Thursday, May 6, 2010

Kristen Stewart: smiling is not an obligation, professional or otherwise

Image: Kristen Stewart at the Adventureland red carpet, wearing a peach dress, not smiling. Image from Flickr

Kristen Stewart plays Bella in Twilight, which is the hottest franchise around right now. Thusly, she is invited to a lot of events. She stands out on the red carpet because she does not smile broadly or pose; she usually looks slightly uncomfortable. Of her red-carpet experience, Stewart said:
People say that I’m miserable all the time. It’s not that I’m miserable, it’s just that somebody’s yelling at me…I literally, sometimes, have to keep myself from crying…It’s a physical reaction to the energy that’s thrown at you.
Stewart is often a target of a specific kind of body policing: the “smile, baby” requirement. When she appears on the red carpet and does not assure us with her teeth that she is simply thrilled to be reduced to a presence, a dress, a posture, she is often the target of harassment for her expression. There is an expectation of women in general and famous woman in particular to always assure the onlooker that they are happy to be looked upon through smiling, and Stewart rejects this.

Her expression is an affront to the patriarchy, it seems. Stewart’s expressions do not go unnoticed among those who write about celebrities.

From OK!:
Kristen Stewart Actually Cracks a Smile - Twilight’s leading lady Kristen Stewart isn’t exactly known for her cheery disposition.
From ONTD members:
You know, I used to not mind her and actually thought she was just kinda misunderstood in why ppl think she's bitchy and ungrateful.

Then I kinda realized that no, I think she really is just like that and means to be that way.


Her life. It is so HARD.

God, stop bitching for half a second and recognized you are one of the luckiest people that will ever be born. I mean, yeah, fame has it's own problems attached to it, but they will never outweigh the good.
The hell of it is that Stewart often does smile – just not broadly, or without opening her mouth:

Image description: Kristen Stewart, with her hair pushed back and wearing layers, smirks at someone to the left of the camera at an event. From Flickr

And this is not enough. Despite the fact that this attention is often negative and always demanded, despite the fact that it drives her to tears, appreciation of this harrassment is demanded. Graciousness is an obligation on Stewart's part because people are looking at her. The implication for women is that attention is a sign of our value; if we are not attracting it, particularly from men, we are worthless. If we're harassed and ordered to smile, we're lucky. We must be grateful for all attention, even that which we find unpleasant. Or we are bitches.

I myself am a rather smiley person, and have only gotten “Smile, baby! It ain’t that bad!” once in my memory, when I was pissed off and cold. It was infuriating though, and I still remember feeling humiliated.

s.e. smith recently wrote about this expectation for folks read as women:

People order each other to smile because they feel uncomfortable around people who are not smiling, especially when those people are women (or are read as such). Women are expected to be nice and sweet, to make other people feel comfortable. A woman who says ‘hey, I think there’s a problem here’ is being ‘negative.’ A woman who doesn’t smile while she’s being harassed is ‘humourless.’ A woman who prefers to stay focused on tasks is a ‘cold bitch.’ Significant gendering is involved here; women have an obligation to look and act a certain way and when they don’t, they need to be hassled until they do.
Some folks construct smiling on the red carpet as a professional expectation. But why is that a professional expectation? This is the same argument applied to weight for actors. As with weight, it sends the message to female fans that thinness/smiling is mandatory. Placing expectations on the body is always an act of the kyriarchy, whether it's for movie stars or flight attendants. Some people do not care to smile constantly. They should not be expected to in their work.

This professional/social expectation is often applied to problematized bodies, as Renee points out:
I get that Gabby is a celeb, but she is also a person -- and if she does not feel like putting a fake ass smile on her face to satisfy some guy, that is just fine. Too often men will expect women to hide their feelings and become little automatons, because it makes them happy --never mind that it may be in direct conflict of how we are currently feeling. This is not a celeb thing, this is a woman thing. I have been told on more than one occasion that I should smile and all it inspires me to do is give the person the finger. You know, if I felt like smiling, I would smile.
This "professional expectation" is applied mainly to movie stars who are women. Sean Penn, Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, and even George Clooney (who is known for being goofy) usually do not broadly smile, and I've never heard a word about their lack of appreciation for their fame.

