The amazing Sabrina Morgan posted this on Facebook today:
I don’t think there’s any doubt that had this driver’s passenger been a man, he’d never have dared to pull something like that. But there’s more to this that needs to be unpacked. It’s disturbingly common for men try to get women to smile for them. I get how annoying that is and I agree with Sabrina that it’s unpaid emotional labor. I think that more men need to look at why it happens so often.
I’ll admit that this is something that I used to do sometimes. I used to have real difficulties bearing witness to women’s discomfort, whether it was real or simply my perception of it. Knowing what I do now (and not in any way considering this an excuse), I can see that what was motivating me was the story in my head about what women’s discomfort meant. It had a lot to do with my family of origin and it wasn’t until I took a good look at that and did the work that I needed to do that I stopped wanting to “fix” women’s bad moods. For what it’s worth, I never did that to strangers. And I’d mostly stopped actually trying to get women to smile before I got my shit together, because I’d been told how obnoxious it was. But it wasn’t until I’d healed that part of me that I stopped wanting to do it.
This is a perfect example of a man asking or expecting women to coddle his emotional issues because he sees his comfort as more valuable than their labor. It’s one of the many costs of the Act Like a Man Box, the difficulty many men have with managing their own emotions, and the expectation that women will do it for them. I didn’t know how to lean into my discomfort and do the healing work that I needed to do. Instead, I tried to reduce my discomfort by controlling the trigger. In this case, that was trying to get women to stop expressing their negative feelings, even when they had nothing to do with me and despite the fact that they had every right to their emotions and their expressions.
Of course, this is hardly the only reason men do this. There’s also the fact that women are supposed to constantly be on display for men’s visual pleasure. This is sexual labor that women are expected to perform. Women are expected to be eye candy for any random dude who sees them walking down the street, and that’s ridiculous.
Women are also supposed to be accommodating and to set their own needs aside, even to a total stranger. This is another kind of emotional labor that women are expected to perform, and while the motivation may be different than the desire to not feel discomfort when we see women who seem unhappy, the way that men demand it looks pretty much the same. The impact of this is huge. A lot of men expect their desires to be more important than a woman’s needs, and that is the definition of privilege.
I’ve always found it really curious that most men, when confronted about this, will fall back on claiming that they just wanted to compliment her. They don’t see that trying to make someone smile is an attempt to control her. And while they usually deny any sexual component to their actions, I can’t help but notice how much more often it happens to women that these guys find attractive. If the frequency and tone of your compliments correlates with how attractive you think someone is, you don’t get to pretend that there’s nothing sexual about your motivations, whether you actually want to have sex with her or not. Expecting women you think are attractive to perform femininity for you is one of the many sexist microagressions that reinforce gender inequities. Stop it. You’re making the world a worse place.
And then there’s this specific situation, in which a man threatened reprisals for non-compliance. He extorted sexual and emotional labor because he could. He might have thought that he was being funny, without any intention of following through. But that’s like someone who’s big and muscular “joking” that he’s going to punch me in the face. My ability to protect myself is less than his ability to follow through on his “joke, ” and I don’t know if he’s actually going to do it. It’s a violation of trust that makes it harder for me to move through the world feeling safe. And what this driver did to Sabrina (and, I assume, does to other people) was much the same. She had to choose between compliance, confrontation, or the risk of retaliation.
That’s the deeper problem with this kind of thing. Whether the motivation is harassment, a desire for sexual validation by getting a woman to smile, or to avoid one’s own uneasiness with women’s discomfort, it’s all about controlling women. And when women don’t comply with that, they run the risk of reprisals. Women already walk through the world worrying about their safety from men, and there’s no way to know who’s going to lash out. This driver might have had no intention of following through on his threat, but how could she have known that?
So here’s my suggestion for any men who feel the urge to get a woman to smile for them. Stop and ask yourself if you would do the same thing if you were engaging with a man. If that person is your close friend and you want to help them out, then perhaps your answer is yes. Though I expect that in those situations, you’d probably ask them what was going on instead of demanding that they pretend that things are OK. If you’re training someone at work and part of their job is to smile to customers, or if you’re a photographer, then yes, telling someone to smile is a reasonable thing to do and it has nothing to do with the gender of the person.
But if you wouldn’t do it to a man, then stop it. It doesn’t matter what your motivations are. Stop it. Figure out why you expect women to perform unpaid emotional labor for you. Figure out what’s prompting you to try to control women’s emotions and behaviors and faces. Figure out why you think that’s ok. And then do what you need to do to change that about yourself so that you can be a better man. Do what you need to do to make the world a safer place. Because if you’re not making yourself part of the solution, you’re part of the problem and we don’t need that. Stop it.