Women Aren’t Here to Smile for You

Serena Williams, the winner of 21 Grand Slam titles and arguably the greatest living female athlete, was understandably exhausted after defeating her sister and best friend Venus Williams in the U.S. Open earlier this week. So she wasn’t having it when, during a post-match press conference on Tuesday, a reporter had the gall to ask why she wasn’t smiling.

Williams looked down and gave an exasperated sigh before shelling out the best response an athlete has given in an interview since football player Marshawn Lynch’s “I’m just here so I won’t get fined” trademark phrase.

It’s 11:30. To be perfectly honest with you, I don’t want to be here. I just want to be in bed right now and I have to wake up early to practice and I don’t want to answer any of these questions. And you keep asking me the same questions. It’s not really … you’re not making it super enjoyable.

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Nervous laughter may have broken out in the crowd, but what Williams expressed wasn’t a joke. All women are expected to perform femininity at the cost of being their authentic selves in the public sphere. Williams had just experienced what was likely one of the most emotionally and physically draining matches in her career. Taking on your sister in a high-stakes game isn’t easy. She had told the Associated Press before her win:

She’s the toughest player I’ve ever played in my life and the best person I know. It’s going against your best friend and at the same time going against the greatest competitor, for me, in women’s tennis.

It makes sense that she would not be smiling ear-to-ear during the media conference. But it turns out no matter how insanely accomplished or famous you become, you will still be subjected to the innocuous-sounding but ever-so-pernicious “why don’t you smile?” interjection from those who feel entitled to make demands of women. Williams’ retort was her attempt at dismantling that sense of entitlement. For those who say the reporter’s question was a harmless jest, they should ask themselves if Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal would ever be expected to defend their stern or tired expressions.

And the problem exists not just in the image-heavy world of professional sports. On Wednesday, Apple did little to change the public’s perception of the tech industry as a sexist one. During a launch presentation in San Francisco, the first woman to be seen on stage at the male-dominated event wasn’t a keynote speaker or even a presenter, but a model in a magazine photo. Adobe’s director of design used her image to show off the Photoshopping capabilities of the new iPad Pro.

What did he decide to Photoshop one might ask? A smile onto her face. He could have altered literally any aspect of any image he wanted but decided instead to force a woman’s visage into a grin.

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What happened this week at the tennis conference and the tech launch are symptoms of the same problem. Women, whether athletes or models, are often seen as products. They’re meant to be consumed and enjoyed, and expressions of personality—like not constantly grinning—distract from their role as ornaments.

It’s the reason projects like Stop Telling Women to Smile by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh have cropped up to address the microaggressions women face on a daily basis. Women don’t exist to smile for men and aren’t obligated to present a cheerful disposition to the world. To expect that denies us our humanity and only reinforces male privilege.

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Anita Little is the associate editor at Ms. Follow her on Twitter.


  1. Cheryl DenHartog says:

    Ok…I’m as feminist as they come (meaning support of equal opportunities in all settings)…but if we want the world to listen to us, we need to quit being quite so sensitive and need to be a BIT more common sense. To me it’s more concerning that women weren’t represented at the Adobe event than that they photoshopped a smile onto a model’s face. For the record, the men in my life have never expected me to be smiling all the time – so I’m not sure what that’s about… Earlier today I saw people slamming Beyoncé Knowles and a woman fighter/boxer because they were putting down strippers…? I’m all for supporting my fellow woman, but it’s not feminism before everything (like ethics).

    • UGH I really dislike such veiled manipulative statements as “im such a strong feminist/i support all women/ but…..” They are all about censorship and control, and not about support at all. Are you seriously saying that we should “stop being so sensitive” while you explain that you have never been told to “just smile” by men? Because if so you cannot seriously dictate what people should feel who do get told that all the time. I do not think you are supporting your “fellow woman” at all by censoring their experiences…. Especially on an issue as widely recognized as this one! just google “women told to smile studies”. Jeesh.