Stewart’s lack of a ready smile isn’t really indicative of anything. Her supposed disposition does no manifest itself in anything other than some ruffled feathers among those demand a specific expression from women. She is not violent or cruel. She seems to be nice to the fan community. She doesn’t beat up photographers.

She just doesn’t like smiling. And in a culture of pop where it is the responsibility of women to make everyone comfortable, to put everyone at ease, this constitutes a grave affront.



  1. It's interesting that on the story I wrote for Gabby some people still cannot see how this is a gender issue despite the fact that this is rarely/to never used to attack male celebrities. It is about making women perform. I think that those that don't see something that is so clearly visible fall into the camp of we're all equal now we don't need womanism/feminism

  2. Thank you for this article. I find the comments regarding Kristen Stewart and other female celebrities who don't fit the "happy-to-be-here-so-I'll-take-the-abuse" mold to be disheartening. It sometimes feels like we, as women, haven't progressed very far at all.

    What bothers me most though is that not only are female celebrities supposed to smile no matter what, they are expected to not say anything about the harassment they receive regularly by photographers on the red carpet and paparazzi when they are out and about. It shouldn't be 'part of their job' to just take it with a smile.

    Harassment is harassment. If the men get to stand up for themselves (like Clooney often does), then the women should be given that same option.

  3. Thank you for this. So. Much. It appalls me how much people use Kristen's smile as a reason to hate her.

    Why? What is the point?

    From the minute I heard her in an interview, Kristen Stewart has fascinated me. Not because I love Twilight, but because she herself strikes me as a passionate, interesting person.

    I didn't look at her lips. I guess that was my first mistake?

    It saddens me that so many people are put off by how wide her smile is (and she smiles frequently people), that they don't pay attention to what she's saying.

    Why we have to judge people, women especially, by these insane standards is beyond me. We should be listening to what we're all saying.

    Thank you again for writing this.

  4. Oh come on. This isn't a feminist issue. It isn't that she doesn't smile; it's that she looks absolutely miserable. Red carpets at events are designed for celebrities to BE SEEN. If she doesn't like it or it makes her so unhappy -- skip the red carpet. When she's out and about and paps are invading her space, that's a totally different story. But when she's at an event, promoting her latest movie and wearing designer clothes, I don't think it's too much to ask that she make an effort.

    1. This. I don't find this a gender issue at all. When males are on the carpet and look miserable, it's also pointed out. I don't expect everyone to have huge Julia Roberts smiles all the time but there is a big gap between simply not smiling and then looking suicidal/homicidal. The fact that Kristen looks absolutely miserable at almost every event is why it's pointed out so prominently. If you don't want to be in the spotlight, then why did you choose the career that requires it?

  5. Thanks so much for this blog post-we've been arguing it over on a twilight site all day and it's gotten huge responses!

    You hit it on the nail perfectly-this need for us to have young starlets reassure us that the fantasy is all real. That the red carpet is a real life Cinderella ball, and they are living the fantasy for us, ecstatic to be even.

    Kristen shatters that illusion with her awkward gait, and nervous tics, and not always bubbly demeanor. And I love her all the more for it. Sometimes we need to leave all this shit for Disney and let young women be flesh and blood instead.

  6. As a non-smiley person, I really appreciated this article. And as someone who's met Kristen a few times, I appreciate it even more.

    I've been told on numerous occasion that my (default) face is mean, bitchy, even that I looked dangerous (I may have liked hearing that one though.) My default face is my neutral face, I'm not particularly overjoyed by anything, and neither am I terribly upset over anything. It is my face. That's all. I'm not being a bitch. I'm trying to be mean. It's. How. I. Look!

    Why do women have to be constantly held up to a standard that was created by tv characters in the 1950's that were in turn created by men? Around the turn of the century it was perfectly acceptable for women NOT to smile, in fact, it was expected. Look at photographs from that era, no one is smiling! I guess my point is when did it become wrong for women not to smile all the time?

    I've met Kristen a few times, and each time she was absolutely lovely! She really is a charming young woman. And she pretty much kicks ass too. For someone as young as she is, I don't think I've met anyone cooler. I want to be her best friend. Seriously. I met her at a crazy Twilight event, where people were yelling and screaming at her. She wasn't smiling, she did occasionally grimace. But she was still nice! As her 'people' were trying to herd her out the door, she was holding back so she could sing things for the fans that didn't get a chance with her. She was engaging with the fans and stopped for numerous photos with them. Finally someone had to literally grab her by the hang and drag her out of the room. She could not have been nicer.

