It’s one of the oldest micro-aggressions in the book, and this week Euphoria star Zendaya spoke for many women when she opened up about being perceived as “cold” and “mean” simply because she was wasn’t happy, smiling and chatty all day long.
During an interview with GQ, Zendaya bravely admitted she’d struggled with shyness since childhood, saying it is still something she grapples with, even recalling a time when a stylist commented on it.
A couple of years ago, the actor was slammed on social media as moody and a bitch when she was photographed looking straight-faced at London fashion week while Blake Lively and Emily Blunt giggled raucously next to her.
Zendaya’s response? “I WAS LOOKING AT THE RUNWAY,” she posted on Twitter. And fair enough – it was fashion week, after all.
But this isn’t about being unable to ever pass comment or enquire about someone’s facial expressions. It’s about something women face daily. Whether walking to the shops or concentrating during a Zoom meeting, women are constantly told to cheer up or smile. And if we refuse? Then we’re rude, bitchy or moody.
Not another feminist rant, I hear you cry, but gender stereotypes are everywhere. They’re in the language that we use, the way we behave towards women and the way we perceive the women around us.
And not even Olympic gold-medalists are exempt.
While competing on Dancing with the Stars in 2017, American gymnast Simone Biles was told by judges she should smile more. The 23 year old, who is the most decorated gymnast in American history, clapped back perfectly, saying: “Smiling doesn’t win you gold medals.”
Of course she’s right, but that hasn’t stopped many women falling victim to the passive aggressive comments – especially while trying to get ahead. In fact, a recent survey shows that 98 per cent of women have reported being told to smile at work at some point in their lives, with 15 per cent noting the occurrence happens weekly.
Somehow men manage to avoid this level of scrutiny entirely.
Senior therapist Sally Baker tells The Independent: “Men and women are held up to different standards.
“Traditionally, niceness is absolutely essential to a feminine character – even as children we are taught that sugar and spice and all things nice are ingredients for the perfect little girl, which is why a man is ‘assertive’ and a woman is ‘bossy’, or a man is ‘ambitious’ and a woman is a ‘career bitch’.”
It goes a long way to explaining why the term “resting bitch face” has become part of the popular lexicon.
Originally referred to as “bitchy resting face”, the phrase implies that any woman whose face isn’t permanently animated in a Cheshire Cat smile is a considered grumpy, moody, nasty or simply a bitch.
It’s happened to me on multiple occasions: being told to cheer up by a random supermarket cashier or that I look prettier when I smile by an ex. The other day a stranger even told me to smile while I was walking through the park.
We’re in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, with thousands dying every day, and this man concerns himself with whether I’m smiling or not? Excuse me if I’m not in a particularly cheery mood.
In Sheryl Sanberg’s book Lean In, she cites an experiment conducted at New York University and Columbia Business School in which two professors selected the CV of a female entrepreneur who was both successful and noted for her extroverted personality.
The woman’s name, Heidi, was left on one set of CVs, while on another identical set it was replaced with a man’s name, Howard.
Half of a group of business school students were given Heidi’s CV, and the other half were handed Howard’s. The result was remarkable. The students rated Heidi and Howard as equally competent, however, Howard was judged to be likable and a good colleague, whereas Heidi was seen as aggressive, selfish and not someone who would be a team player – simply because she was a woman who was both successful and outgoing.
It seems we can’t win either way, and this sort of low level persistent harassment leaves a mark.
Zendaya – a world famous, highly successful actor and singer – was so impacted by comments about her expressions, that she felt forced to rehearse small talk even after admitting her shyness is so severe she’s been to counselling – and all so people don’t assume she’s “cold”.
If women as incredibly talented as Zendaya are being impacted, then what do the rest of us have to be smiling about? I’d rather be called a bitch than spend my life grinning inanely on command, thanks.