At least it is in the blue states. In the cities that try to make the streets safe for people instead of safe for cops. In the jurisdictions overseen by the kind and conscientious instead of the hateful and fearful.
In the other places, the red districts, the small towns with cowboy-hatted bigots masquerading as a real government, today isn’t Indigenous Peoples’ Day. It’s something else.
So it goes.
The US government gives us a Day for Washington, who created a legal process for recapturing human property in jurisdictions that had outlawed slavery.
A Day for all of the 45 men who have managed to become president, by whatever deeds, fair or foul, to share between them.
A Day for all the bluecoats, regardless of what they did or whether they wanted to do it, whether they were monsters looking for the chance to kill or were shattered inside by the first gunshot they were forced to fire.
A Day for all the bluecoats who died because one of those 45 special men couldn’t use their words to solve their problems.
A Day for workers, which most workers don’t have off, and specifically scheduled to undermine the legitimacy of the labor movement.
A Day for Jesus.
A Day for pretending that dangerous, violent, repressive religious extremists DID, in fact, receive a whole hemisphere of the earth as a present from their god, and the local native people were happy to be their magical savages.
A Day for congratulating all the above parties on how they totally 100% successfully created a great Enlightenment Eutopia.
A Day for Martin Luther King, Jr., killed by a “lone wolf” acting out the government’s wishes, for being audacious enough to dream of a day when his children could have white friends.
A Day to mark the beginning of a new Gregorian calendar year.
And, on paper, a Day for Christopher Columbus, a religious fanatic who stole things and people from dozens of foreign nations to present them as tokens of conquest to the architects of the Spanish Inquisition.
We’re supposed to feel grateful that the millions of people who were killed, raped, tortured, kidnapped, enslaved, brainwashed, imprisoned, disenfranchised, and stripped of their families, possessions, homelands, languages, cultures, and identities by the legacy of this “explorer” are allowed to share his Day of recognition.
Because that makes it all better.
Columbus Day is a recent holiday, created because a particular, influential group of male, Catholic Italian-Americans didn’t feel like they were getting enough white privilege. They wanted someone who was like them to be upheld as part of the American identity. They wanted recognition of Italian and Catholic contributions to the US built into the myths of white American national identity.
There is no holiday specifically setting out Irish or German or Welsh or French or Greek or Ethiopian or Congolese or Sioux contributions to American history.
There is no holiday celebrating a great hero of atheism, Buddhism, Protestantism, Islam, or Judaism for their contributions to American history.
There is no holiday celebrating the contributions of queer people to American history.
There is no holiday celebrating an American woman, or even ALL American women generally, for contributions to American history.
There is no holiday recognizing that the state machine of the US was built by black slave labor, greased with native blood, powered by the sacrifices of unpaid femininity, maintained by a constant ingress of disenfranchised and vulnerable immigrants, and run on tracks laid by indentured Chinese immigrants over land stolen from native communities through more than a century of war.
Bullshit excuses and band-aid solutions like national “observances” of a “history month” won’t cut it.
Native people have been victimized by the United States from its infancy. It’s time for the government to take responsibility for that legacy. It’s time to be honest about it.
It’s time for white Americans to learn that the history of the oppressed is the history of the oppressor as well. It’s time to own it, to face what happened, and do better moving forward.
People love to invoke terrifying conversations that scar children for life whenever progressives are pushing for changes that will improve the lives of marginalized people. Over the course of my life, I’ve heard people object to same-sex marriage and same-sex parenting on the basis that they couldn’t explain it to their children.
This is manifestly bullshit. If your kid comes home from kindergarten and asks you where Heather’s daddy is and why she has two mommies, you say “There are all kinds of different families– some people have a mommy and a daddy, and some people have two mommies, and some people have two daddies, and some people have just one parent. People are all kinds of ways.” Done and done.
But there are some things I shouldn’t have to explain to my kids, because they shouldn’t be real. For example:
20 Things I Shouldn’t Have to Explain to My Kids
Normalization of non-consensual touching. Obviously this includes rape, but more often, especially in children’s media, it’s smaller things like kissing someone or tapping their shoulder over their objections, that are overwhelmingly dismissed as “teasing” but obviously normalize a lack of bodily autonomy.
