I was twenty one, and walking though the centre of Beeston, Nottingham, when an obese young man caught hold of me by the shoulder as he passed me by. He spun me round to face him and uttered the immortal line; 'Cheer up, love, it might never happen'. That was all, he was on his way, as these things go it wasn't traumatic, but I was nevertheless infuriated. And so, it seems, are many women who are treated to similar comments, judging by the reports logged in the Everyday Sexism Project. Variants include 'Give us a smile, then' and 'Smile, love, your face won't break'. Why do these inanities upset women so much? These are just silly remarks, shouldn't we 'calm down, dear' and ignore them?
But if you deconstruct what these comments mean, the reason they are so irritating becomes apparent. What men are actually saying is this:
Hello. I'm male, and you are lucky that I've chosen to favour you with my attention. But you do not appeal to me; you are not trying to look attractive, complaisant, or interested in me, and that is unreasonable of you.
In effect, men who make these comments are being perfectly clear that the purpose of women, in their opinion, is to be delightfully decorative, and preferably sexually available, to men.
On that day in Beeston in 1985, the phrase 'Cheer up, love, it might never happen' was wildly inappropriate, because 'it' had already happened. I was a postgraduate student at Nottingham University, and my father was in intensive care fifty miles away. I had been trying to reach my mother by payphone to get some news from the hospital. I had to decide whether to dash home by train, which is what I wanted to do, and let my week's carefully set-up experiments go to waste, or to stay in the lab, which is what my mother wanted me to do, and face the possibility that I might never see my father again. But the young man who accosted me in the street couldn't possibly have known that, because, as far as he was concerned, I had no concerns or worries, and indeed, no independent existence outside his field of vision. Or if I had, well none of them could possibly be important enough to deflect me from my life's task of looking pleasant to men.
We women already do so much. We take care how we dress, we choose jewellery, spend money on make-up, have expensive haircuts, all to look more pleasing to others in a way a man would never countenance. These days we glue nylon extensions into our hair, pad our breasts with silicone gel, squeeze botox into our faces. If we don't shave off all of our pubic hair, young men, with their delicate Ruskin-like libidos, find it 'off-putting' when they want to have sex. Nevertheless, all this dollification will never be enough. They want our expressions as well. They want us to put up with all the indignities and inequalities that the world puts on us as women, and never let on for a moment that we are worried, scared, tired, ill. We should show no sadness, no anger, because men don't want to deal with that sort of hysteria from women, thanks very much, when they have so many important things to think about. That's the logical conclusion of those silly little comments.
You might have got the idea that I'm quite angry now, at the casual belittling of women that goes on every time some vacuous man exhorts us to give him a smile. Yes I am. But you wouldn't know it to look at my face.