Sad Bastard of the Week: Street harassment slips by Dear Abby

Posted at 7:15 AM Mar 30, 2010

By Andrea Grimes


It appears as though Dear Abby has never been on the receiving end of street harassment--or at least, she didn't realize she was when it happened to her. Because this week's Sad Bastard is from "Offended" in Gilroy, CA, and she certainly has a right to be Offended by the man in the supermarket who commanded her to "smile." A favorite tactic of creeps and street harassers, the "smile" command was brushed off by Abby as a lame pick-up attempt. But those of us who've been told to "smile" before by leering strangers know that it's often a much, much creepier experience than hearing a bumbling "Do these cucumbers look fresh to you?"

"Offended" writes:

I was in the market the other night and a man came walking by me saying, "You dropped something," and was pointing to the floor. I looked down and said, "I don't see anything." He then told me, "You dropped your smile." Abby, I was SO not amused. I turned around going back to my business saying, "Oh, OK." The man proceeded to walk away mumbling, "Don't look so serious. It's only the grocery store."

I hate when people do this. It happens to me a lot and has most of my life. People -- especially seniors -- say, "Don't you dare smile for me, don't you dare!" Or, "Smile! You're too cute not to smile." An old gentleman said, "Oh, she's like ice -- so cold, never smiles." What can I do if this happens again? I don't see the need to walk around the store or sit at my desk at work with a Cheshire cat grin on my face all day.

It gives me the heebie-jeebies just reading it. And if you're wondering why, and thinking surely these women must have their overreaction panties in a wad, consider this comment on a recent Sexist article about the "Smile, Baby!" phenomenon?

Because a woman's job is to brighten your day and make you feel better, and to be "pretty" and "sweet" and "happy"! "Smile! It can't be that bad!" Effectively informing you, because as a woman you exist in a perpetual state of ignorance until some random fuckwad comes round with an illuminating piece of homespun male wisdom, that your life is great because you're female and pretty, so don't take anything too seriously lest you harsh the temporary high he gets from harassing you, eyeing you up and down, and making it his business to tell you how lucky you are. You dumb, hysterical bitch.
Abby's advice in no way addressed "Offended's" feelings, which were deeply pissed off and creeped out and, well, offended. Abby wrote:

The man who asked if you had "lost" something may have been making a clumsy attempt to pick you up. That sometimes happens in markets. As to the "older people" who comment on your expression -- or lack thereof -- they may consider themselves so "senior" that they can "coax" you into doing as they would like -- like "coochy-kooing" a baby to make it laugh on cue.
Yes, those creepy old men harassing you in the store think you are so adorable, they want to treat you like a baby that they can make sexual passes at. What? Ugh.


Ruth said:

I thought it was just me.

I've gotten this kind of harassment in 2 places. 1) at work when I work in public libraries (not right now, but possibly again in the future) & 2) on public transit.

When at work, I do try to smile when I'm actually working with patrons because I'm a friendly person, but I'd be concentrating on doing something and have someone just walk up & tell me to smile. I was proud of myself for neither snarking them nor hitting them with a book. When it was creepy men I ignored them completely and when it was less creepy people I would just ask if I could help them.

On the metro it drives me nuts. There's no reason or need for me to smile. I'm not unhappy, I'm just thinking about something. And even if it's pleasant thoughts, I'm unlikely to smile.

FriendlySenior said:

Seriously? To all young women offended that some men mistakenly deem themselves worthy of speaking to another human in public: Simply wait 10-15 years and you will notice that all that unwanted attention has mysteriously disappeared.

Andrea said:

FriendlySenior's comment serves, I think, to very well demonstrate exactly what we're saying here: that creeps think they're doing women a favor by harassing them, when in fact what they are doing is freaking them out and treating them like objects. Way to prove our point, FriendlySenior.