Deportation of unaccompanied child refugees. Did you know that children as young as three years of age are expected to act as their own attorneys in deportation proceedings? Disgusting.
Islamophobic violence. I don’t even know where to start on this one.
Children dying of neglect or abuse, especially when the people who are supposed to protect children from harm in the worst case scenarios (cops, social workers, CPS, etc.) are aware of the situation and failed to act.
The glass ceiling. We’ve had MANY talks about this one in the last several months.
The “gay panic” legal defense. What. The. Actual. Fuck.
Police murdering young people of color in the street with apparent impunity.
Body shaming. Why is the episode of Phineas and Ferb about Candance body-swapping with Perry the Platypus called “Does This Duckbill Make Me Look Fat?”? How is that child-appropriate, Disney?
Cartoon misogyny and gender policing in general. It is absurd that I have to point out to my children explicitly that non-femmefolk have eyelashes in real life.
“Chief Wahoo”, “Chief Thunderthud”, and Tonto. None of that shit should have happened. None of that shit should be CONTINUING to happen.
Blackface. We recently looked up some of Bojangles Robinson’s tap dancing on YouTube and inadvertently opened a whole can of horrible racist worms. Thanks, 20th-century America!
Rooms full of old white men making decisions about children, women, and people of color.
“Sundown Towns” and lynch law and slavery and the Back to Africa movement and everything else white supremacist society has cooked up to eliminate black people.
Dr. Seuss’ political cartoons advocating the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans, and, in fact, Japanese and Japanese-American internment itself.
Reservations, the Trail of Tears, extermination campaigns (aka “the Indian Wars”), Indian scalp bounties, buffalo culls, Philip “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” Sheridan, the Indian Removal Act, and the cultural holocaust (including residential schools and the Dawes Act). Not a complete list.
Accidental shooting deaths of children. The NRA has successfully lobbied against parents receiving information about the dangers of guns at child well-visits, and apparently everyone is just okay with this even though TODDLERS continue to accidentally shoot themselves and their family members on a regular basis in this country. I cannot with this.
The criminalization of abuse victims who act in self-defense. How am I supposed to raise kids who stick up for themselves enough but not “too much”?
Companies paying millions of dollars to defend their right to destroy the planet on which all their employees and customers live. WHAT.
The Flint water crisis. And, by the same token, Love Canal, Cancer Alley and whatever the next poisoned, neglected, and gaslit community is going to be.
The pay gap, the second shift, and all that other bullshit that characterizes the price of living while female in this country of supposed liberty and justice.
I have been crying for all the sweet babies and other human beings in peril and deprivation.
I have been writing all of the angry letters to politicians and leaving all of the broken-voice messages with their staff.
We’ve been washing every handkerchief in the house probably once a week.
Each of us has had a whole day, minimum, when we just couldn’t do it. Couldn’t get up, couldn’t wake up, couldn’t be brought to bear with the day’s work.
We’ve been running low on the resources that keep us from yelling and pushing and fighting among ourselves.
We’ve been eating ALL the comfort food: starchy, creamy, cheesy, oh yes.
Robert has been listening to people say they’re scared to come to school.
Robert and I have been sitting up until dawn, talking. Angry. Scared. Sad.
I have been quoting The New Colossus and warning people that this is the moment. This. Is. The. Moment. in which they can choose to collaborate with evil or use their privilege to agitate for what’s right.
Mostly, though, what we’ve been doing– what, I think, we’ve ALL been doing for the past few weeks, is turning to everyone we meet, holding up what we loved about our lives in this country, and saying “Fix it.”
When Númenor was a toddler, he would bring things to me and plaintively lisp out “Broken. Fix it?”
That’s where we all are right now.
At least tell us where to start.
What glue do you buy to put families divided by immigration policy back together?
What stitch can we use to patch up our hopes for the future?
How would you break down dismantling the imbalance of power between the traditional checks and balances into easy weekend projects?
