Why Isn’t She Smiling?
by Ally Condie, author of The Last Voyage of Poe Blythe
In preschool, I drew a picture of a girl. The girl was supposed to be me—curly brown hair, brown eyes. She wore a blue dress because blue was and is my favorite color. I was pleased with my work. In the picture I had drawn a very neat strip of green grass on which I could stand, and I was surrounded by some excellent flowers, and also a unicorn.
When my beloved teacher saw the drawing, she asked me a question. “Why isn’t she smiling?”
I had drawn myself with what I thought of as a “line mouth.” Not happy, not sad, not mad, just even. A straight line.
I didn’t know how to answer. Because…she just wasn’t?
As I became a teenage girl, and then a college coed, I realized the question was chronic and pervasive, universal in the way that cultural demands often are. If you’re a woman, “Why aren’t you smiling?” is something that anyone and everyone feels like they get to ask you. I’ve seen memes on Pinterest and Instagram reminding us that “A smile is the best makeup you can wear!” Which implies not only that we should be smiling, we should also be wearing something, at all times, that makes people feel good. I’m fine, I’m fine. I’m happy, I’m happy. I’m what you want me to be.
A few years ago, Bustle ran an article entitled Why Aren’t You Smiling: Women Respond to a Common Form of Street Harassment, in which they posted pictures of women posing with written responses to the question. The images were powerful, and the responses as unique as the women who wrote them. Because I’m worried about finding a job when I graduate. I’m not smiling because I just finished reading a really sad book and am still having deep thoughts about it.
In my novel, The Last Voyage of Poe Blythe, Poe doesn’t smile very much. There are reasons for this. She’s the captain of a mining dredge on a river she’s been sent to ruin. She lives in a society run by a dominating man called the Admiral. She’s suffered a terrible loss, and she’s bent on revenge, whatever the cost might be.
But even before all of that, Poe didn’t smile often. Even when things were at their best, she kept to herself. She was self-contained; she existed not to please others or to perform for them. I thought of this often, as I watched her move through her story. I wondered. Do we allow characters to be this way? Do we allow women and girls to be this way? Do we allow ourselves to be this way? When you look in the mirror, do you compose your face first, or do you look to see what emotion (or lack thereof) you’re wearing before anyone’s eyes, even your own, fall upon you?
The girl in the picture I drew has brown hair, brown eyes. Her mouth is in a neat line.
The girl in the book I wrote has black hair, rough hands. Her jaw is set.
They will smile if they feel like it.