As for the "10-15" years comment, FriendlySenior, you are very wrong. Do even a little bit of research on feminist responses to street harassment and you will find that all kinds of women, at all ages and of all degrees of ability/disability, are harassed. It's not about actual sexual attraction (though there's no reason why a 45 year old woman wouldn't be attractive) it's about power. And it's fucking skeevy.

Ruth said:

You're right, Friendly Senior. Nothing wrong with strangers telling me to do something. I suppose the ass grabbing is hunky-dory too? I won't miss it.

Compliments from random guys don't bother me. It's things like telling me to smile or to let down my hair. Yeahno. Compliment me, ask for directions, hell offer me suggestions on acne medications... ;)

Susan said:

Anyone who still calls them "markets" is so out of touch that she should not be giving ANYONE advice about ANYTHING.

Katie said:

This is one of my pet peeves. If I wanted to smile I would smile but I am not going to walk around with a goofy grin on my face for no reason. Me and my scowl are perfectly fine thank you.

Its not just seniors or men that do this either. I have had women tell me to smile. The worst offenders are people I know, which may make it less creepy but just as irritating.

Sarah said:

I think it's also worth pointing out that there's a difference between being told to smile and being asked how you're feeling. I've had people ask if I've been having a bad day or if I'm worried about something, even when I'm fairly happy. This does not bother me, it's usually from people I know at least vaguely and it's a considerate gesture.

Being told to smile? That's not so considerate. I'm fairly content person but being told to do something I frankly wasn't thinking about certainly isn't going to improve my mood.

Nicki E. said:

This happens to me a lot, too, sometimes in my job as a server, and it is so annoying. If I like you, I'll smile--if you command me to do something, I'll be ticked off.

Louise said:

This has happened to me before too. Last time it was an elderly woman at, surprise surprise, the grocery store. She just walked up to me while I was buying cat food and said something like, "Don't look so down, young lady! Smile!"

And I looked at her and said, "My baby died yesterday."

OK, it was only partly true. In reality, our CAT had died the day before. But she was a young cat, and it was unexpected, and there I was in the cat food section getting stuff for our other cat and trying not to burst into tears. And I was not about to listen to yet another person tell me that she was ONLY a cat and I shouldn't be so down about it.

She just said, "Oh," and walked off in a huff.

I know she meant well, and probably most people like FriendlySenior do too, but demanding that other people that you don't even personally know look happy just to please you is very, very rude.

Christa said:

Its not just me! I always get people telling me to smile. They always seem to think I'm upset or sad, but usually I'm just thinking, or my face is relaxed. It takes effort to smile, so I only really do it when I feel the need to, which is never when someone commands me to do it. I don't want to walk around with some big goofy grin for no reason.

Janelle said:

I gotta add to the count of people this happens to a lot. I'm also lacking height-wise and people seem to enjoy randomly commenting on that as well. What's even more annoying is when they gesture for me to take my headphones off to say "Are you a midget? JEEEZ just asking!"
No wonder I'm kind of a misanthrope. And hey, maybe that's why I'm not smiling!

Kris said:

Yeah, FriendlySenior, there's a big difference between a compliment to brighten someone's day and telling them they should smile. That's non of your business. It's like walking up to someone and telling them they should wear their hair differently or buy new glasses. You're "complimenting" them by insulting them first.

Not to mention the extremely creepy wandering around muttering when she didn't smile.

There's being friendly and there's being rude. That guy was rude.

alek said:

Women command me to smile all the time. Its not a male/female issue. Its something that people say/do when they're nervous and want to flirt, but mess up.

The reason men say it to random strangers is because in our society men are expected to be the ones to walk up to women and initiating flirting. A man is scorned, laughed at, ridiculed and shamed (by his female friends, no less) if he doesn't "have the balls" to approach women.

Over the past years, I've worked hard on changing my attractiveness, to where I am the guy whom women approach, hit on and ask out. Guess what? Women do the exact same things when they're nervous. It kind of breaks the feminist model that tries to explain any weird behaviour as somehow being patriarchal, but how do you explain women doing the same things when they're the ones pursuing a hotter guy?

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