I won’t link to the offending tweet because that’s what the creep in question wants. I didn’t even want to quote retweet it for snarking purposes because misogynistic gatekeepers love nothing more than believing their idiocy has caused real outrage. They want to be victims and I won’t allow it. However, for those of you not in the know, a quick summary.
The trailer for Captain Marvel premiered this week to much enthusiasm. Fans of Carol Danvers were hyped to see her get her big-screen moment, with Brie Larson punching old ladies, taking names and generally being the badass lovers of the comics know her to be. Captain Marvel is one of the most powerful heroes in the comics canon and her introduction to the MCU could signal a major shift in focus for the narrative as the core Avengers step to the side. Of course, not everyone was happy, with plenty of dudes claiming Carol wasn’t hot enough or her voice didn’t work or she wasn’t to their desired specifications. As ComicsGate, a desperate attempt to create another hate movement under the guise of ‘concern’ about a medium’s growing diversification, scrambles for more attention, it made sense that they’d latch onto the new heroine of the blockbuster era.
And hoo boy, there was no better exemplification of their pathetic misogyny than a man photoshopping pictures of Carol so that she would smile more. Apparently being one of the most interesting and dynamic heroes in the comic books isn’t enough: Why does she look so grumpy? She’d be prettier if she smiled.
Depressingly, this isn’t the worst comment directed at Carol, Brie Larson or any woman tangentially involved with Captain Marvel by these creeps. Indeed, ComicsGate has been a breeding ground for the same kind of hateful rhetoric, harassment tactics and alt-right talking points we saw unfold during GamerGate, the Ghostbusters reboot fall-out and basically everything surrounding Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Yet that one insidious little photoshop, that demand that Carol Danvers should smile more to satisfy men, felt like the strongest proof we have that this ‘movement’ is nothing more than the policing of marginalized voices, bodies and desires. It’s something every woman I know can relate to.
‘Come on, give us a smile, love.’
‘You’d be much prettier if you smiled.’
‘I bet you have a gorgeous smile.’
‘Why so gloomy? Cheer up darling and give us a smile.’
‘If you smiled more, then more people would like you.’
I have lost count of the number of times men I do not know have told me to smile. It mostly happens when I’m walking around town or sitting comfortably alone in a café or restaurant. Sometimes, it happens on public transport. A lot of the time, men will signal for me to remove my headphones just so they can tell me to smile. It never occurs to them that maybe I’m wearing the headphones to avoid such issues. I used to smile back, despite my irritation, just to get them to go away. The sad truth is that it’s often the safest option too. Times when I haven’t smiled back or have just walked away with an eye-roll have resulted in me being called a ‘bitch’ or much worse. I’m not sure how many of these men think they’re genuinely improving my day or fixing an unbroken problem regarding my emotions. Most of the time, I think they just do it for the power.
A woman’s refusal to adhere to the impossible emotional standards of others, but particularly men, only emphasizes the multitude of ways that patriarchy sets us up to fail. If we don’t smile then we’re a misery bitch who’s clearly no fun. When we do smile of our own accord, every facet is obsessed over: Why is she smiling? Why is she smiling so much? Does she know how creepy she looks when she does that? What’s she got to be so happy about? Ugh, her teeth are gross, shut that mouth already. Too many men see a smile as an invite, a silent endorsement for them to bother you when all you want to do is get on with your day. Not smiling doesn’t help either, unfortunately. Not when the expectation is that women are in public for the consumption and entertainment of men.
This is probably the millionth article on the internet protesting this oft-discussed problem. This topic is nothing new, nor is the particular context of this sexist microaggression being applied to women in pop culture. Wonder Woman faced it, Chelsea Clinton’s had to deal with it, there’s even a heart-breaking moment of relatability in BoJack Horseman when Diane, after being emotionally devastated by the entertainment industry’s refusal to deal with an abusive man, hopes to find a moment of peace and is simply told to smile by a patronizing stranger.
However, it feels more relevant than ever to talk about this problem and everything that stems from it in the current pop culture and political climate. It’s the #MeToo era but we’re already seeing the claws of backlash tear into the narrative. Audience’s hunger for true diversity and inclusive storytelling has become impossible for those in power to ignore. Right-wing hate movements founded in bullshit ‘concern’ for ‘ethics in video games journalism’ helped to bolster a dangerous Presidential campaign. Now, we see this old routine unfolding yet again, with sights aimed squarely at feminism, diversity, and a rejection of fetishized nostalgia. An actress was harassed from social media by creeps who didn’t like her character in a Star Wars movie. A film director was sacked from his next project because a right-wing blogger and rape apologist weaponized his past against him. A production company is trying to hire a man with multiple rape and sexual harassment allegations to his name to direct a big comic book adaptation because they think it would be good for his image rehabilitation. All this and we’re still expected to smile. We’re expected to grin and bear it, no matter what’s going on or how much it hurts or pisses us off.
You don’t need to smile if you don’t want to. Frankly, who could blame us for having perpetual frowns right now? Our energy is best used elsewhere. Indeed, Carol Danvers offers the best reply.