    The next time I met her was at the after party for the premier of "The Runaways." And I actually got to hang out with her for the last hour or so of the party. She was having fun, and laughing, and was gracious to everyone who wanted to talk to her or wanted a picture.

    It makes me sad when such talented and self assured young women are being held to an outdated standard and being labeled as Bitches.

    Ok. Rant over :)

  7. I love this piece, because (a) I've definitely been the recipient of "smile!" Do you know what's going on in my life? No? Then you can shut your mouth. and

    (b)I HATE the expectations we put on famous people, especially famous women. I love Kristen Stewart personally, but I think a lot of celebs get this kind of BS, as if they asked for fame, or particularly wanted fame, rather than loving acting/playing music/modeling/whatever.

    I think it's a misstep to say that someone could just not show up. Kristen is tied to the Twilight franchise, which just had a movie come out on DVD/Blu-Ray, and has another one in theaters this summer - not to mention the Runaways - until it's over. She's also a pretty high profile celebrity, and her agents undoubtedly know that as long as she's not doing anything too scandalous in public, that's good for her career. That means she has to keep herself going to these things. I'm not sure anyone in the business of keeping her employed would be too happy if she chose not to let herself get yelled at by the 3000 photographers who all want the perfect angle of her dress and the best shot of her.

    Not to mention there are GREAT shots of her smiling at music festivals like Coachella, wearing jeans and a tank top. She clearly likes to have fun and relax, not preen and dress up be told how to turn and who to look at.

    PS: I'm jealous of you, Chelsea! I loved The Runaways and would have loved to get to see the premiere.

    PPS: ...that said, I bet Victorian ladies had this problem too :| Unfortunately, the reason most people didn't smile was because photos took so long - sometimes half an hour or longer - to expose - and it was hard for most people to hold a smile that long. That said, I bet some people enjoyed the freedom not to look thrilled!

  8. Thank Jesus someone finally wrote about this!!! I have always hated the fact that people said that Kristen Stewart was cold or bitchy because she never smiles. I always jump to her defense whenever I hear that. I wouldn't smile if people where constantly following me around with a camera and shouting at me!

    I also never saw it as a bad thing that she didn't smile in photos. She's a really pretty girl and I think she looks great even with just a smirk on her face. I feel it gives her more personality because she's not blindly smiling in the direction of the camera. To me it also gives her more integrity because of the fact that since she doesn't want to smile, she doesn't! Also it's not a statement she's trying make it's just her being her. OMG! Isn't everyone always complaining about how celebrities are so fake? Well now we have a girl who isn't going to say or do anything that she isn't comfortable with and everyone chastises her! Talk about your double standards!

    And you are right she does smile...a lot! In many interviews she's having a great time and even, dare I say it?, laughing and cracking jokes. In others you can clearly see she is nervous and being harassed with questions she doesn't like. And those are the ones that everyone holds against her. It all seems to be about a level of comfort for her.

    I have had the pleasure of meeting Kristen myself. She was totally cool! For the event I had shaved Twilight character names into my hair and as she was walking by she caught a glimpse of it. Even though she was late for her next event, she stopped and asked me a ton of questions about hair like what gave me the idea and how I got it done. She even asked me if it was ok to rub my hair because she was curious as to what it felt like. Let me tell you her smile was as big as mine was!

    I completely admire Kristen Stewart and hope that more positive energy is sent her way.

    P.S. Chelsea why did I have to meet you 2 days after that amazing after party?!

  9. I totally agree, SavyTwilighter! Also, I think shaving the names of the characters into your hair is a really rad and daring thing to do for a fandom :D

    Just to put on the mod hat for one sec, do think ahead about using terms like "blindly" to mean "vacantly" or "without personality" - it's not fair to blind people :)

  10. my bad! I retract my term "blindly" and please insert "blankly". ^-^

  11. Oh my gosh, yes! The "Smile Baby" phenomenon is absolutely a demand for women to perform, and it is unquestionably gendered. Men are supposed to brood. Men are supposed to perform. I'd go so far as to say that the "Smile, Baby" directive is a form of street harassment, and can veer toward the violent pretty darn quickly.

