“Why Woman Smile” is a persuasive essay written by Amy Cunningham, an essay that explores the theme of gender differences in our society, specifically the difference between the frequency that women smile compared to men. She believes the frequency of a woman’s smile has more to do with the social pressure put on her to smile than it does her actual state of happiness. Cunningham uses historical, biological and cultural examples as evidence to support her opinion that these types of influences are to blame for the persistent smiling of women. Women smile “promiscuously” and often insincerely and the tradition of this behavior is heavily influence by the combination of social pressures in society and human biology. Women need to speak up and start fighting their instinct to smile constantly and say what’s really on their mind. “Why Woman Smile” discusses a woman’s smile and examines the natural and nurtured causes for the behavior. Cunningham approaches this topic from a logical, feminist’s perspective. Her stance throughout the piece is one of frustration with society’s pressure on woman and its dictation of woman’s behavior.
Cunningham points out the irony that women have legally taken control of their bodies and destinies, but have failed to take control of the two tiny muscles on their faces. She states that “too many of us smile in lieu of showing what’s really on our minds” (189) and “that the Smiling Woman has become a peculiarly American archetype” (190). She urges women to stop giving insincere smiles and show their true emotions. Psychology’s most persistent issue and oldest debate is over whether or not human traits and behavior are natural and inherited or if they develop as a product of one’s experience and environment, nurture. Modern day psychologists believe that nurture works on what nature endows. Cunningham agrees with these psychologists and argues in her essay that the behavior to smile is natural when a person is happy but that it has been nurtured by society, conditioning it to become a constant behavior among women. She supports her argument by providing examples that indicate smiling is a natural instinct as well as a product of our society. To support this theory that smiling is a natural instinct she includes examples of monkeys and their social behavior.
Cunningham writes that “monkeys pull their lips up and back to show fear of attack as well as their reluctance to vie for a position of dominance” (190). She goes on to point out that babies begin to smile around 3 months of age and even blind babies know to smile when they are feeling pleasure. These statements are evidence that smiling is a natural instinct and humans are hard-wired to smile from birth. Cunningham argues that this natural behavior has been nurtured and conditioned to become an automatic, constant reaction in social situations. She discusses this by pointing out how mothers coach their girls to be well mannered and polite. They are encouraged to always wear a smile and leave their true emotions at the door. She goes on to say if a woman isn’t wearing a smile then she is stopped in the streets ad asked if something is wrong or she is portrayed as too serious or unfriendly.
This is society nurturing the behavior to become more frequent among women. She summarizes that as a consequence, a woman’s smile rarely has to do with the state of her happiness. Her major point of the essay is that a woman smiles because it is an instinctual behavior that has been nurtured by society to become a habit, a repeated behavior she must participate in so she can become the ideal image of what a woman should be. In a blog post included with the essay Cunningham informs her audience that she now disagrees with most of her article. She informs the reader that she had approached the subject from the wrong point of view and let her feelings get in the way of seeing things clearly. She admits she didn’t observe the topic from a neutral standpoint.
She has now discovered that woman actually had the right idea all along. Cunningham argues that women smile to spread positive energy and happiness to others around them, and that smiling makes you happy. She concludes her article with a message to woman everywhere. She encourages her audience to be happy and start smiling. A smile means the same thing in every culture; it is a universal symbol for pleasure, contentment, and non-dominance. In our society, women are constantly smiling no matter what is on their minds. They smile when they are happy, panicked, nervous, holding back anger, frustrated and a long list of other emotions. Women of all social classes are told to be nurturing, kind, polite and friendly. At a young age girls are coached to display these traits and most importantly to always sit up straight and smile. As a woman matures this behavior to smile is nurtured into a mask and shield for her to wear so she can conform to these high standards society expects of her.
When wearing a smile, a woman can appear to be poised and polite, happy and approachable, things that our society demands a woman to be. Rarely does a smile from a woman indicate her state of happiness. Cunningham included a quotation from Oscar Wilde in her essay, a quotation that illustrates this point. He wrote, “A woman’s smile is a work of fiction” (190). This describes the argument perfectly. Women wear their smiles to hide all of the feelings and emotions that don’t serve them well and if revealed would hurt their images and attempts to be the ideal women society demands them to be. Cunningham’s blog post mentions that women should keep smiling and get happy. This is true; it would do a great disservice to a woman if she actively tried to stop smiling. It would damper her mood, hurt her spirit and have a negative impact on those around her. Cunningham remarks that “women are still expected to be magnanimous smilers, helpmates in crisis, and curators of everybody else’s morale” (193). There has to be a point at which a woman’s individual needs outweigh the needs of those around her.
A woman can spread happiness and smile like Cunningham later suggested, but only to the point where it does not harm the woman. Hiding emotions behind another smile is dangerous to a woman’s mental wellness and health and the relationships she has. If a woman believes she is being treated unfairly by various people throughout her life and continues to conceal her feelings and not work through them, eventually they will wear on her and explode at an inappropriate time, causing severe damage to the relationships. By then, the small things have added up to a huge problem that could have been avoided if it had been address at the time they occurred. Often the problem or problems have become so massive they are often not repairable. Negative feelings need to be put out in the open at the right time and place and quickly dealt with.
These emotions can eat away at a person if kept inside. Women should be encouraged to smile and provide a nurturing energy to the people around them, but only if it is healthy to do so and not harming anyone. Cunningham’s original argument was correct: women smile constantly and often insincerely because society dictates they should. The behavior is a nurtured, natural instinct and women shouldn’t fight it. Women need to stop giving insincere smiles so people around them can realize when something is wrong so they can help to fix it. The social pressures that weigh heavily on women are nearly impossible to maintain. Women are human; they have the same feelings and emotions men do. It is unfair and unhealthy that women are not encouraged to show these emotions and instead instructed to smile constantly. It is impossible to maintain this image of eternal happiness and woman should stop trying to. A smile can uplift and help people, but the deception of an insincere smile can cause more harm than good. Women should keep smiling but only when they want to.
Cunningham, Amy. “Why Women Smile.” The Norton Reader: an anthology of nonfiction. Ed. Linda Peterson, John Brereton, Joseph Bizup, Anne Fernald, Melissa Goldthwaite. New York: Norton, 2012. 189-195. Print.
Cunningham, Amy. “All Smiles Now.” Beliefnet.com. N.p., 29 Dec. 2006. Web. 10 Oct. 2014.
Cunningham, Amy. “All Smiles Now.” Beliefnet.com. N.p., 29 Dec. 2006. Web. 10 Oct. 2014. Cunningham, Amy. “Why Women Smile.” The Norton Reader: an anthology of nonfiction. Ed. Linda Peterson, John Brereton, Joseph Bizup, Anne Fernald, Melissa Goldthwaite. New York: Norton, 2012. 189-195. Print.
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