There’s truly nothing more political than a woman choosing not to smile. After all, women are meant to look happy, aren’t we? From childhood, girls are conditioned to be amenable, non-threatening, apologetic. We are told to smile sweetly and speak softly. And as women, we’re reminded of this constantly, when catcallers tell us to “cheer up, love” or the latest celebrity gets pilloried for her “resting bitch face”.
So, Greta Thunberg’s refusal to shape her face into an expression of submission at this week’s UN summit was a political act of the utmost importance. The 16-year-old’s groundbreaking speech laid bear the severity of the climate crisis in front of us and the activist’s desperation at the inertia of our political leaders. And she took no prisoners as she angrily declared: “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. How dare you?”
“Thunberg’s stony-faced delivery was proportionate to the scale of the crisis we’re facing.”
But her defiance didn’t go unnoticed. Critics piled in with glib concerns for her wellbeing. “Greta’s being exploited,” they wrote – I don’t see anyone offering the same breathless concern for teen pop stars. Donald Trump tweeted the maddening: “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!” His tweet barely dignifies a response, and it’s not the first time he’s smeared the activist. But regardless of his agenda, why should Thunberg look happy? What is there to be happy about when we’re talking about imminent annihilation in a climate disaster of our own making?
Thunberg’s stony-faced delivery was proportionate to the scale of the crisis we’re facing. How inspiring that she didn’t cut the tension in the room by flashing a smile. And why should it be her role to put people at ease? Women don’t always have to please.
“#MeToo has shown us the power of raising our voices to say enough is enough. And Thunberg is flying the flag for the next generation magnificently.”
Criticism of Thunberg has always reeked of misogyny. That a young woman – a teenager no less – would have the audacity to speak truth to power has ruffled the feathers of a certain demographic. And this instance is no different.
Thunberg is also autistic, something she has spoken publicly about. “I have Aspergers and that means I’m sometimes a bit different from the norm,” she tweeted following a previous round of attacks on her character. Whether deliberate or not, Thunberg’s steely composure offered a bold defence of equality. It reminds all of us to speak with conviction, authenticity and not to diminish our power through placating gestures. #MeToo has shown us the power of raising our voices to say enough is enough. And Thunberg is flying the flag for the next generation magnificently.
Lucy Pasha-Robinson is opinion editor at HuffPost UK.