No, YOU smile.....
I often find myself getting irritated about some of the things men do that seem to be ingrained in our culture. And when I say this, I don’t mean ALL men. Some men don’t do these things. However, these are things that I’ve consistently ONLY observed men to do, and I have ONLY seen men do them to women. I haven’t seen women, trans, or non-binary folks do these things. And I haven’t seen men do these things to other men, trans, or non-binary folks. Sometimes I rant to my female friends about how irritating I find these things, and often they find them irritating as well. Although plenty of women don’t notice these things, or don’t find them irritating, or just accept them as part of life. Some women have even said to me that they actually ARE bothered by these things, but it’s too much emotional labor on their part to do anything about it. Or it actually doesn’t feel safe to do anything about it. Here are a few of those things, offered to inspire critical thinking about the role our everyday behaviors play in sexual safety.
“Smile!” A frequent occurrence. A woman is just going about her business, working or walking down the street or checking out produce at the grocery store, and a man decides that it is his business to order her to configure her face in a way that is more pleasing to him. Never mind that our facial expressions, which we ladies are perfectly capable of managing on our own without guidance from an outside party, serve to communicate messages to others. The messages WE choose.
My face might say “I’m busy right now,” or “I’m thinking about something” or “I wonder if these cucumbers are going to get soggy the day after I bring them home?” It might also say, “I’m not looking to engage in a flirty chat with a man right now.” In fact, it probably DOES say that, which is why the man is asking me to “Smile!” Is asking me to arrange my face in such a way that communicates to him that I am pleased to see him, that I welcome engagement with him, and in fact, it’s the thing I’d most like in the world right now! I would just love to engage in awkward attempts at flirty small talk!
It seems that some men have an expectation that women should remain receptive and pleasing to them at all times, and if a woman is not behaving as such, an adjustment should be made. Because apparently we all exist for his pleasure. If you are that guy, FYI, we do not. If you are picking up on some “I’m just not that into you” vibes from our faces, trust that we do in fact mean that we are just not that into you, and go about your business.
“Here comes trouble!” Huh? WTF are you talking about? I’m looking around, trying to figure out where the “trouble” is, since it’s obviously not coming from me, even though the guy is saying those words to me, in a flirty tone, while making direct eye contact. I’m a full grown adult, going about my business in a socially acceptable way, not causing any trouble whatsoever. In fact, hey, I’m at work, dressed like an actual professional adult who has multiple advanced degrees and a job. Which I am doing. So where is this trouble of which you speak?
Oh, this is some kind of attempt at a flirty, familiar greeting? Why yes, it’s so adorable and flirty that you’re addressing me like I’m a naughty child who just tracked in dirt from outside, or knocked over mom’s favorite vase. Nope. Just stop it. This is weird and creepy. If you want to greet me and express your pleasure at seeing me, greet me like an adult. Since that’s what we both are.
“There she goes!” Who? There who goes? Is there someone of interest here? The Queen of England or something? OH. You meant ME. You were talking about ME in the third person, to other nearby people, making an observation about my presence like I’m some kind of object of interest , but somehow in a way I was meant to interpret as a friendly, flirty greeting. For some reason, you’re not just greeting me directly, like one adult might greet another. Instead you’re observing me for the benefit of others like a sports car that’s driving by. But I’m supposed to find that endearing in some way. A friend of mine will often respond to this kind of odd greeting with “Why are you narrating my life?” It’s weird. Just say hello, directly. To our faces. Because we are actual human beings.
“Hey young lady!” As I look around me, puzzled, for the “young lady,” I realize that it’s actually ME that some man has referred to as “young lady.” I am at work. I am a professional adult. I have advanced degrees and shit. I am 41 years old. I am not a “young lady,” and even if I was, just no. I’m not your daughter or some cute little girl with pigtails that you’re patting on the head.
I often ask men why they’ve referred to me as a “young lady,” and the responses generally go something like this: “I refer to all women as young lady, no matter what their age. It’s a sign of respect. All women want to feel young and beautiful.”
