The photoshoot had a brief I’d never encountered before: Don’t Smile. Instead: look angry, displeased or exasperated. I was to look, in short, like the difficult woman society thinks I am. The task should have been easy. But standing there in my pretty make-up and my prettier fabrics, hoping the sun would neither make me sweaty nor wash my dark skin out on camera, I hesitated. Forget looking intimidating or pissed off. I was just going to look worried. Worried that I wouldn’t look good trying to fulfil a rather wonderful opportunity, that is: to defy the expectation that women should smile more. Smile always. Smile through everything.
The gendered regulation of smiling came up often during Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, when she was first criticised for not appearing cheerful enough, then for “smiling like she’s at her granddaughter’s birthday party”. Russian President Putin said this in his International Women’s Day speech last week: “We will do our outmost [sic] to surround the women we love with care and attention, so that they can smile more often.” His speech did not mention how the Russian parliament recently voted 380-3 to decriminalise domestic violence that does not result in injury. Or how a newspaper responded to this decision by telling women to be proud of their bruises.
I’ve been told that my face at rest is a sad one, but most women are told they look angry. Hence the phenomenon of “resting bitch face” (RBF), which became a buzzword a few years ago. A woman can be thinking deeply, waiting, being stoic rather than emoting, listening intently – doing anything but smiling, basically – and she has RBF. All because she is doing something other than transmitting signals of acquiescence, agreement or availability through a smile.
Here, I must interpolate a cultural issue. Certain places are known for the friendliness of locals (unsurprisingly, tourism tends to be major economic source in these places). I grew up in two such places, Malaysia and Sri Lanka, where it is true that people generally smile more, to strangers and known people alike – at least, as compared to Chennai. This remains a source of lasting culture shock to me, and I clock it as one of the ways in which I misunderstand others, and in which I am also misunderstood. This may be why I couldn’t really fulfil the photoshoot’s requirements, to be the Nasty Woman (thanks, Trump) I am. I don’t personally get told to Smile More. Instead, the fact that I smile frequently – habitually, and through conditioning – is seen, not unlike what happened to Clinton, as being condescending or cunning – at best, coy. And often, sexually available.
But once, browsing transfixed in a bookstore, I didn’t pay heed to a man who seemed to always be hovering nearby, muttering under his breath. The moment he managed to grab my attention, I automatically smiled at him, unaware I was being harassed. He looked utterly taken back, and fled. It’s funny, isn’t it, what people will find scary in a woman? A snarl or a smile, it’s all the same to someone who seeks only to control a woman’s reaction – and fails.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 16th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.