Ask SAFER: Why is telling a woman on the street to “smile” considered harassment?

At a recent SAFER: NYC comedy show, not yet five minutes into the MC’s opening bit, a passionate gentleman somewhere in the middle rows threw a serious record scratch into the anti-street harassment Kumbayas. The MC was absolutely nailing his impression of a man he’d witnessed catcalling a woman –“Hey honey. Give me a smile!”– when Mr. Middlerow interjected, “I’M sorry, but…I don’t see how that’s harassment!”

In all honesty, my first reaction after my eyebrows shot into my hairline was something along the lines of, “YOU LOST, BRUH!?” However, my second thought reminded me that it was, indeed, a valid question. Without ten to fifteen years’ experience in the field of having fallopian tubes, someone might not know how asking a woman to do something friendly like smiling can be harassment. Furthermore, one of SAFER: NYC’s central goals is to engage men in gender discussion. So, the gentleman’s question actually offers an opportunity for men and women to learn from each other’s asymmetrical perspectives. It is in that spirit that this post will share the insights of those told by catcallers to “smile” on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis (yes, really).

Let us begin by calling to mind non-public moments when others ask us to smile and our usual reactions to those moments, for instance:

-Your sweet aunt crooning “say cheeese” for the family photo. Reaction: mild to medium annoyance.

-Your friend chirping at you to “cheer up!” after something distinctly crappy has happened: medium to spicy displeasure.  

-Heath Ledger’s The Joker suggesting “let’s put a SMILE on that face:”


None of it good.

Telling someone to smile when he or she has not chosen to do so is rather like telling someone, “chill!” when he or she has not chosen to do so –high-handed, inconsiderate, and more likely to elicit the opposite reaction than to bring anyone joy or relaxation. “Smile,” therefore, which is, after all, an imperative –an order– is all these things and worse for women in public places, especially because we know we are targeted because we are women.

Strangers do not tell men to smile as they’re trying to go about their business because it is rude and imposes upon the man’s right to his own mood. Yet, somehow, catcallers expect women to answer their unsolicited commands with the face version of “why, yes! How sweetly may I acquiesce?” or else receive the name of “stuck up bitch” as they walk past.

As one passionate woman at the comedy show pointed out in the mini rumpus following Middlerow’s question, “WOMEN ARE SOCIALLY CONDITIONED TO BE PLEASANT!” Now, from a humor standpoint, the irony of that statement and her ardent delivery are not lost on me. However, once again: valid. The sugar and spice and everything nice model for female behavior that has persisted from the First Epistle of Peter, through the Victorian “angel in the house” archetype and 1950s advertising, all the way to today is historical fact. However, this stereotype should not be any woman’s responsibility, just as it is not the responsibility of, say, every Jamaican to have no worries (Mon). The catcaller’s expectation, therefore, that a woman should change her expression to fit his preference for a pliable female ideal that affirms his control is possibly the most harassing aspect of the experience.

Actually, maybe it is still the part where someone calls me a “stuck up bitch” when I’m just trying to walk to work.