Which infomercial tells me about the space-age no-mess solution for getting back what little transparency and accountability our government had?
How can we restore life, re-build places of worship, un-do what just happened?
Ultimately, a society isn’t a toy, and no amount of clever clamping and wood glue will fix a government that’s cracked through.
But still we stand here, outraged and unbelieving, sad and furious and on the verge of a toddler tantrum, demanding that someone fix it.
That’s where we’ve been.
I think we might be here for a while yet. And that’s okay. But it won’t be forever. Someday, we will find the way forward. We’ll land on the methods of resistance that work best. We’ll find a strategy, and identify a first step, and then another, and another. We’ll crawl back to the light.
In the meantime, people may be a little quiet and a little fragile, me included.
So take good care of yourselves, folks. And watch out for each other– sometimes people lack the good sense to come in out of the rain.
I’ve been scrabbling desperately to get a grip on the way forward this month, so I’ve been hanging back, practicing self-care, and just trying to get my head clear.
Here’s what I have:
The world has gotten scary. People are dying in the streets. The white hoods are back. The government is torturing Indians in furtherance of giving them poison to drink. Children are learning that hate is an American value.
There are two things that I know are true, that we can use against this terror and darkness.
Over the past weeks, they have seemed like laughably inconsequential things and impossibly large things, but they’ve never stopped being primal.
The first thing is love. We can love ourselves. We can love each other. We can love fat people, not-conventionally-attractive people, “fours”, “losers”, black people, people who don’t speak English, trans people, disabled people, gay people, people who have had abortions, Muslim people, native people, people who have been “grabbed”, all the people. We can love them. We can love us.
And that’s the most powerful tool we have against hate and fear: we can choose love instead. We can reject the notion that some are so different that they are unlovable. We can laugh in the face of the cultural rubric we’re supposed to use to judge the value of femmefolk and just love them instead.
We can practice self-care. We can make safe spaces for each other. We can help one another. We can reach out. We can stand in the street in front of the mosque and say “These people are my neighbors. I love them, and I won’t let you harm them.” We can give a colleague a hug and say “You are loved.” We can offer flowers to strangers, like hippies, and we can tell them– yes, those people we don’t even know– that we love them. We can see someone struggling and offer our help. We can ask what the family down the street needs to be safe, and help them get it. We can love. We can love the white working-class, and let them know that there’s a place for them in the future. We can raise children who know, like Mister Rogers used to say, that there’s no one in the world quite like them and people can like them just the way they are. We can tell gay kids and fat kids and brown-skinned kids that the world is fucked up, but they are just fine the way they are. We can listen to people, especially when they say they are being harmed.
We can love the earth, too. I know that this is like, “Again with the hippie nonsense?!”, but it’s still true. We can love the trees. We can lovingly plant wildflowers for pollinators to find. We can pick up trash at the beach because we love the ocean, and the birds, and the sand. We can sit outside and breathe deep and love the air.
We can reach out into our communities and our world and love what we find. We don’t have to withdraw and fear what’s outside. We can offer love as an alternative to hate.
That’s the first thing.
The second thing is a bit harder.
Yes, harder than loving strangers.
But it’s just as important.
The second thing is independence. We can do it ourselves. We can stop relying on the state to protect our interests. We can stop calling the police. We can stop shopping at the Wal-Mart. We can stop expecting anomic society to take care of our problems. We can take responsibility for our own needs. It doesn’t matter how horrible, how corrupt, how oppressive these institutions become if we deny them legitimacy and reject their attempts to shape our lives. They need US, not the other way around.
We don’t have to participate in systems that oppress us or others. We don’t have to be complicit in the state’s oppression of its enemies. We can choose and build our communities for ourselves. We can think critically about our actions and listen to those who are harmed by them, even in steps of the process that seem beyond our control. We can make slave labor, deforestation, pollution, and factory farming unprofitable for businesses by refusing to profit by them ourselves.
