Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Smile for It

“Slavery, racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry, subordination, and human rights abuse transform and adapt with the times.” – John Prendergast

It’s no secret to people who know me that I’m a big fan of Coke Icees. They’re my favorite treat. Maybe they aren’t considered highbrow or terribly dignified, but I’m not a fancy person and I’m relatively low maintenance.

I have the town pretty wired, Icee-wise. I know which convenience stores have the best ones, the ones that are nice and firm but just slushy enough, and I know which ones to stay away from because they’re all foam.

But one day, when I left the college where I teach, I saw the coveted “lighted cup” – the mark of Icee’s presence – inside a convenience store I had not previously known sold Icees, so I pulled in. My day had been lousy and the thought of a gloriously cold Coke Icee was cheering.

I filled my cup, walked to the counter to pay, and here my day – my already rotten day – got worse.

“You should smile,” said the man behind the counter.

“What?” As this was the first sentence out of his mouth, I wasn’t entirely sure it was directed at me. Granted, my response was less than clever.

“Smile,” he said. “You’ll look pretty.”

“Kind of a rough day, so I’m not really in a smiling mood,” I answered. “Just the Icee today, thanks.”

“No, no, no,” he laughed, holding the Icee up and away from me. I believe he thought he was being playful. “You want this Icee? You have to give me a smile!"

I suppose it would have been easiest to just give in, to smile, to give the man what he wanted.

To submit.

And maybe it was the bad day, or maybe it was my pride. Hell, maybe it was both, but…

…what right did this man have to tell me what kind of expression to have on my face?

…do I owe anyone a certain level of prettiness? Is this my obligation?

…why would this man assume he had the power to deny me anything?

…for how many years have women been taught to avoid conflict? To give in? To submit? For how many years have we been seen as “the softer sex” simply because we have been trained over and over to follow orders?

Sorry. I don’t submit.

This man wanted a physical response from my body in exchange for something. He wanted me to whore myself out for an Icee.

Aw, hell no.

“I don’t smile on command,” I said.

“Just a little one,” he mock-pouted, “Please…?”

Another customer came in as I said, “No. Just keep it.”

The man behind me asked for a pack of Marlboro Red 100s. The man behind the counter proceeded to ring him up. This was too much for me.

“Wait a minute,” I said. I looked at the customer and asked him, “Didn’t he ask you to smile?”

Totally confused, the customer said, “No, was he supposed to ask me to smile?”

I turned to the cashier. “You didn’t make him smile for his cigarettes? You wouldn’t sell me an Icee because I wouldn’t smile, but to him you don’t make demands?”

The customer, roughly just under six feet tall, wearing cowboy boots, jeans, and a pearl-snap flannel, looked at the man behind the counter. “You wouldn’t sell this lady an Icee?”

This confrontation the cashier took more seriously. “I only wanted her to smile. She wouldn’t smile. I don’t know why it was such a big deal.”

“She didn’t want to, she shouldn’t have to. Did she offer to pay for it?” the customer asked him, gesturing at the abandoned Icee.

“Yes, sir.” Sir! I thought. Well, that’s more than I got. I never even got a “Miss” or a “Ma’am”.

“Then I think you owe her an apology and an Icee.”

I was so ready to be done here. Good grief, this all started about an Icee. But it wasn’t over an Icee, not now. Not really. My intention had been to walk out, but then I couldn’t help myself and I dragged this poor man into the whole thing, and here he was being utterly gracious about it all and was doing his best to rectify an entire situation that really only marginally involved him.

But here’s the thing:

Why did it take another man to solve this?

I spoke up for myself. I said “No.” I said it multiple times. I was polite, yes, but I was firm against smiling and that I only wanted the Icee. My voice should have been heard and respected.

Why, in 2016, is it still expected for women to look a certain way in order for them to be acceptable? Don’t look at me and then decide whether or not what I have to say is worth hearing. Men are not judged that way. Nor should women be. The fact that the man behind the counter said he “[doesn’t] know why it was such a big deal” is indicative of the problem itself. He simply does not see the problem, so how can it be fixed? Telling a woman to smile so she’ll be pretty means she’s not good enough the way she is, though apparently the customer behind me suffered no such deficit as a man.

I appreciate the man’s assistance, though I resent the need for it. I left with an Icee and a relatively hollow apology.

I also left with a melancholy sense of surrealism that this just occurred, that this occurred in a time when equality should just be a ‘thing’ that happens. That day, as I sipped my Icee, I looked back at how far we’ve come, but I also saw how far there is still to go. And I was tired.