    Ladies who are tired of being forced to smile when they don't feel like it, join me in my crusade against fake smiles!

  12. I agree with most of the article, and I think that the issues that you bring up need to be raised. So thank you. However, I do disagree with one section in particular:

    "There is an expectation of women in general and famous woman in particular to always assure the onlooker that they are happy to be looked upon through smiling, and Stewart rejects this."

    I disagree that famous women face this demand more intensely than non-famous women (which is how i interpret that quote.) The women that work at the corporate cafe I frequent are expected to portray a sunny, more-than-happy-to-be-of-service demeanor as part of their job. Many of them are working class women of color. I don't think that Kristen Stewart's expectation to smile is the same thing or has the same impact on her life or freedoms that it does on these women that I know.

    In addition, I don't think that white women have had the same experiences of this throughout history as WOC have. One example is the stereotypes of black women (like the Mammy for example who wears a very big smile as she serves you, or popular images of smilingly subservient Asian women). And today, when women of color even slightly vary from this outward attitude, we're labeled more harshly as angry, violent, and irrational.

    So while I agree that there is the demand that women outwardly portray this happy go lucky attitude, I think that it affects us differently depending on our other identities and experiences.

  13. I love this article - thank you for posting it. It's completely true that women are burdened with the task of having to make everyone comfortable and put on a happy face regardless of how they feel within. I've been told countless times by men that were strangers to "smile" as I walked down the street. Why would I just randomly walk around smiling, especially if I was upset?

    And why would I smile at a strange man, who might become too friendly if I did smile at them? I don't smile at certain people because I don't want to welcome them to interact with me.

    I sometimes feel like the only emotion people want to see women have is happiness - like we are not ever supposed to feel unhappy or angry - that we are just pretty faces. Anyway, great post! I think I will do a story about Kristen Stewart on my blog, I've always admired her courage to go against the grain and be true to herself.

  14. Quoting Sarah...
    I'd go so far as to say that the "Smile, Baby" directive is a form of street harassment, and can veer toward the violent pretty darn quickly.

    Hell yeah, sistah! "Smile, Baby" is a catchy iteration of an all-too-common theme, that of men deciding that a woman's body or appearance doesn't please them, and that she ought to change herself to better suit their desires. If that ain't harassment I don't know what is.

    I don't walk around with a smile on my face. I space out a lot, walk into things/people as a result, and am often deep in thought. I'm "mentally ill" and don't give a damn (most of the time. Sometimes, though, that name tag really hurts.) if people can "tell" by the way I look. I spent too long tryin to look "right", and the truth is "right" ain't right. The only right way to look is the way that you think is true to who you are right then, and i'm gonna do my best to stick to that cause ain't nothin else gonna make me happy about how I look.

  15. Wow, thank you. I guess I'd always harboured an abstract along-with-the-crowd resentment of Kstew for her lack of smiling in particular. This was a really good deconstruction of that and make me reflect on my judgement. I can hate her solely for her rape comments.
    But thank you, seriously :)

  16. I don't mind her not smiling on the red carpet, but I still don't like her because she's in "Twilight." These are terrible books-- TERRIBLE-- and reinforce a whole lot of stereotypes and behavior that we should be working towards stamping out. They are the most patriarchal and damaging books I've read. Then again, maybe she realizes that and that's why she's not smiling...

  17. As a waitress, I get it that I'm supposed to smile. It makes people feel welcome at our café and thereby makes it good for business. It should be pointed out that sometimes a smile IS necessary, and it doesn't cost you anything. Studies show smiling actually makes you happier, whether you're feeling good to begin with or not. However, I agree there should be no such obligation to smile on the red carpet.

  18. I think that while all of this is true, there's something to be said about a good, genuine smile. I personally think everyone (men included) are just naturally more attractive when smiling, because it conveys happiness, and genuine happiness is an attractive thing. That's probably another reason why society prefers people to smile.
    And while I do agree that it shouldn't be an expectation of anyone to have to put on a fake smile, socially or professionally, it depends on the person. Some people are more comfortable putting on a fake smile because they like to keep negative things personal, while others (like Stewart) prefer to not hide, and wear their emotions on a sleeve. I don't think there's anything wrong with any of this. I say do what makes you comfortable.

  19. Thank you for this article. Glad to know someone out there actually understands that a person shouldn't be expected to smile at all times.


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