Barry Saunders

It’s not my place to tell someone else to smile – Saunders

What is it with men always wanting women to smile?

Men may view it as, at worst, harmless flirtation. Women generally don’t see it as harmless.
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Men may view it as, at worst, harmless flirtation. Women generally don’t see it as harmless.

What is it with men always wanting – no, needing – to see women smile?

Remember how, during the Olympics last month, people picked mercilessly at Gabby Douglas because she didn’t keep a smile plastered to her face? As far as I know, the theretofore perennially perky pommel horse prancer non pareil has never done anything to anyone, yet people felt compelled to excoriate her over her demeanor and her hair, among other things.

The main point of contention, though, was “How come she ain’t smiling?”

Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee and the man to see if you want to buy a silent vowel, last week aimed a Twitter fusillade at Hillary Clinton. The Democratic Party nominee, he said in successive tweets, “showed the country why she is not fit to be Commander in Chief,” presumably – judging by the next tweet – because she “was angry + defensive the entire time - no smile and uncomfortable” during a television interview about national security and those danged emails.

Anyone who’d smile incessantly while discussing such serious subjects seems more suited for the Hoo Hoo Hotel than the White House. Of all the things for which Clinton can be criticized, her refusal to flash her pearly whites on command is not one of them.

Had Priebus and Gabby Douglas’ detractors asked me, I could’ve told them that asking a woman to smile when she doesn’t feel like it is not just offensive, but it can get you killed.

Say what?

It went down like this: Several Christmas Eves ago, I was leaving what was then Centura Bank on Morgan Street in downtown Durham as a woman was entering.

I held the door open for her and, noting her downcast visage, I said “Smile, sister. It’s Christmas Eve.”

In a male-dominated, sexist society, men tend to see women as here to serve them. If we’re not playing the role they think we should, or looking the way they think we should, then it’s a problem.

Natalie Bullock Brown, who teaches a course on Introduction to Women & Gender Studies at N.C. State University

Not only did she not smile, she turned to the car from which she’d just exited and shot the dude behind the steering wheel a look that must’ve said, “You gon’ let him talk to me like that?”

Thus challenged, homes leaped from the car and confronted me as I walked to my truck. “Say, man. That’s my woman you’re talkin’ to.”

When I repeated what I’d said and told him I’d meant no disrespect, he pulled back his shirt to show what was unmistakably the handle of a gun stuck into his waistband. He then said something that was so unassailably true that it has been my mantra ever since: “She don’t have to smile if she don’t want to.”

You listening, Reince? Fellas?

I’m not presuming to speak for all women, but it seems to me that few things are more annoying than feeling you have to smile constantly to put someone else at ease.

Breathes there a woman over the age of five who has not had someone, usually a presumptuous stranger, sidle up and tell them to smile?

Judging by the women I asked on the streets of Raleigh on Monday, the answer is “No.”

Men may view it as, at worst, harmless flirtation. Natalie Bullock Brown, who teaches a course on Introduction to Women & Gender Studies at N.C. State University, said women generally don’t see it as harmless.

“In a male-dominated, sexist society, men tend to see women as here to serve them. If we’re not playing the role they think we should, or looking the way they think we should, then it’s a problem,” she said. “They take it as an affront” if women aren’t open to their flirtations.

It can be a deadly reality, said Bullock Brown, who is also an assistant professor of Film & Broadcast Media at St. Augustine’s University. “I know of at least three instances,” she said, “in which women were killed because they didn’t respond to some male’s flirtation the way he thought she should.”

In more than a half-century of living, only twice has someone said to me “Smile” or asked why wasn’t I smiling. The day graduation pictures at Richmond Senior High School in Rockingham came out, classmates excitedly swapped pictures with each other. No one asked for mine, and my classmate Susan Ingram caught a glimpse of mine and gave me a clue why. “Why didn’t you smile, Barry?” she asked.

No one asked for a copy of my graduation picture, and my classmate Susan Ingram caught a glimpse of it and gave me a clue why. ‘Why didn’t you smile, Barry?’ she asked.

When I look at my graduation picture at a remove of four decades, I do indeed look as though someone had licked all the red off my peppermint. I was one sad-looking senior.

The only time someone told me to smile was, actually, when I needed it. As the poor but honest publisher of the Richmond County North Star newspaper, I had just stumbled out of the Food King grocery store in downtown Rockingham, where the owner had just informed me he would no longer advertise his grits and bacon and maters in my newspaper. The weekly newspaper’s existence was imperiled.

Walking solemnly down the street to my office in a funk, head bowed, heart heavy, I heard a voice say, “Smile, brother. It’ll get better.”

It was Mr. Stroman, an insurance agent I knew slightly but who I didn’t know knew me at all. He certainly didn’t know of the cosmic foot that had just kicked me in the butt, but his comment and concern, even if perfunctory, lifted me instantly. I felt better and, every time I go home and drive past the spot where that encounter occurred, I smile at the memory of his kindness.

I also think of his kindness whenever I see someone else who looks as though she or he may be having a bad day and wonder if a kind word would have the same salutary effect on them as Mr. Stroman’s had on me.

We’ll never know, because as the dude said, “She don’t have to smile if she don’t want to.”

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