We can vote with our dollars for the future we want. We can support local businesses run by our neighbors and friends. We can see our supply chains and improve them. We can offer help to people who are struggling instead of reporting them to the authorities. We can share our resources with those in need instead of expecting the state to feed, clothe, and house them. We can clean it up ourselves instead of filing a complaint about litter. We can leverage our privilege to protect marginalized people. We can protect each other and set expectations for our communities instead of relying on the police to enforce the state’s rules. We can learn to make things ourselves. We can grow our own food, or join CSAs. We can buy things from independent artisans instead of faceless factories. We can get together with our neighbors to do hard things together. We can raise barns and put up jam and bring homemade bread and soup to the old lady next door who has trouble walking. We can start a childcare co-op, or shop at the farmer’s market, or learn to sew our own clothes. We can choose a midwife instead of submitting to industrial medicine. We can learn about the natural world around us and work with it instead of destroying it. We can buy good things, made with love and designed to work well, and maintain them. We can mend things that break.
We can be proactive and make a better future for everyone. We don’t have to accept the options the state-industrial complex offers us, and we don’t have to chase the 1%’s definition of success. We can make our own society.
And together, if we all work on those two things– love and independence– we will be unstoppable. Whether you can only participate in little ways, or you have the resources to make big changes, everything will make a difference.
I’m not saying that the dark forces at work in our world won’t matter or won’t be able to harm people, but we don’t have to sit back and let them take over. We can both choose not to be bullies ourselves AND not to allow bullying around us. We don’t have to give up ground. We don’t have to stop pushing forward. We can still make progress if we all work together.
We can find the way forward– or make a new one for ourselves– if we can all practice love and seek independence.
Some things that have come across my virtual desk recently on the topic of resistance/survival in Trump’s America:
The “Oh Shit! What Should I do Before January?” Guide. Some really phenomenal ideas in here for both self-care and advocacy– a one-stop shop. Personally, I highly recommend checking out the section on abortion access and reproductive health for advice about getting and removing an IUD, notes on how to self-abort if you need to, and excellent suggestions about securing emergency contraception access. Please please please, if you have disposable income and a decent relationship with an OBGYN, get a prescription for Ella (which is the only emergency contraceptive approved for people who weigh more than 160 lbs) and buy up as much as you can. Store it in a red wine fridge for maximum shelf-life, which should be, co-incidentally, about 4 years. You might need it, your friends and family might need it, strangers might need it– it might literally save lives.
If An Agent Knocks. Available in English, Spanish, Urdu, and Arabic, a comprehensive guide to your rights and abilities when dealing with federal agents such as the FBI and anti-terrorism officers. Print it out if you can and leave it in high-traffic areas in neighborhoods with lots of immigrants, especially laundromats, grocery stores and bodegas, libraries, and mosques and other places of worship.
What To Do Instead of Calling the Police. A collection of links to articles and other resources intended to move people and communities past the need for violent authoritarian state-backed law enforcement.
Support organizations and causes that will come under fire or that work to defend the vulnerable:
Planned Parenthood STI testing, pregnancy options counseling, safer sex information, contraception education and access, well-woman care, reproductive cancer screening, abortion access.
NOW— their website has crashed, for now you can donate here. Women’s rights, equal pay, workplace protections, anti-rape advocacy.
“Someday, someone will tell you that feminism is no longer necessary. That men and women are equal in society. But right now, you can see that’s not true. Because more than 50 million Americans have just legally declared themselves willing to be led by Donald Trump, even though he is terrible and dangerous and unqualified in every way, rather than a woman, even though she may be the most qualified candidate for political office in all of human history.”
We were huddled together against the chill and the hatred, watching the election returns. The mood had been jovial, if a little manic, but slowly turned to terror and shock. I couldn’t stop shaking and felt nauseous. Robert tried to argue that it wasn’t over yet, but I knew it was. None of us understood it, but we saw it.
Ithilien put his hand to my face. “Shh, Mommy, it’s okay. He won’t win the whole race.”
“Yes he will,” I said, my eyes stinging, “this is the whole race. It’s over.” Ithilien curled his lip as tears formed in his eyes.
“Maybe it’s just a mistake.” Númenor offered, his fists tight with anger and incomprehension. “It must be wrong.”
