Just about every woman I know has been told, by a male stranger, to smile at least once in her life. And by once I mean “an uncountable near-infinite number of times.”
We know it’s a power-play, patriarchal, bullshit, fucked up, etc. Often it’s framed as evidence that women are ornamental–that we are assigned object status rather than subject status in the world. All of which I agree with. But I think there is more to it, and given how much I’ve been thinking about emotional labour lately, I wanted to explore that a bit.
I just read this article wherein TV personality (what a phrase!) Whitney Way Thore shared an experience of going into a gas station to buy Tylenol and gum and the (male, duh) cashier holding her purchase hostage until she smiled for him.
While gross and pathetic, the event itself isn’t especially notable. What is notable, however, is the backlash she’s gotten for sharing this story. And that many of the naysayers are women. Who are admonishing her along a particularly strange line:
I love you Whitney but I will have to say that was rude. Some people just like cheering people up. Have you never looked at someone and said “smile, everything will be alright”?
Maybe he just saw you looked stressed and not feeling well and wanted to brighten your day? Damn.
I’m actually a little disappointed in you…. With all the misery, anger, racism, body shaming, cruelty, abuse, bullying…. here is a guy who was trying to make a light situation and bring out a smile in somebody.
So there are two main issues here as I see them. The first is the idea that this random ass man is entitled to her smile because her not doing so was bumming him out. That is, a strange woman he would never see again not performing the emotional labour of pretending all is well in the world while she a) has a headache and b) has to deal with some fool, is so alarming to him that he will force her to smile for him.
The second is the very bizarre idea that being forced to smile in order to get the Tylenol you’ve already paid for is the same thing as being happy or cheered up. “Have you never looked at someone and said, ‘smile, everything will be alright?'”
I have never done that. Ever. Because it is presumptuous and nonconsensual and fucking detached from reality. But, more than that, because I am not owed someone putting on a brave face so that I can avoid a moment or two of discomfort.
What I find so distressing is how many women in that comment section are conflating performing disingenuous emotional labour with being cheered up. That is, women are expected to lie about their inner emotional state to a fucking stranger so that he can feel like he has done his good deed for the day. But not only that, the act of performing forced disingenuous emotional labour is, itself, supposed to cheer us up. The act of smiling for a scumbag holding our medication hostage is supposed to cheer us up.