    • Telling a woman to smile is more of a symptom than a problem in and of itself. But as we all know, sexism is a complicated issue and these so-called symptoms reinforce double standards. Gender roles don’t have to be negative to be harmful. In food service, women are frequently told they need to smile even when they’re being perfectly friendly. It’s confusing and frustrating, but we usually just fake a laugh and move on since we’re in customer service. Williams, however, is an athlete. They’re absolutely right to say it was inappropriate to ask her why she wasn’t smiling and no one would have asked a male athlete. We’re not saying being asked to smile is a huge problem. We’re saying this is another small aspect of a huge problem.

    • The reporter asking Serena Williams to smile is a sexist smug idiot. I think Williams’s response was very restrained, but I’m sure she is aware that had she verbally smacked his face which is what he deserved, then the focus on her tennis match would have been completely drowned out with “hysterical shout-down” labelling and general women in sport put-downs.

  2. David Alan Rego says:

    Pretty amusing, this “micro-aggression,” especially since Williams once threatened to “shove” a “tennis ball down” the “fucking throat” of a line judge. Ms. Little, your blog post is nicely written but badly thought-out. Reporters on their beats, especially those who cover the cult of personality of professional sport today, know their subjects better than we do. At worse, the reporter was smug, and smugness is not sexism, nor is it misogyny.

    • As a female server I get requested to smile quite a bit. By men and men only. It is sexist and male coworkers don’t get the same. Open your eyes.

    • Charles Rivera says:

      “At worse, the reporter was smug, and smugness is not sexism, nor is it misogyny.” — If true, go find ANY video of a reporter asking a male athlete why he isn’t smiling after a grueling match and post the link here. When you are done, go find ANY video, article, blog in which a reporter or interviewer asks ANY male why he isn’t smiling. Then your claim my have merit.

      • Go find me a post match interview with a man who just won a major event where he isn’t already smiling, while you’re at it.

  3. Hypersensitivity at it’s worst. Men and women athletes have to deal with the press and their valid and sometimes invalid questions everyday. Turning it into a feminist issue is asenine.

    • Charles Rivera says:

      I’ll repeat my experiment: If what you say it true, go find ANY video of a reporter asking any male athlete why he isn’t smiling after a grueling match and post the link here. When you are done, go find ANY video, article, blog in which a reporter or interviewer asks ANY male why he isn’t smiling. Then your claim may have merit.

      • Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competitor Ryan Hall is taking part in The Ultimate Fighter TV series at the moemnt. He won his first match, and the main topic of discussion on the BJJ scene right now, even more than “wow, look at how he is proving that sport jiu jitsu works even when striking is involved!” is “How come he looks so serious, he wasn’t smiling when he won. He looked like he didn’t even want to be there”.

        Athletes of both genders are expected to not just win, but entertain while they’re doing it. I think that’s really sad.

  4. Enjoy reading your materiel . Would like to read more.

  5. Thanks Anita 🙂

  6. Excellent piece. But why is Ms. Little smiling in this photo of her?

    • Maybe because she chose to.

      The point is NOT that women should never smile, it’s the expectation that women should smile or smile more–and random guys telling them so on the street–gets mighty old.

  7. What kind of mess is this? Oh, they didn’t like how unfriendly she was during a interview therefore women are being oppressed…
    Oh, woman has her face slightly Photoshopped into a weak grin for display therefore oppression…

    I’m guessing the picture of the associate editor is a form of female oppression as well, as you can see that she has a unnatural smile taking this picture clearly being forced.

  8. I think a lot of people ask that question, not because they expect a woman to smile because of her femininity, but because she just won a major title. This would be asked of a male. I am curious how gender gets injected into this article based on that question. I am assuming the author has feminist motives.

    • …but she DIDN’T just win a major title. Serena had just won her QUARTERFINAL match against her sister Venus, NOT A FINAL. The Us Open FINAL was played today by two Italians: Flavia Pennetta and Roberta Vinci, the latter beat Serena in the semifinals
      Serena was filled with all sorts of nerves because of what she could accomplish had she won that semifinals match and then won in the finals. She got a little too ahead of herself thinking that beating Venus would mean she had an easy ride into the finals and would win the major title easily.
      Of course beating your best friend, sister, and toughest competitor is going to drain you emotinally and physically, so you’re not going to want to smile after that.