But we knew.
I started to cry.
What went wrong? What happened? Could we have prevented this? Would it have made a difference if we had donated more money? If we had been brave enough to put up a yard sign? If we had flown to Florida to GOTV, would that have been enough?
I suspect not.
I think, in my heart of hearts, that what we saw tonight was an ugly reminder of how much we have left to grow as a society. A frightening harbinger of a new era of hate and horror, certainly, but mostly a reflection of how hateful and horrible our past and has made our present.
Hillary Clinton lost tonight. So did tolerance, love, peace, fairness, understanding, rationality, and the way forward.
Right now I don’t know if we can find those things again. But I’m going to keep looking. I’m going to keep raising children who expect those things and who will help foster them. I’m going to keep looking for the light ahead, the distant goal, that “greatness,” and strive for it with my whole being.
Just as I would have if the election had gone the way we expected.
“Safety lights are for dudes.” — Jillian Holtzmann, Ghostbusters (2016)
We saw the new Ghostbusters movie last weekend (spoilers herein).
It was AWESOME.
AND, importantly, it was a movie about women: a lesbian, a fat woman, a black woman, and a hopeless nerd. I was asked a few months ago how I could possibly be excited to see this movie just based on the knowlege that it was a gender-swapped reboot, and the answer is, because gender MATTERS.
We’re not talking about Charlie’s Angels. This was a movie about women being the main characters, driving the plot, existing for their own stories rather than being the decoration or the macguffin in someone else’s. There were no gratuitous shots of cleavage or pantylines, no slow-motion walk-ups in full hair and make-up, no jokes or lines about the characters’ attractiveness.
The jokes were about female experiences: Kristen Wiig’s character is taken aside by her boss and immediately assumes he wants to talk about her attire being inappropriate for the workplace (even though she is dressed very conservatively). There’s a practical joke that features a queef. There are jokes about high-heeled shoes being impractical and getting stuff stuck in your bra.
The tension is also about female experiences: A white dude is given a media platform to crucify the Ghostbusters as an “expert,” to audit their narrative “objectively.” The GBs are told over and over again that their work is a hobby, amateur, unprofessional, unnecessary, poorly-conducted, and that they should expect to be publicly shamed and disavowed even by people who know about ghosts (which Melissa McEwan at Shakesville sees as an extended metaphor about feminism).
I was excited to see this movie from the first time I heard about it. I wanted to see a woman in a major motion picture who was as much of a sexual being as Venkman, as much of a hopeless nerd as Ray, as scary-smart as Egon, as frank and relatable as Winston.
And this movie DELIVERED on that. Robert said it was like they put the original GB characters in a blender and poured out four new characters– but it’s more than that. Each of the four is her own person, with her own priorities and her own story arc. All of the important aspects of the Ghostbusters as characters carried through to the rebooted characters, in new but simultaneously familiar ways.
And, like Brave and Frozen, little girls are going to see this movie and it will expand their horizons. They’re going to see that science is cool, that femmefolk can be friends without being catty and spiteful, that they can be funny, powerful, irreverent, strong, smart, scary, sexual, fat, brown, and heroic, just like guys can.
They’re going to see that, even if The Man doesn’t recognize your accomplishments, people will still see you and value what you did.
They’re going to see that they can be the heroes in their own stories.
And little boys are going to see women doing and being all that stuff, too. And that will change the world for them.
But I cringe when I hear politicians talk about America and greatness. No matter who, and no matter how– whether it’s President Obama describing the things that make America great in a State of the Union, the Trump campaign’s “Make America Great Again” swag, or Hillary Clinton stumping about how America is already great.
I wonder if they really believe what they’re saying, or if they just know that it polls well. I wonder if they’ve ever really thought about it, or researched it, this idea of America being somehow superior among nation-states. I especially wonder about Obama, the black child of a white single mother, and Clinton, the civil rights activist and feminist icon– do they have to train themselves out of looking contemptuous when they spout these phrases?
