Simone Biles won five Olympic medals, four of which were gold, at the 2016 Rio Olympics. But that doesn't save her from casual everyday sexism.
Now a contestant on Dancing With the Stars, Biles was asked by host Tom Bergeron why she wouldn't smile, a question women everywhere are all too familiar with. Pat came the answer, "Smiling doesn’t win you gold medals."
While Biles' response is being applauded on the internet, with even Bergeron admitting that she put him in his place, had she remained silent, perhaps we wouldn't have even noticed the problem with such a question.
Loved @Simone_Biles crisp response to my clumsy question. Curious how she felt about judges comments, I unwittingly added to the smile pile.— Tom Bergeron (@Tom_Bergeron) May 9, 2017
The question I should have asked (and have of many contestants) was "What's your reaction to the judges comments?" https://t.co/Y1qcOtZ0bO— Tom Bergeron (@Tom_Bergeron) May 9, 2017
Aditi, hass de toh zara
Studying in a South Delhi co-ed school meant we were privileged enough to be allowed to pursue our creative interests, and that meant that I developed an individualistic identity early.
My sister and I went to the same institution, and she was my senior by 8 years. Despite the long academic gap, teachers remembered her for her winning smile, one that I wasn't blessed with, or, more accurately, didn't care for.
This irked them enough to say, “It doesn't matter how well you do, no one will like you if you don't smile. Learn from your sister. Smile.”
“Why don't you smile?” Seems like an innocent question, but if it were that innocent, men (and boys in schools) would be asked the same question all the time, right? But they're not.
Society accepts men as serious, independent beings, who have important man things to do. “Daddy looks upset, don't disturb him,” we're taught early. “My husband won't tell me what's wrong, and I don't want to get him angry,” we learn later. “He was angry” in fact, is used as a legitimate explanation for a lot of the aggression men exhibit.
The same behaviour in a woman, however, is interpreted as hysteria. Or, if passive, explained as “Resting Bitch Face”.
But we're discussing the problem with being asked to smile, a demand made almost exclusively of women, right from the top (read: Hillary Clinton) to the likes of this painfully ordinary author.
'Smile. You just had a big night'
On 15 March 2016, Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough felt the need to tweet out this line to Hillary Clinton during her speech following a big win for the US Democratic party.
Smile. You just had a big night. #PrimaryDay— Joe Scarborough (@JoeNBC) March 16, 2016
That Clinton wouldn't smile was obviously a marker of her not being grateful enough, that a woman could make it to the top and still not smile despite being allowed to break the glass ceiling... Tch, tch. Not surprising then that Donald Trump won that one.
It is deeply patronising to ask a woman to smile, for it exhibits your inability to see her as an individual capable of having thoughts and expressions that may not always satisfy your gendered expectations of her.
Bollywood has capitalised on this trope of men asking women to smile, showcasing it as an endearing sign of friendship, concern and love. From Musu Musu Haasi, Zara Muskura De Ae Khushi to Aditi, Has De Has De Toh Zara, we have been fed the notion that women's problems, no matter how big, can be resolved by making them smile. And that if she isn't smiling, she's either abnormal or upset.
Because of course, Aditi losing her cat couldn't mean much if a cute-as-a-kitten Imran Khan gets her to smile. As quickly as he replaces her mood, he also manages to replace her dead cat with a kitten by the end of the song. If only life were so simple.
There are many problems here:
1. There's an assumption that a woman's thoughts cannot be serious enough, and a smile can make it all go away. Including, god forbid, the inconvenience of having to deal with a “grumpy woman.”
2. Women, it seems, don't need space or privacy to visit happy thoughts and smile when they wish to.
3. The demand for a smile is a demand for her to forsake her personhood, her choice, for your appeasement.
4. When a woman is appreciated or acknowledged (as in the case of both Clinton and Biles) she must smile a thankful smile, because your acknowledgement or appreciation deserves no less.
Hassee toh phassee
An oft used phrase in Hindi, hassee toh phassee (also the name of a Bollywood film) means that if a woman laughs, you've trapped her.
The phrase and the backward thought process it represents sees women as objects of pleasure, her smile a key to her body, her mind, and, by association, her very being. In this context, her smile, even if it isn't an invitation, is seen as one.
The smile then becomes consent, and once she gives that consent there's another phrase to support potential sexual violence that could follow – ladki ki na mein haan hai (a girl's no is a yes).
This demand for a smile, therefore, becomes far more insidious, making it a means to an end. And while many may say it without that intention, women have historically received it as an opening line for impending violence or unwanted attention, and that is the lens through which they will experience it.
The smile in itself turns into an action then that isn't pleasing to women, but pleasing to the patriarchal gaze that dominates society. It is a smile that's preferably alluring, pleasurable, or, at least, pleasant, infantile, perhaps even 'innocent' at worst.
She is robbed of the agency to break into that smile for herself and her own satisfaction.
Stoptellingwomentosmile.com is an art series by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, and interestingly, it addresses the problem of street harassment.
In an introductory video to the art project, one of the women featured, Koku Tona, says, “I'm not here for you. I don't [care] if that sounds selfish, but I have nothing to do with you. And I don't have anything for you, or about you. Whatso-f**king-ever. And that's my sole choice. Y'know? And it'll be about me.”
Smile of resistance
Interestingly though, women are reclaiming the right to smile as and when they please, and in the most powerful ways.
In July 2014, Turkey's then deputy prime minister Bulent Arinc thought it was a good idea to announce that women should not laugh in public.
Arinc, during Eid celebrations, said, “Chastity is so important. It is not only a name. It is an ornament for both women and men. [She] will have chasteness. Man will have it, too. He will not be a womaniser.
“He will be bound to his wife. He will love his children. She will not laugh in public. She will not be inviting in her attitudes and will protect her chasteness.”
Notice how chasteness for men and women mean drastically different things, and especially how laughing for women is so sexualised that it must be curbed.
Interestingly, this was resisted by Turkish women with the hashtag #direnkahkaha (resist laughter) and #direnkadin (resist woman) on social media.
More recently, on 10 April, British Asian Saffiyah Khan protected a Muslim woman in a headscarf from being 'mistreated' by the English Defence League (EDL). She did this by just smiling at their faces.
Khan made the EDL so uncomfortable that they later posted quite a few tasteless comments on social media against her.
Keeping her cool, just as in the pictures, Khan said, “Sometimes it's more important to smile than to shout.”
It is interesting to see women smile and laugh when society doesn't want them to, as opposed to when they're asked to. A woman's smile should mark her resistance, especially in a world where her body is consumed in the worst ways possible.
And it makes us smile to think we've started.