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Think Twice Before Telling A Woman To Smile

Hillary Clinton held her primary night event on March 15, 2016 in West Palm Beach, Florida.
Mychal Watts
Hillary Clinton held her primary night event on March 15, 2016 in West Palm Beach, Florida.

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

Tuesday night — when Hillary Clinton was delivering her victory speech, after she won the primaries in Florida, North Carolina and Ohio — MSNBC host Joe Scarborough live-tweeted this bit of advice to her:

"Smile. You just had a big night."

Suffice to say, women - were not amused.

"Said no one to a man, ever" tweeted one.

Another offered: "Women LOVE it when you say this."

And on it went, until comedian Samantha Bee was prompted to launch the hashtag "Smile for Joe," thereby prompting a slew of women to post selfies as they make like Grumpy Cat: frowning, grimacing, and scowling.

(See the best of the #SmileForJoe responses here.)

Later, Joe Scarborough doubled down on his tweet. "Fake outrage," he called the response, claiming that he's an equal-opportunity Smile Demander. He explained, "we've called Bernie Sanders grumpy for a year."

Well let's leave aside the fact that Clinton did smile — often — during her speech (maybe Scarborough was too busy tweeting to notice). And let's get to the heart of why this is so irksome, why it's touched a nerve for a lot of women.

Because even women who don't happen to be running for the highest office in the land are all too familiar with men telling them — not asking them, telling them — to smile.

Maybe it starts with well-intentioned grandparents when you're a kid. And then graduates to not-so well-intentioned, unsolicited sidewalk advice when you're older.

This kerfuffle over women and smiling? it's not new territory, though it IS new for a presidential campaign. Back in 1970, the feminist writer Shulamith Firestone proposed her "dream action" for the women's liberation movement: she called for "a smile boycott" in which, she wrote, "all women would instantly abandon their 'pleasing' smiles — henceforth smiling only when something pleased THEM."

Don't think that ever took off, but it's a tantalizing idea.

Inspired by this incident, I even spent some time this week reading scientific studies that measure the correlation between social power and gender and smiling. Or, as one study defined it, "how the ideas of license and obligation translate into the micro-reality of facial expression."

Well this week, Hillary Clinton's micro-reality was that — along with her wardrobe and hairstyle and stridency of voice — her propensity to smile was also fair game for comment.

Apparently, it goes with the territory.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
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