Smile for Me

Yesterday I saw a tongue and cheek “handy questionnaire for street harassers” on Feministing (via The Riot) and posted it to Facebook. A conversation about the so-called ambiguity of cat-calling (or street harassment) ensued. While I generally don’t see the ambiguity about it being right or wrong (it’s wrong), I do recognize that there are different types of cat-calls.  Some are blatant disrespect and assertions of power (Hey baby, gimme summa that, etc.).  Others could actually be misapplied expressions of kindness or inappropriate attempts to give a compliment – but that still doesn’t make them okay.

Compliments can be tricky because there should, ideally, be a way to pay a stranger a compliment without it being harassment.  It’s tricky because it all depends on context and no matter how carefully you craft your compliment, you cannot predict how it will be interpreted. In the discussion happening on Facebook, someone suggested that it was up to the “complimentee” to discern how the compliment was intended, and that it’s not the complimenter’s fault if they misunderstand. I disagree. When you initiate an interaction with a stranger, you are responsible for making sure your intentions are as clear as possible. It’s not the stranger’s fault for misinterpreting a signal – after all, they were minding their own business until you bothered them.

Once I was riding the T in the evening. The car was mostly empty except for me, a man sitting across from me, and maybe one or two other people further away. I was fixing my hair using my reflection in the opposite car window, and the man across from me said, “Don’t worry, you look great.” I was caught off guard and my instinctual reaction was to give the man a dirty, “don’t come near me” look. Afterwards, I wondered if I had overreacted. Maybe he had just been trying to pay me a compliment and I felt guilty.  But then I thought some more and realized that I was trapped in an almost-empty train car with this man and I did not really feel safe. So was I wrong?

I still don’t know what the man’s intentions really were, or if my reaction was entirely necessary, but when I think about it now – months later – I just get frustrated. Why should I be agonizing over this interaction? I never asked for it to happen. It’s not my fault that I was caught off guard and reacted instinctively. I didn’t – and still don’t – owe that man anything. It’s too bad we live in a world where compliments sometimes come with ulterior motives, but we do, and it’s never your fault for taking measures to feel safe.

The other classic example of an extremely misconstrued act of kindness is when a cat-caller/street harasser says “smile for me.” I really hate this one, in part because my own reactions to it confuse me.

“Smile for me” is a actually a terrible thing to say to someone when you think about it. Imagine that a woman is walking down the street. For whatever reason, she doesn’t look happy. Maybe she’s anxious about something, or upset, or just tired.  A man on the street smiles at her and says, “Hey give me a smile.”  What is implicit in that statement is the idea that women are objects meant to look pretty and happy for men.  “Smile for me.” What he might be trying to say is “cheer up,” but the words he’s using actually mean, “You should look a certain way to please me,” or “The idea of an unhappy woman displeases me. Please correct this imbalance in my world perception.”  Also implicit in the command (it is a command) is the idea that that men have authority over women’s bodies, and also that women have no legitimate reason to ever stop smiling, maybe because they are meant to be purely ornamental in a man’s world, or better yet, emotionless automatons.

After all, forcing a smile when you’re not in the mood doesn’t actually make anything better for you. It just makes you look better for them. It reminds me of an adorable scene in Six Feet Under where 3 year-old Maya is dancing in her parents’ bedroom. Her father asks, “Are you dancing for me?” and she replies, “NO! I’m dancing for ME!”

You don’t smile for someone else. You smile for you.

How does it feel to be on the receiving end of “smile for me?” Complicated.  Most of the time, it makes me angry.

Smile for you? Fuck you. You have no idea why I’m upset right now. My situation is absolutely none of your business. Also, why the fuck should I be smiling? Things are SHIT right now, thank you very much. I don’t owe you a fucking smile.  Aren’t I allowed to be pissed off?  Aren’t I allowed to feel what I’m feeling? I’m sorry, did I give you permission to even speak to me in the first place?

(Guy from the gym, I’m talking to you.)

But I don’t always react this way.

In the Facebook thread someone joked that a cat-call is only harassment if the person giving it is unattractive. If they’re hot, it’s a compliment. Unfortunately, there is a teensy element of truth to this. If someone I find attractive says, “smile for me,” I probably would smile. I would feel as though I had received a compliment, or a kindness. But it’s not just about attraction. It’s also about whether or not the person or the situation (physical environment, etc) feels threatening. When all the other elements feel safe and I am predisposed to like this person because I find them attractive, it can be easy to take “smile for me” as a compliment.  But deep down, I know I shouldn’t encourage or support that behavior.  Just because I feel safe and desirable when this person said “smile for me” doesn’t mean that the next woman will, and this person needs to learn that it’s really not okay to say it to anyone.

The reality is that the majority of street harassment cases are not ambiguous like the ones I discussed here. Most of them are vulgar, horrible, and threatening. They are about asserting power over someone else’s body, usually a woman, or woman of color.  They do not usually come from a place of kindness.  When we talk about street harassment, it’s important to remember that the majority of street harassment is like this. While “smile for me” and other types of so-called compliments may feel a little bit ambiguous, those cases should not be used to try to confuse or challenge the validity of the majority of street harassment cases, which are, unambiguously, harassment.

This means that when someone brings up street harassment, don’t bring up the two examples where it might be okay. You’re missing the point, and in doing so, you’re actually making it harder for women to fight against real, glaring, no-bones-about-it, street harassment. And that is nothing to smile about.


  1. Good points, all. Context is really important, and privilege is one of the things that lets men especially ignore it (or pretend to ignore it).


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