I mean, surely they know. They have marginalized identities, they are well-educated, they are politically left of center. Surely they can see the opressions and injustices of the past and present– the racial warfare that accompanied the birth of the nation, as transatlantic slave labor created mercantile prosperity and westward expansion was synonymous with Amerindian holocaust; the toxic patriarchal agenda that permeates all levels and ages of American history, erasing the accomplishments of historical women and constraining modern femmefolk to a life of second-class possibilities; the racial, sexual, orientational, and gender-based disparities that have followed US society into the 21st century.
America isn’t great.
It has never been great.
Not for everyone.
In fact, America as a society has only ever served the needs of a small minority of the population. Perhaps it was, or even is, great for them, I wouldn’t know– at no time in history has there been an iteration of the US in which I would be in that minority.
The American Dream– come here, work hard, and by dint of your effort alone become rich and well-respected– is a myth. It’s a convenient fiction perpetuated by the oligarchy, designed to discourage lower-class rebellion in a cultural context where Calvinist predestination remains highly relevant and wealth disparity is stark and endemic.
There have always been a few people living the gilded life while many starve and freeze and even more hustle and graft to support them.
That, to me, doesn’t fit the definition of greatness.
In order to insist on America being great, whether now or in the past, one would have to somehow magically exclude from consideration that the prosperity of the US came through the blood of chattel slaves, over the bodies of slain indigenous people, and in the ruthless industrial consumption of children, elderly widows, and vulnerable immigrants.
In order to insist on America being great, whether now or in the past, one would have to forget that nearly every major liberal victory in its history was a case of America being late to the party, an embarrassing truth in the face of a pervasive narrative about America the great Enlightenment political experiment, especially as the US remains behind the curve today.
In order to insist on America being great, whether now or in the past, one would have to quietly pretend that its status as the sole superpower was somehow more related to its inherent superiority, or at least to the deliberate actions of its leaders, than it is to the confluence of greed, indescriminate slaughter, and simple accident.
America isn’t great. Has never been.
No amount of firecrackers and political rallies could change that.
America could be great someday. Maybe it’s even on the path to greatness now. But ahistorical national pride won’t bridge the gap.
Let’s have bold, critical conversations about the American state instead. Let’s talk, not about how great America is, but about how great it could be if we perservere. Let’s talk about how to make America great, how to honor the promises of the liberal principles and founding narratives we hold dear.
Let’s talk about how to create liberty and justice for all. What it means for Lady Liberty to lift her lamp beside the golden door. What we can do now in order to form a more perfect union. How we can come together, and be one out of many.
All that starts with saying, out loud, in your biggest speech of the year, on your bumper stickers, and in your stump speeches, that America isn’t great– yet. That America continues to fail the poor, the elderly, people of color, immigrants, queer people, women, and the differently-abled. That America cannot be great when there are still children facing hunger, women tasked with preventing their own rapes, communities fighting the extinction of their cultural identity, cities bereft of safe drinking water, families unable to make the best choices for their children, people who don’t have enough of what they need to thrive.
A nation is its people. America won’t be great, can’t be great, until each and every American has the resources and support they need to live a great life.
And on that day, I will fly the flag and be proud to be an American.
The word “patriotic” is an adjective used to describe things that are patriot-like. The word patriot was loaned into English from middle French patriote, but its lineage can be traced back to Latin and Greek words for father, making the meaning of the word less about being proud of one’s homeland (or patria), and more about it being a feeling one has in conjunction with others who are of one’s father. It’s about human relationships, common history, shared identity.
It’s not the opposite of “terrorist,” “godless,” or “anarchist.”
For European Americans, the 4th of July is a celebration of their people’s victory over their oppressive colonial rulers. For people of African and Native descent, it is, at best, meaningless.
That’s patriotic all around.
After the Declaration [of Independence] there is a long list of justification given for why the colonies were declaring their independence from the control of England. And the 7th justification reads:
“He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.”
13 years prior, King George issued the Proclamation of 1763. In this proclamation a line was drawn down the Appalachian Mountains and the colonies were essentially told that they no longer had the right of discovery of the Indian Lands west of Appalachia. Only the crown could thereafter negotiate treaties and buy or sell those lands. This deeply upset the colonies. For they wanted those empty Indian lands and King George was “raising the conditions of new Appropriations of (their rightful) Lands.”
