetic, even. “[It looks] like a bullfighter fucked a disco ball!” Rivers cackled in her characteristic wheeze.
But her colorful joking is downright offensive half the time she speaks. When Rivers and the panel of guests came to Florence Welch’s mixed-print blouse and trouser, her biggest critique was about what Welch wasn’t wearing: a smile. Would it kill her to smile? the critics begged.
Not smiling on the 2011 Oscars Red Carpet
Slamming of Welch’s “failure” to smile at one particular moment during the day-long VMAs is an example of some harmful rhetoric. Similarly, Twilight’s Kristen Stewart frequently faces the same criticism from journalists, bloggers, the public. Why can’t she just smile? Why does she look so annoyed all the time? As if it were Stewart’s moral obligation to grin unwaveringly.
The notion that a lady always appear exuberant to be wherever she is at the time, is a tired one. It is reminiscent of vintage women’s magazines that reminded single ladies to be hyper-aware of their every move so as to not repel potential suitors. Don’t touch your hair too often; don’t talk about yourself too much; ask him questions about himself; don’t be too affectionate–he won’t like that; smile. Our culture would have us believe that is our feminine imperative to put on a happy face in order to be attractive to men and keep things on an even keel.
Because if we don’t, everything goes to hell. If we aren’t smiling, we are unattractive to men. If we aren’t bursting with bubbly energy, we’re being too negative. If we’re not happy, we’re brooding. And women aren’t supposed to be brooding; brooding is the province of men.
Why is it that to be sexy or attractive, we’re supposed to be cheerful and easy to please, while men get to “brood” and still be considered attractive? It isn’t the case, though, that men are simply allowed to be brooding and mysterious–it is the expected behavior.
A ‘brooding’ man cuts a strong, masculine figure–there’s a seductive draw to a mysterious stranger, after all. He doesn’t reveal his secrets; he holds the promise of affection above your head. That, it seems, is the default for sexy in a man: brooding and aloof, to match the chipper availability of his female counterpart.
The problem at hand isn’t that there are some unrealistic expectations for a woman’s public demeanor. It is that certain gender roles continue to creep into polite society and limit us in many aspects from mating rituals to self-expression. This idea functions on the assumptions that “sex” and “gender” are the same thing; from there it assumes there are two fundamentally opposite sexes that complement each other.
To appear attractive to the opposite sex, there is certain posturing expected of men and women respectively. But it’s a dark twist on the old saying that opposites attract; it is not only heteronormative, but assumes a gender binary.
It not only polarizes the male and female, but almost lends credibility to those far-flung theories about biologically-coded differences between the sexes. And to the notion that, because of those differences, gender roles are a valid regulation of our behavior. It’s a train of thought that many institutions have used to maintain the status quo.
It seems like a far-fetched conclusion to arrive at from watching one segment of Fashion Police or the VMAs. But the two events are good examples of human behavior in action. We socialise, we put ourselves on display, we critique. We are not immune to implicit rules for polite society, however. So maybe it wouldn’t have killed Florence Welch or Kristen Stewart to smile, but it’s no small wonder they don’t feel like it if they’re never allowed to break character.
Written by Veronica Glab