The Feminist Smile

On a delightfully warm day in July, I was working as a waitress at my summer job, waiting on a table of two older couples, who seemed to be having a delicious and relaxed experience. I had approached the table to ask if I may clear a few dishes, and one of the men creepily grinned while daring to ask, “Sure, but would you give me a smile?”

It took every fiber of my being not to glare at this man and this man’s wife as she giggled at his request—a request that made me feel small, childish, and a reminder of the fact that my position was to serve his needs. The feeling deep within my gut reminded me that this entire situation was wrong and his patriarchal requests made me want to vomit, because it reinforced the fact that his request had no place in my life. In only eight words, the man had amplified my domesticated role as a server, revived his virility, and utilized his male dominance to situate me further in a position of inferiority. The flood of emotions that overcame me seemed to drown me, and in that moment, my blood began to boil as I processed this man’s request—one that he assumed I owed him. This man, who was a stranger to me, who felt that he could control my facial expressions, as if I were some sort of robot, essentially gave me an ultimatum, in which I could only clear their table given that I smile. Unfortunately, as uncomfortable as I was, I smiled.

 The wife’s giggling role was further intriguing because she was essentially participating in his demand. Her seemingly playful laugh at her husband’s “innocent” request reinforced the fact that she no longer had the ability in reaffirming her husband’s virility. I doubt she found the situation funny, and there is a high probability that she felt as uncomfortable as I had. So, why didn’t she connect with me? Why did she feel the need to encourage her husband?

Smiling: a tactic so many use to show emotion, please others, exude happiness, pretend to be happy, make a statement, etc. The smile has multiple dimensions of meaning and functionalities, and I am most interested in why women in particular smile, who/whom they are smiling for, and what that smile means. More importantly, how can I use the smile powerfully in my life?

Faced with a double-edge sword dilemma that the smile presents, I could either use the smile tactically to try to earn a higher tip, or I could have intervened, made the man feel exceptionally uncomfortable, and been a feminist killjoy, a term coined by Sara Ahmed. Certainly, it would have been far more rewarding to “stop the flow of communication” and “make things tense,” as Ahmed uses as her description of how the killjoy functions, but it also would have made for a rather awkward encounter.[1] However, having that awkward moment and creating the space in which the entire table no longer felt comfortable would have completely shifted the dynamic that the smile created. I would have made room for the table to feel uneasy at the man’s request, and I would have been able to point to fact that, again, there was no place for his comments in my life.

This experience relates to Annie Dillard’s reflection and interpretation of an encounter she had with a weasel in order to point to what it actually means to use a smile as a way to go in for the kill. Dillard imagines what it would be like to be in the weasel’s brain, and she thinks through the ways in which the weasel kills its prey. She writes that he bites at the jugular vein via the teeth, a truly grotesque, but effective way to go in for the kill. Notably, the weasel does not attack, and Dillard writes, “The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse. This is yielding, not fighting. A weasel doesn’t ‘attack’ anything; a weasel lives as he’s meant to, yielding at every moment to the perfect freedom of single necessity.”[2]

This is where the congruency between baring teeth, smiling, and attacking all meet. Had I been the weasel and “gone in for the kill” when the man asked me to show my teeth, he would not have received a pleasant grin from a young woman, but instead, my teeth would have been skillfully used to advantageously rip apart the man’s throat. I would have demonstrated my power over this man, and altered the entire meaning of the smile. It no longer would have served the purpose in pleasing him or inflating his already suffocating ego, but it would have operated to situate me in a position of superiority, in which I would have been actively baring my teeth with a keen awareness that he was representing the most unsettling feeling within my gut, and it was this feeling that I wanted to rip apart. 

Uncurling the smile:

Logistically, there are things to consider when understanding the smile, baring one’s teeth and how the two operate. First, the appearance, itself, has various meanings, such as the difference between giving a toothy smile and baring one’s teeth. On the outside, my appearance might show that I am being pleasant, but inside, I could be fuming. This points to the interesting etymology of the smile, in which one origin of the smile is rooted in the meaning “to creep.” Baring teeth or giving a “creepy smile” also demonstrates that appearance can operate as an intervention. If I had given such smile back to the man, the unsettling feeling that would have arisen within his body would have also been a key moment of awkwardness. Second, Sara Ahmed points to notions of happiness in that our lives are lived with the end goal that we will all find happiness, and we are somehow hoping that this “pursuit of happiness” will bring fulfillment to our lives.[3] Thus, smiling and exhibiting joy every waking moment will create the happiest and most rewarding life. In this scenario, the man was ultimately reinforcing the fact that if I smiled, my life would be all the better. Little did he know, he was incredibly wrong. Third, smiling and baring one’s teeth are entirely nonverbal forms of communication, and the experience of my return of the smile emitted no words. Had I decided to bare my teeth at that man, and tend to the blood boiling in my body, I would have given cues that certainly did not signal a surrendering to the man’s “give me a smile” request.

This notion that the smile is nonverbal ties into the cultural obsession with the famous Mona Lisa painting, in which society has asked, “Is she happy or is she sad?” “Did Leonardo da Vinci paint a smile or a frown?” As the subject became more popular, researchers conducted studies and found that nearly 100 percent of people perceive her as being happy, because to elude that she is anything but happy would have made for a less than pleasant portrait.[4] Ahmed’s notions hold true here, and this obsession speaks to the experience that I had, because in the man’s request, he was not only asking that I reaffirm his youth and his capacity to ensure that I enjoyed serving his needs, but he needed to be reminded that I sought happiness in my position as a server and in my role as a “good waitress.”

It would be simple to say that smiling is a power tactic. Period. The end. However, smiling has the ability to represent peace and kindness, which should not be overlooked as naïve notions of tactics. There is power in peace, and intelligence in using a kind smile to be savvy. Certainly, baring teeth, going in for the jugular, and finding someone’s weakest vein are tactical, but recognizing the power that the teeth hold can be a reminder that we ought not to fall prey to the patriarchal structure, but instead, we need to tune into our own keen instincts and find the moments when we can make space for the discomfort


[1] Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Duke University Press, 2017.

[2] Dillard, Annie. “Living like weasels.” One Hundred Great Essays (1982).

[3] Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Duke University Press, 2017.

[4] Afp, By. “Mystery of the Mona Lisa’s Solved: Researchers Say She IS Smiling.” Mail Online. N.p., 10 Mar. 2017. Web. 7 May 2017.

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