    • Because women are overwhelmingly told to “just smile” several times a day, by strangers on the street, by bosses at work, by coworkers. If you are not a woman who lives in a city, or a man who hasn’t read the studies and testimonies and dissertations on this then I can see why it is news. Just google and you will hear women talking about it, researchers studying it, etc.

  9. Steve Schneider says:

    “For those who say the reporter’s question was a harmless jest, they should ask themselves if Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal would ever be expected to defend their stern or tired expressions” – yeah, I think they would. I don’t mean to be rude – just don’t see this particular scenario as an example of women being expected to behave differently from men.

  10. Hello there,

    I just think they are more important matter than complaining about asking women to smile.
    What about complaining that more and more people are centered on themselves , their “groups” and also more and more people are isolated. What about economic distress and talking about people who actually starve in developed countries such as the United States.
    “Women”, “latinos”, “African-americans”, “LGBT” … What about just humans ?
    The other day I had help a guy in wheel chair and carry him the stairs of a Montreal subway station because no one else would because people are just focused on their books, cellphones, tablets and Mp3 players ?
    When I see the guy in a wheel chair , and I see myself using my legs to walk… I already smile.
    The rest is just fluff talk.
    Why can’t you rant about things like that ?

    • We have to focus on the identity of those picked on or discriminated against because that is the way to correct the behavior. Women are told to “smile” by complete strangers all the time, and it has a huge effect on their confidence in their own emotions. They learn that it is not ok for them to feel sad or dissent. But men are brought up without this constant cultural shaping. It is hugely destructive. Arguing that we should focus on something like being selfish is ridiculous when women are suffering, as well as other groups that have been historically oppressed. The best way to take away someone’s rights and equality is to do precisely whatyou are doing, argue that they do not exist as a sepearate problem that is worthy of study. ( Also: Are you aware this is Ms magazine, premised on the womens’ rights movement?)

      • I once was in an office skills class, doing a typing exercise, looking at the typing tutorial book next to my typewriter. This was in the 1990s.

        As she walked past me, I could feel the teacher’s eyes upon me. She told me to smile while typing when someone walked past in an office.

        Would she have told a male office assistant to smile while he was typing? I somehow doubt it.

    • Thought policing is never helpful. Who are you to decide what others should be concerned about. If you would like to read a rant about the topics you listed, try google.

    • MoonRiver says:

      Funny you should consider this not an important issue. I actually just did a video on this topic and how it’s effected me in my life. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9X_joixbn18 Take a look if you are interested in an alternative view point. and perhaps a deeper reasoning for why it’s important to not tell someone to smile. After all just because someone isn’t smiling doesn’t mean they aren’t happy.

  11. All that journalist wanted was a dramatic response about how emotional it is to beat her own sister to generate a dramatic headline or whatever… Stop making up “feminist” problems where the aren’t any. That’s exactly why warrior feminists have bad reputation.

    • Thanks for deciding for the world where there is and isn’t an issue…. There are as many frames for issues as there are people. The writer’s perspective is that women are required to smile whenever they’re in the public domain, even when they’re exhausted and can’t think of a great sound byte. And to boot, when a women doesn’ t smile, it is artificially put on her. The issue the writer is raising is about the male gaze. Women were not put on this earth for men’s viewing pleasure. Warrior feminists must have been so hard on the eyes, what with all their righteous anger.

  12. Excellent article…well said and much appreciated! 🙂 Yes, I smiled…and I meant it!

  13. Thank you for a great article and pointing out the double standards. I have never heard a male athlete be asked why he isn’t smiling right after an exhausting physical event. I cannot tell you how many times in my life I have been instructed by strange men telling me to smile. This may have been a bland and innocuous pick up line, but really what does it say about what they expect? Smile, be pretty, and non-threatening, intimidating. Rather than something like “wow, you look like you are in deep thought, care to share?” or something that generates interaction rather than a pretty and pleasing image.