Justification 27, the final justification in the list, states:
“He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
How can a declaration that begins by stating “All men are created equal” go on to include justifications that dehumanize the Indian tribes and peoples who were already living in this land? Clearly the founding Fathers had a very narrow definition of who qualified as human. Therefore they could state “ALL men are created equal” because they did not believe that the “merciless Indian Savages” who occupied the empty Indian lands west of the Appalachian Mountains were actually human.
Given the current state of race relations in the US and the heatwave, I would like to remind people, especially white males and others with privilege, that there is much to criticize about this country, its history, and the conduct of its modern state. Try to hear criticisms and anti-nationalist sentiments as an ally, or at least a neutral bystander.
The 4th of July isn’t for everyone, just as the Declaration of Independence wasn’t about the self-evident and inalienable rights of women, slaves, native peoples, and other marginalized people. So don’t be an asshole to people who choose not to be excited about what is, in reality, a celebration for a small number of already privileged people that they worked up the courage to challenge a far-distant government for dominion over a vast and diversely-peopled continent none of them had any right to claim.
RBF, or Resting Bitch Face (also known as Bitchy Resting Face), is a term for the common neutral noncommittal facial expressions of some women. Not ALL women, mind you, but some women. Certain women, you might say.
Certain women with a reputation for being too serious. Or thoughtful. Or introverted. Or intellectual.
Certain women who are well-known Feminist Killjoys.
Certain women who are “attractive” enough to merit street harassment.
Certain women, in short, whose default facial expression is somehow out of alignment with the harshly-enforced cultural mandate that, in order to occupy the space marked “feminine,” people must fulfill a decorative function at all times.
Let me be VERY clear: this is about objectification. This is about women LOOKING a certain way, regardless of how they feel or what they desire. This is about the society dictating what is acceptable in terms of the impression given to random passers-by on the street by a woman’s facial muscle positions and activities.
Obviously this is bullshit.
I’ve had this post in my drafts folder for months waiting for inspiration to finish it, because I could get as far as “bullshit” but no further. I wish I could convey dismay, shock, or outrage, but those are hot-burning emotions and I don’t really feel them about this subject anymore.
Not because it’s unimportant, or because it’s not worthy of passionate criticism, or because I’m not upset about it, but because, as someone who has met the appearance parameters for a sexually mature woman for 15 years, I have burned through all my hot and passionate feelings on the subject of street harassment and society telling me that the impression my appearance gives to strangers is my responsibility to manage. I am left with impotent frustration, and a kind of righteous indignation, which are much less motivating to write about.
But I think that the very fact that I’ve become inured to this kind of policing, at the relatively young age of 27, makes it worth talking about.
So, let’s break it down.
As social animals, humans create a social order, which is constantly adapted and maintained by displays of threat and submission behavior. In apes, the most salient submissive behavior display is the baring of teeth, also called the fear grin. Some extremely hierarchical groups of macaques use teeth baring almost reflexively upon the approach of the dominant animal, and the most common result of the interaction is that the dominant animal allows the submissive to retreat, which removes the submissive animal from the risk of physical abuse. Apes in more egalitarian societies, such as chimpanzees, use teeth baring as an appeasement gesture that seems to invite social interaction within the group by reassuring the other animals that the bared-teeth individual does not intend to cause them harm.
The analogous smile, in humans, serves many of the same functions: it reassures others that the smiling person does not pose a threat, it is an invitation to social interaction, and it often accompanies courtesy phrases (such as “excuse me” or “my mistake”) used to signal a known violation of social norms. There is evidence, however, that smiling is also perceived by humans to be more feminine than other facial expressions.
In one study, babies dressed in green and yellow were paraded before a group of onlookers. When the infants cooed, gurgled and smiled, the observers tagged them as girls; fretters and criers were assumed to be boys. The effect persisted when a different group of participants was presented with images of cheerful or angry adult faces. People readily identified smiling women as female and wrathful men as male, but they took longer and stumbled more often when confronted with furious female countenances or beaming male ones.
