…I cannot publish this blog post at my main gig, Public Seminar, where we are rightly scrupulous about not running afoul of intellectual property distinctions. Taken a month ago, the photograph illustrates an article by Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman with the headline: “Trump Grows Discontented with Attorney General Jeff Sessions” (June 5, 2017).
But (to put it in the language of Trump) “the many beautiful frowns –many of them, and they are beautiful, beautiful, frowns– people are wearing” at the White House prompts an admittedly banal thought: how would the media, or anyone else for that matter, respond to Frowning Trump and all his frowning friends if they were women? Or children? Take Jeff Sessions: on a grown man, that frown says: “I AM TAKING YOU SO SERIOUSLY DONALD TRUMP!” On a child, it would indicate that he was about to burst into tears and you should call the manny immediately.
But back to Donald Trump: the man never. Fucking. Smiles. A few months ago, there was buzz on both sides of the Atlantic that Trump practices that expression because he thinks it makes him look like Winston Churchill. In addition to the pugnacious squint and the scowl, the Trump-as-Churchill branding strategy is being promoted by a bust of Churchill, originally gifted to George W. Bush in July 2001, that was returned to the Oval Office immediately after the inauguration.
An American woman would never get away with frowning nonstop, President or no President (I say American, because Angela Merkel frowns constantly, and their seems to be an unspoken consensus that this suits her.)
I would also note that Kellyanne Conway, a woman who probably has less to smile about that any other woman associated with the White House than Melania Trump, smiles constantly, even when members of the media are calling her a liar to her face. Except that women have been trained to smile as a defense mechanism, men have not.
In my experience, many American men seem to think that it is a personal insult, aimed at them, when they encounter a woman who is not smiling at them. You know how enlisted are supposed to salute every time they encounter an officer, except when everyone is not in uniform? Well, the general rule is that women are supposed to smile at all men, all the time. If they don’t, this is what random men — who may or may not know them, may be professional men or homeless men — say:
- “Why aren’t you smiling?”
- “What’s the matter? Smile!” Or they simply issue the command:
Now you may be reading this, and you may be a man, and you may be thinking: I don’t do this! And I bet you don’t. But the thing is — and this is the essence of how a certain kind of power works — women never be sure until they know you that you are not going to be that guy. For men who are devoted to policing women’s expressions, the idea is that every encounter with a man is a potential gift, and that men deserve some recognition for how important our encounters with them must be. And we can’t know who you are until you don’t insult us. If you didn’t know this, now you do.
Interestingly, this happens a great deal less to female-bodied people as they get older. I have never been very feminine in my appearance, which some men and some women have always found upsetting, but I have settled into a highly masculine self-presentation with age, one with which I am very comfortable, and which, in turn makes me invisible to men of the predatory and annoying variety (unless they are Internet trolls, in which case it prompts them to fantasize out loud in the comments section about turning me back into a woman by sexually assaulting me.) How this helps me live a better life on a daily basis is that the men encountered in daily life who belong to the category of that guy — strangers, colleagues, and even students — who have historically seemed devoted to forcing me back into helpless girlhood have given up and turned to other prey.
There is an exception to the universal command to demand for female smiles: when that guy fears that we aren’t taking him seriously. For example, Hillary Clinton was constantly criticized for not smiling enough until the first debate at Hofstra University, when she was criticized for smiling, in anticipation of and in response to, Donald Trump’s withering abuse. In fact, Gender Police, when women smile in situations like that, it often means: “I’m afraid of you” or “I hate you.” Which can make that guy VERY ANGRY and provoke the following responses:
- “What’s so funny?” Answer: you?
- “Oh, so you think that’s funny?” Answer: Not really, but I’m growing more uncomfortable, which you can tell because I am now smiling even more. And my favorite:
- “How would you like me to wipe that smile off your face?” Because this is a family blog, I won’t elaborate on how this would happen, but seeking a quick exit and a door that locks is not the coward’s response, let me tell you.
Which might return us to Jeff Sessions’ frown in the photograph above. Is he trying to reflect Trump’s aura of manliness? Or is he (look at how tightly his hands are gripped together) — afraid?
Time will tell. James Comey testifies tomorrow.