“Smile, Baby!” On Performative Emotional Labour

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.



10 thoughts on ““Smile, Baby!” On Performative Emotional Labour

  1. I’d imagine that the reaction from women came from the fact that she was being awkward and making a stink. The emotional labor of smiling for men because they want it is nothing compared to the emotional labor of always smoothing over situations. The man is a dick, but more importantly he is being weird and awkward. Your job is to make the situation ok, not to point out the awkward and prolong the encounter. I’d imagine the reaction from women is something like, “oh my god why would you rock the boat over THAT? That’s nothing! Save it for when it matters!” Because while we might not always agree with smiling for men to be the ornaments of their worlds, we very much have to always be the smoother of the universe. That’s our real emotional labor and it is far harder to fight.

    On the other hand some women seem to genuinely think the guy was trying to brighten her day. I can only conclude they are delusional.

    1. Why is it her job to “make the situation ok”? He’s the one being weird and awkward and it is totally okay to push the weird awkwardness back on him, where it belongs.

      Your claim seems to be that while both smiling and smoothing over are emotional labour, only one of them is legitimate–or, at least, legitimate to push back against.

      They are along a spectrum–in fact they are both about smoothing things over (smiling is smoothing over the fact that women aren’t actually happy go lucky all the time and are, in fact, humans).

      And while society has declared us to be in charge of smoothing things over we actually have some power in that–in choosing to do it or not. And I will always, always, always, support a woman’s choice to not smooth someone else’s bullshit.

  2. I have been trying to remember such an incident, but couldn’t. Except from my parents, who asked me to cheer up sometimes. I tended to be a gloomy kid, seemingly. But strangers, male or female? Never. To me, that would be so odd, I propably would smile, just for the idea of it. Who does this?

  3. The part where the cashier held her purchases hostage until she smiled reminded me of an incident in my life. When I moved to the East Coast for grad school, my very first week I had a very creepy cashier in a Baskin Robins who held my ice cream hostage. But he didn’t just want a smile. He wanted my phone number, and to know if I was free to hang out when he got off shift. I was so off guard and couldn’t believe this was really happening, plus I didn’t want to be rude to someone in the service industry, so like an idiot I gave him my real number. Then when I got back to my apartment he blew up my phone with texts and calls, none of which I answered until I finally sent a text saying, “I’m not [myname], you have the wrong number.” Then he called a few more times, for good measure.
    So I am completely on Whitney’s side. He could have started telling her to smile, then continued to hold her already purchased goods (which are her property now) hostage while making more demands. It’s really awkward and weird when people do this and it’s so outside the bounds of normal social behavior that you freeze and don’t know how to react.

  4. We live in a society that’s waiting to throw rocks at anything. People say you can’t complain because there are bigger issues in the world. Truth. But that shouldn’t mean you have to deal with everything else in the middle. It doesn’t mean there’s not still things to fix. Great writing and I enjoyed the comic!

  5. If I’ve ever been told to smile by a stranger, I can’t remember it. I certainly have encountered my share of rude strangers, but have never ever felt “shamed” (I am so sick of that word!) or “policed” (same for that one). When somebody makes an inappropriate remark to a stranger on the street, he (it’s usually but not always a he) is shaming himself (and his family–didn’t they teach this kid manners?). I don’t “perform” when I’m running an errand, and I think the concept of “emotional labor” is flat-out idiotic. And maybe the jerks of the world can sense this.

    If a cashier behaved like this to me, I would ask to speak to the supervisor. If no supervisor was present, I would write a letter of complaint and make sure to send a copy to the parent company. I’m sure the personnel and customer service people would want to know that they’ve got a problem employee on their hands. And if the jerk was fired as a result, I would not feel the slightest bit of guilt. (Lilithgothica, if something like this happens to you again, do ask for the manager!)

    As for the women who criticized Whitney, all I can say is that there is a lot of stupidity around.

  6. In all the discussion on feminine performative smiling, I’m surprised I never hear a perceptive view of the man’s subjective experience. It seems to me that the same ownership men might feel over women is proportional to a sense of dependence on her happiness. This is why patriarchal relationships allow women to punish their male partners through their own negative emotions — the same emotional ecosystem that grants him “ownership” of her makes her happiness the measure of his value. Men (sociopaths excluded) will tend to identify with the happiness of the women in their sphere. Even as he suppresses his own emotions, he “outsources” emotion to the women in his life. Since his own emotion is not allowed to matter, he becomes addicted, in a way, to women’s emotions.

    Passive-aggressive attempts to control women at the emotional level (like forcing a customer to smile) are therefore born not purely out of arbitrary cultural programming: The man asking a woman to smile is subconsciously expressing resentment over the control he feels she has over him. He wants to feel happy on his own, but needs a woman’s happiness to reassure himself that he’s OK.

    I want to know how men react if, next time a man tells you to smile, you told him, “Don’t worry, you don’t need my smile to feel happy. You’re free”.

    1. Well, I don’t know if I agree with your analysis–and I wince at the idea that men are “punished” by women’s negative emotions. If they are that is entirely on men to figure out–but I will say that the probable reason you haven’t seen a “perceptive view of the man’s subjective experience” is because only women seem to write about this issue. And we don’t know what men’s subjective experiences are. Perhaps you should ask some male writers why they’re not writing about this.

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