Oh dear. You’ve done gone and made it worse. You’re not only calling me a condescending name that addresses me as if I am a child, but you’re ALSO reinforcing problematic, unhealthy, unrealistic standards of youth and beauty that our society imposes on women. You’re reminding me that my value as a person lies in how young and attractive I am, and that I decline in value the older and less attractive I am. And that how I look is really the most important aspect of me. And right now you’re somehow trying to complement me/flirt with me/talk down to me by reminding me of those problematic beauty standards while simultaneously devaluing stuff like my brain, my education, and my professional accomplishments. Who cares about that stuff? What's most important is that I'm young and pretty. No thanks.
The performance of chivalry. I work in a place full of men, with lots of doors and gates that need opening, and where I have to take my coat off multiple times a day to go through a metal detector, so I probably experience this more than the average female-presenting person. Though I certainly experience this outside of the workplace as well.
Apparently, any time I am in the presence of a man (well, some men), I am rendered instantly unable to open doors for myself. I also lose the ability to dress myself. Chairs become difficult to navigate. Life becomes a minefield of situations that I require a kindly gentleman to help me navigate. Perhaps these men are not aware, but this morning, I put these clothes on all by myself. No man was here to help me, and I did okay. And not just the clothes. I also managed to put on this coat. Even though it’s got those tricky arms that gentlemen are so good at helping the ladies navigate. I know, it is indeed hard to believe. I also managed to somehow move myself through all of the doors in my house, and even the one on my car, to propel myself through the world independently. I was not stuck inside, waiting for a gentleman to come assist me with the troublesome portals that allow me to move from place to place. And ya know what? I even sat on some chairs. With no one around to make sure I descended into them safely. It was a situation fraught with peril, but I somehow made it through.
It is not unusual for me to run into situations in which a man will hold my coat hostage, and actually refuse to hand it over to me unless it is in the form of him putting it on my body himself. He will actually become angry if I continue to insist that I do not need his help dressing myself. I have made a number of public scenes in situations like this, until someone else assures the man that I am able to dress myself, and that his behavior is out of hand. Come on now…what does this scene tell us about what this “chivalry” is actually about? This man is upset because he can’t impose control upon my body, and treat me like a helpless child.
I have also observed many men go through all sorts of contortions and acrobatics and feats of athleticism to make sure that they get to a door before me, a helpless lady, so that they can open it for me. I have seen men sprint, leap, change direction totally, when it has become clear to them that if they don’t take action RIGHT NOW, I might actually get to the door first, open it myself, and GASP, hold the door FOR THEM! Obviously, that can’t happen, because it would be emasculating to be a man, relying on a helpless lady to hold a door open for you. Even more ridiculous, I have had many men absolutely refuse to walk through a door I have opened and/or am holding. And men absolutely refuse to walk through a door first if I am holding the door open or them. They will stand their ground and refuse to enter, insisting that I must go first.
Again, come on. What is this about? More control. A man’s belief that he should be in control of where my body goes, and when it goes there. That he should get to shepherd me around, like, well, sheep. Or a child. And the man’s horror at the idea of “behaving like a woman” by going through a door first or letting a woman hold a door for them….what’s that about? If it’s so great for men to hold the door open for women, why do they cringe at the exact same treatment? One: Because these guys who act that way don’t see women as equals, and Two: That’s some homophobic, toxic masculinity BS manifesting itself.
(Though ya know what, if my hands are full when I approach a door, okay, I appreciate your help. And if I incur an injury or disability that makes it challenging for me to dress myself, sure, I might appreciate it if you lend me a hand. Otherwise, I got this.)
Allrighty, that’s enough of all that for today. I’m off to go read a feminist novel, and maybe after that, I’ll even open a few doors, sit in a few chairs, and change my clothes a few times. Because it turns out, those are all things I can do because I don’t have any issues that impede my ability to do so. And I’m gonna do whatever I want with my face. And I’m not gonna need anyone to narrate my movements. And I’m gonna be 41 years old, and look like I look, and have an awesome brain that is kinda my best thing, and that’s all just fine.