The Slate article goes on to rather weakly associate women acting as smilers with social affiliation management– positing that girls and women are trained to smile more in order to do “emotion labor” (i.e., smooth over social situations and bridge differences between groups of friends and extended family)– before lamely concluding that everyone should smile a bit more because it would make the (female) journalist herself smile.
The truth is that humans have a range of emotions– and related expressions– almost unique in the animal kingdom, even among social animals (only orcas are believed to experience more emotional states, and it’s not entirely clear yet how they communicate them without the mobile face of the ape). So for most people, most smiling is the companion of genuine positive feeling, whether they are remembering a funny joke or glorying in the sun on their face for the first time after a long winter. But there is another kind of smile that isn’t related to emotion.
The Duchenne smile– named after a 19th-century French neurologist– is the genuine kind. Its display is correlated with positive emotion, and it involves both the muscle groups around the mouth (zygomatic major) and the eyes (obicularis oculi). It’s fairly rare, and occurs with similar frequency between men and women. The smile that humans use purely for its ability to diffuse tense social situations, often called the botox or Pan Am smile, uses only the zygomatic major, and women report using it much more. (The open-mouthed play smile, by contrast, is not related to the bared-teeth display, and is instead itself present in lower primates in the “play face”, and eventually develops into laughing in humans.)
The early smiles of human infants are a mix of Duchenne and Pan Am smiles, and while their cause is not well understood, it is likely that the Duchenne smiles are a response to pleasure and contentment (joy is a more mature emotion, and develops at around 9 months of age), while the Pan Am smiles are socially-driven or even reflexive. Even near-term premature infants learn to mimic the facial expressions of their caregivers (it only takes about 10 days to train human infants from about 34 weeks’ gestation onward to stick out their tongues in mimicry), and the relatively immature human infant relies on social affiliation to live, so it is no stretch of the imagination to believe that babies are trained to smile in reflex to adult smiles, even in the neonatal period.
But when does gender enter the equation? For many American parents, gender policing starts long before birth, and many studies show that parents have different expectations of infants as young as four months old based on their physical sex. By the age of five years, female children are adapted to performing more emotion labor than their male peers, and are more likely to exhibit a smile (a Pan Am smile, of course) in response to receiving a disappointing gift.
The false smile can take a real toll on your health. Flight attendants, from whom the Pan Am smile got its colorful name, report feeling robotic, artificial, or even distant from their own emotional realities after a long shift with the zygomatic major engaged. While it is true that deliberately smiling can trigger more positive emotional cues in the brain, smiling because you are told to– when you’d rather not– can be damaging.
What does all this mean about Resting Bitch Face?
Smiling is gendered work, and women are expected to do it. Even little girls are tasked with a disproportionate amount of emotion labor.
Social smiling is based on a primal, non-verbal language, and women are under a greater societal expectation to communicate that they are non-threatening and open to interaction or afraid and subordinate.
Women who appear in public without their smile are perceived as hostile and aggressive partially because of mammal-level animal reasoning, but there is no way to ignore the gendered nature of smiling, especially when street harassers so often publicly shame and threaten women for their neutral or negative expressions.
At its core, the tyranny of the smile is about gender policing. At its core, the gendered nature of emotion labor is about allowing men to have full rights and freedoms at the expense of women. At its core, the social smile is about fear and submission. At its core, RBF is about women being objects.
TODAY wants to reassure you that you can get plastic surgery to fix your RBF (apparently that’s a thing), or you know, you can at least work on smiling a bit more so people will be less worried that you might be doing something dangerous, like thinking:
Ann-Marie Stillion, a communication strategist and artist from Seattle, says she’s recently made an effort to wear a smile when in public after having her resting face repeatedly misinterpreted by strangers, friends, and colleagues.
“I look mad when I am thinking which has gotten me in a whole lot of trouble,” she says. “So, I smile a lot now, not because I’m so happy but because I know it makes people more comfortable.”