  14. If you are a man and you think this is FOS, guess what: you dont get to have an opinion because you aren’t the gender that is being annoyed and sometimes intimidated by this question which is totally intended as a male dominant power play. If you think it’s just “being nice”, its not. Frankly, I think Serena’s response was incredibly polite. If McEnroe had been asked that I think the reporter would have had his head handed to him.

  15. Ugh… I enjoyed reading your article but wasn’t going to bother commenting until I saw the comments. How is it that people can read your clear explanation and still not get it? Try reading it again, folks.

  16. There are shades of truth to Ms. Little’s piece. There is an expectation that women are softer and provide ornamentation regardless of their underlying emotional state. But my concerns echo the previous commenter about the lack of women represented at the Adobe conference. As a woman in the animation field I am accustomed to being outnumbered by men, and it can be awkward navigating that situation. That is the primary issue at stake here-whether a woman smiles naturally or out of social conditioning is a nice thought to consider, but ultimately I regard smiling as a potential sign of strength, not placation. Sometimes what is womanly-no matter the reason, is a good thing.

  17. I’ve read the article and the comments, and I have to say, I agree with this article. A male athlete would never be asked about their smile. Women are expected to keep their eye-pleasing facial expressions while also being amazing athletes…but always a woman (eye candy) first. Equality is far from us.

  18. It’s very strange that people would visit this feminist publication and then be all I SUSPECT THIS PUBLICATION OF FEMINISM. Yes. It’s feminism.

    And yes, telling women to smile is a common but often unremarked microaggression. What people often misunderstand is that one instance is not the problem and is not what cultural critics are complaining about. This one instance exists in a larger context of the ways in which women are expected to function as public property, such that other people feel entitled to holler “Smile!” as we move through public spaces. Without that context, this would be a reporter asking a dumb question; within it, it can strike a nerve.

  19. Look, a lot of the comments here regarding hypersensitivity, inauthentic feminism, etc. just serve to show how pernicious sexism is. They reinforce the point made in the article, not counter it.

    It is true that sexism has become much more sophisticated, much more under-the-radar in many cases. It is the symbolism of demanding that women smile. It is the fact that it SEEMS harmless on its face that makes it “pernicious,” makes it a “micro-aggression,” (micro meaning small) as the author states.

    It is also completely inconsequential that Ms. Little is in fact smiling in her professional photograph. She is posing for a picture to put a face to her journalistic work, not performing for a strange man who feels entitled to bark orders at her.

    This is not whiny or inauthentic feminism. This is sophisticated feminism that responds to the increasingly sophisticated manifestations of patriarchy and gender oppression. I understand the aphorism, choose your battles, but when strange men feel entitled to command me to do anything–even to smile–we see the essence of power and control.

  20. Thank you for this excellent article/commentary! I think if you could add some links to other testimonies, studies etc about the whole “telling women to smile” phenomenon it would help educate the public even more. The fact that many men commenting here have never heard of this is sadly not surprising, but yes guys it really is a thing. http://www.stuffmomnevertoldyou.com/blog/smile-youre-a-woman/

  21. The women commenting on this article may not have a problem with strangers telling them how to look and act, but I do. I have never heard of a woman approaching a man in public and telling him to smile or otherwise change their appearance in a way that is more pleasing to the woman. It is a commonplace method of harassment I wish would be more widely addressed. Kudos to the author.

    • Dee Farmer says:

      Amen! I went to a Kansas concert in spite of not feeling well at all. At one point, the lead singer looked at me with disdain and with his fingers pulled his mouth into a smile. I was livid. Dude doesn’t know what’s going on with me. What a jerk!

  22. why’d i read the comments?! i thought this piece was good and always enjoy your writing:)

  23. Great answer indeed, being pretty and nice no matter what iis too much.

    I always frown at how a woman’s pic in FB will get 95% ‘Ho you are so beatyfull’ comments.
    While an man, almost never.

