Please Don’t Tell Hillary Clinton — or Any Woman — to Smile

Tuesday night, as Hillary Clinton gave a victory speech while on her way to win all five Democratic primaries, Joe Scarborough, of Morning Joe, sent out a groan-inducing tweet:

Now listen. We’re all for smiling here at Yahoo Beauty. Any lipstick or beauty look that puts a grin on your face gets an A-plus in our book. But telling a woman to smile is a whole different ballgame — especially when it comes from a man. And while Scarborough’s comment was couched in congratulations, it’s actually no different from a guy on the street demanding, “Show me your beautiful smile, baby!” as you pass him on the street.

“A lot of men feel that they have the prerogative to comment on women’s appearance… but it’s an invasion,” Marianne LaFrance, professor of psychology, gender, and women’s and sexuality studies at Yale University, tells Yahoo Beauty. “It basically says, ‘You’re here for me. And I want you to do this for me.’ It is in fact a kind of way of saying, ‘Your body is mine for the commenting. Your face is mine for anything I might want to do with it.’”

So why do men think it’s OK to tell a woman, presidential candidate or otherwise, to smile? It’s simply so ingrained in American culture that men don’t realize they’re doing it — or that it’s so offensive to women — says LaFrance. “I think [men] think it’s just something they get to do. Women do smile more than men, and women smile a lot around men. It’s an expectation. We are definitely suspicious about women who don’t smile ‘enough,’” she explains. “So I think Scarborough’s comment is an oft-repeated experience for most women. And I don’t think men have any idea that this is an intrusion, and something that men do.”

But wait! you might be thinking. Isn’t it a good thing to want to cheer someone up? Sure, but that’s not what’s really happening in these instances. Scarborough’s tweet would never make Clinton feel happier — it just lets him get a leg up on her by criticizing her appearance, however sneakily. Telling a woman to smile is also a directive to not feel the feelings she’s feeling. And there’s nothing helpful or cheery about that.

So can men stop themselves from telling women to smile in the future? Of course they can, LaFrance says. “It’s bizarre to assume that this is something hardwired into men, that every time they see an unsmiling woman, they tell her to smile,” the professor explains. “The culture enables them to say that. Men that feel like they’re in a position to mold women into a Pygmalion version of what they would like, like to see women smiling. Because if a woman is smiling, all is well by virtue of the fact that all is expected and normal.”

So how should Hillary — or anyone — respond the next time it happens? “I think the first stance is to ignore it,” LaFrance says. “To just walk on by, as it were. To respond is to engage the person in something larger than most women want to get involved with. But I have said myself to [men], ‘I want to see your pretty smile.’ That sometimes catches them off-guard. If you don’t give them a smile, and you respond by saying, ‘No, I want something from you,’ it flips the table.”

Let’s take this as a learning experience, men of America. Next time you go to tell a woman to smile, think about why you’re doing it. Is it because you’re concerned about her happiness? Thrilled that she’s one step closer to a nomination? Or is it because you think that there’s something wrong with the way she looks, and it’s your right to fix it? Clinton’s faced endless criticism for her appearance already. So let’s let this one go. 

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