Smiling is not in the job description


Photo courtesy of Lydia Waybright.

When I was in high school, I started to learn firsthand that the list of demands for me to succeed, even as a teenage girl, was longer and much more specific than the coordinating list for my male classmates. I competed in speech and debate competitions where my hair had to be sprayed to stillness, my lips had to be red to perfection and my tights could never have a run. Pants were okay, but skirts were better. I was taught to impress judges by, yes, my performance, but also with my charm. To give them a smile.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve continued to see the two different lists of demands in almost every professional environment. Women are scrutinized for things that men are not expected to do at all: dress professionally, but not like a prude; be assertive, but not bossy; smile.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders commented Wednesday that House minority leader Nanci Pelosi should “smile a lot more.” Sanders’ interview with Chris Cuomo on CNN’s “New Today” was in reference to Pelosi’s seemingly unimpressed expression during the State of the Union Address Tuesday.

“I think Nancy Pelosi looks like that all the time,” Sanders said. “I think she should smile a lot more often. I think the country would be better for it.“

With this statement, Sanders is implying that Pelosi’s professional responsibilities would be better handled if she acted sweeter about it— a standard that is rarely expected of men.

Sanders took a wrench out of the patriarchy tool box with her demand of Pelosi. Expecting women to always smile is expecting them not to get involved with the serious matters that don’t involve smiles. It’s asking them to stand on the sidelines rather than get their hands dirty. It’s confining their achievement to what their faces look like.

“Smile a lot more” isn’t something men are asked to do. In fact, men aren’t expected to show softness. Where women are expected to be soft and fluffy, men are expected to be hard and invincible and anything less is a failure. In patriarchy, everyone loses.

The truth is, this is the same tool box some people have drawn from to tear down Sanders herself. For instance, in November, Los Angeles Time columnist David Horsey referred to the White House press secretary as a “slightly chunky soccer mom.” Sanders has even been criticized for her lack of a sunny demeanor.

In the words of Audre Lord, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

Sanders used the master’s tools, so to speak, when commenting on Pelosi’s need to smile. But Sanders was using the very same tools that are used against her.

If we want to dismantle patriarchy— if we want women to be evaluated based on their ability to achieve despite the look on their face or the lipstick on it, we must stop using their tools.

Sanders may be able to sit at the men’s table for a while if she demeans other women with sexist remarks, but in the end, no one wins if we continue to use the master’s tools.