    Or is it just me?

  24. Mary Lou Sienkiewicz says:

    I was also bothered by the picture of the article’s author with the big smile. How often do you see a male author with a big grin? This shows how really deep the conditioning goes.
    But what really bothers me is women news anchors-“there was a major earthquake in wherever” followed by a big smile.

  25. But he wasn’t asking her to smile. Did you watch the video? He was asking her if her reaction post-match was different than usual because she just played her sister. I’m all for criticizing any dude who demands that a woman smile for all the reasons put forth in the article. But MS. should get off the bandwagon of sensationalist headlines for clickbait Buzzfeedesque articles that misconstrue facts just to make a point about feminism.

  26. I’m a cop and a female. I get told to “smile little lady” several times a day. I completely understand this. I just logged on to work an overtime detail for an NFL game. So happens the two of us on tonight are women. As we were loading our patrol vehicles a male coworker said, “woah, men are going to get drunk tonight just to get handcuffed by you two!” Yeah, I totally understand this article.

  27. The reporter was not telling Ms Williams to smile, he was asking her why she was so uncharacteristically unhappy. This is a question that could easily be asked a male athlete.

    Media people need to do a job, and athletes are required to do press. I don’t think it’s cool that Serena or anyone brings a terrible attitude into press and says she’d rather be in bed. She’s not the only one who gets tired or who loses tough matches or who gets asked the same things over and over. The vast majority of her fellow athletes are gracious with press questions. If I were the media, I would have left the room.

  28. I’m amazed, I must say. Seldom do I encounter a blog that’s both equally educative and interesting, and let me tell you, you’ve hit the nail on the head. The issue is something which not enough folks are speaking intelligently about. I am very happy that I found this during my search for something concerning this.

  29. It is definitely true that women often feel invalidated by the whole “smile more” BS. As if we’re not allowed to be sad or angry. I get that a LOT from my dad, who is just as emotionally sensitive as I am.

    I think the reason we women get the “smile more” stuff from men is that men themselves have been conditioned to stuff their emotions, expressing just a tiny fraction of them. So women have come to be representative of the emotions men don’t feel allowed to feel. That, I think, needs just as much of a course correction as the undercurrents of sexism still rampant in Western culture.

    Sexism hurts both men and women alike. It’s not fair to men to be allowed only to express anger and aggression because it’s “manly.” But it’s equally not fair that women are only allowed to “appear happy” regardless of their mood.

    To express an emotion you don’t truly feel in the moment feels like the biggest lie ever. Yes, it is true that smiling even when you don’t feel like it decreases the ill effects of a bad mood, over time. But come on…when you’re PO’d, you’re PO’d, or if you’re sad, you’re sad, and people of both genders should be allowed to express those emotions if they need to.

    That’s all I can say on the matter without rambling on and on. But yeah, the expectation of women to smile just because we’re expected to constantly be happy, or whatever is really rather tiresome.

    My hat’s off to Serena for dropping truth like that.

  30. this pitch-perfect response is one of the reasons i LOVE SERENA WILLIAMS!

  31. Have you ever heard a news reporter asking a man to smile? It’s the most blatantly sexist remark and has no place here. Thanks, Serena, for being a strong woman!

  32. I’m not feminist and glad of it. I agree with women who hate being told to smile. I’ve been told this by men who aren’t even smiling. If I’m going to be told to smile, I better see a smile on their face first. I’m not into this double standard and I don’t have to smile just because a man says to. These men need to learn manners and don’t ask me to do something they’re not even doing!

  33. I don’t think the reason the reporter asked asked why she wasn’t smiling was due to sexism. I think it was more likely because the match she had just won got her into the finals and a chance to win the grand slam, no? And that’s a big f*cking deal- for any tennis player.
    If memory serves me that hadn’t been accomplished since maybe Graf? So maybe the reporter just expected her to be happy and excited that her hard work had earned her that wonderful opportunity.

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