Smile for the Patriarchy

As a human being, I am prone to experiencing a variety of emotions. As a woman, I am expected to be overly emotional and to exhibit certain feelings in particular. I am expected to be sensitive, happy, and patient. I am not expected to express frustration or anger. In fact, I am expected to suppress those “negative” emotions while projecting a calm, warm demeanor.

But I am not always happy, and I am definitely not always patient. And sometimes I become frustrated or angry, especially in the presence of sexism. While it is a personal goal of mine to reduce the frequency in which I experience frustration and anger, I continue to exhibit those feelings from time-to-time (okay, maybe a little more often than I’d like to admit). I believe that I should have freedom to express those feelings in a healthy manner (non-violently, of course). And I believe that those feelings should be taken seriously.

On my personal journey, I continue to challenge myself to embrace peace more frequently in times when I would typically become upset. By nature, I tend to be frustrated easily and I get angry more often than I would like to. Moving past those times of frustration and anger can be challenging for me (I credit my competitiveness, perfectionism, and need to feel in control for this). And while I have set this personal goal because it carries importance to me, I am still human and humans often require time to accomplish internal progress.

As a woman, particularly a small woman, I often experience others failing to take my “negative” emotions seriously. During a time of personal frustration, it is incredibly (more) frustrating to be told that I am “Cute when I’m mad.” My expressions of frustration are very real to me, and not meant to entertain or endear others. In times when I have felt impatient or disrespected and expressed my frustration, I have been laughed at and my feelings have been brushed aside. Because I am a woman, these “negative” feelings are invalidated. Because I am petite, I am too feminine and child-like to express real frustration.  But to wave off my frustrations as “cute” is to undermine their reality and my experience as a human being with real emotions and an under-privileged gender status. Similarly, in times that I am not expressing happiness, I have been told to, “Just smile.” This also diminishes the value of my experience that has led me to feel anything other than happy.

Several months ago, I was at an Ohio State football game. During halftime, OSU’s National Championship-winning women’s rowing team walked out onto the field to be recognized (Who run the world?!). After just a few minutes, a man sitting behind me shouted, “Get off the field! I came here to watch football.” I immediately turned around and replied, “Just because they are not men does not mean they do not deserve recognition for their accomplishments.” He and his friend were surprised by my response, but laughed in my face for speaking up to them. Because I am a young, small, woman, they did not take my comment seriously. I turned back around and I was fuming. It took a significant amount of self control for me to refrain from turning around again and exclaiming unkind words toward them.

Halftime was over and the game continued. I was not enjoying the 3rd quarter because I was still worked up about the sexist jerks sitting behind me. My partner turned to me and said, “Smile! I just want you to be happy and have a good time.” I fully understand and appreciate his intentions to help me move past that upsetting instance and to genuinely want me to feel happy, but it only made me feel worse. I explained to him that my anger towards those two men was valid because they were disrespecting women and that I had a right to be upset (as a woman). I was infuriated, not happy, so why would I force myself to smile? He opened his mind and understood my point.

I find that men generally don’t understand why it is insulting for a man to tell a woman to smile. To direct another person’s emotions and expressions is to ignore their experience that has led to that emotion. To tell a woman to “Just smile,” when she is upset is to undermine women’s emotions of disappointment, frustration, anger, and impatience. My partner probably wouldn’t have said the same thing to a man that was upset. Several men at that same game probably became upset at a referee call that didn’t go their team’s way, but I’m fairly confident that no one told them to “Just smile.”
Of course, men often have an opposite experience when it comes to emotional expression. It is acceptable for them to express frustration or aggression, but less acceptable for them to express compassion. When a woman is frustrated or defiant, she is viewed as “over-reacting” or excessively emotional. Some feminists receive a reputation for being “angry women” that can’t simply accept the status-quo, but when a man is frustrated or defiant, he is viewed as “taking charge.” Men that challenge current social systems are respected, but women are not taken seriously. It is unacceptable for society to attempt to confine women into a box of constant patience. It is unacceptable for society to invalidate a woman’s expression of frustration due to an inability to accept her “place” in society. Womanhood does not require submission or uninterrupted happiness.

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