Every woman who has ever been told to “Smile!” by some stranger on the street cringed last night when MSNBC host Joe Scarborough tweeted the following message to Hillary Clinton about her four Super Tuesday primary victories: “Smile. You just had a big night. #PrimaryDay.”
At this point, we are used to hearing Clinton criticized for her voice, which—depending on who you ask—is either too loud, too angry, too flat, or too shrill. And while Tuesday night was no different, there’s something about Scarborough’s comment that grates in a unique and visceral way.
What is it about being told to smile? There’s the idea that smiling makes women look “prettier,” and the implication that appearing attractive to men is one of our responsibilities. Then there’s the condescension of being told the correct way to feel. (You should always be happy!) Of course, a smile also makes you look friendlier—or perhaps I should say, more docile. It’s a way of neutralizing a woman who might otherwise be read as a potentially threatening presence.
Whatever it is, Twitter users felt it and were quick to react to Scarborough’s directive:
Scarborough called such responses “fake outrage,” arguing that, “we’ve hammered all candidates on style and substance. We try to hold all candidates to the same standard.”
Image is certainly vital to a presidential campaign, and critiquing candidates’ presentation is on the table. Yet I find it notable that the only other candidate in the 2016 campaign to get flack over smiling is former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.
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Critiquing Fiorina’s performance in the second GOP debate last September, CNN’s Michael Smerconish remarked, “She’s got to smile.” We at Fortune also pondered the candidate’s facial expression, noting that Fiorina failed to “show what leaders—both men and women—often miss: a winning smile.”
If Hillary Clinton lands the Democratic nomination—an outcome that is looking increasingly likely after Tuesday’s results—I doubt that this is the last we’ll hear of her voice, her appearance, and her smile—or lack thereof. And while I don’t expect that process to be pleasant, I do hope that outing some of the condescending and sexist language that creeps into our daily media coverage will ultimately put a smile on our collective faces.