It seems that every other day, in magazines both glossy and online, there appear a set of ‘tips for a happy life’ telling us that making yourself smile – no matter how grumpy and dissatisfied you feel – will make you happier. The Atlantic wrote an article a couple of years ago suggesting that even people whose mouths were held into a smiling position with chopsticks felt more positive for being forced to smile, concluding that “when a situation has you feeling stressed or flustered, even the most forced of smiles can genuinely decrease your stress and make you happier”. It seems that some strands of our culture are embracing the idea that the constant quest for happiness can be aided by the principle of faking it till you make it. Smile like you mean it, and you will feel better about the state of affairs you are currently in. Habitually act as if you are happy and eventually, that will become a lasting emotion.
But every day, too, there are more troubling examples of women being asked to smile. Smiles are not only coerced by the laboratory chopstick, but by the commands of others on the street, in places of study, in the workplace, and at home. The isolated incident of a man calling ‘smile for me love’ at a woman passing by on the street carries behind it the weight of a demand that women seem, become, or are, happy with the status quo, both in terms of the current approaches by a (usually male) stranger, and in terms of the inequalities that branch out throughout the culture in which the woman and her harasser are embedded. The campaign ‘Stop Telling Women to Smile’, for example, aims to oppose and end the use of phrases like ‘give us a smile, love’ as methods by which the victim’s body is coerced, moulded into shape by the demands of the catcaller.
The Twitter Feed ‘Everyday Sexism’ contains almost daily complaints by women who had been asked to smile by men they don’t know – many of them coupled with the fear that acquiescing and smiling at these men would lead the woman to seem available to engage with strange men sexually, emotionally, or otherwise. In fact, and as one woman recently noted, the idea of being constantly available for strangers to engage in conversation with is in itself a stressful one.
It is surely striking that a culture which identifies that many of us might be depressed about or discontented with our lives – and increasingly embraces pop science to argue that we should use smiles to make ourselves feel better – is also a culture where some people feel that they can tell others to smile in contexts that are unjust, specifically sexist, and where the demand to smile of itself perpetuates this climate of injustice.
Suppose that smiling truly does make us feel more positive and happy, removing or numbing our discontent. This surely adds a dangerous element to acquiescing to the demand to smile made by catcallers, bullying bosses, parents, teachers and other people. Of course, often it might feel and be safer to smile and pass on rather than confront a harasser or escalate a situation, and a person who chooses to take care of their personal safety in this way is to be respected. But in all cases, it seems particularly pernicious that catcallers are asking us to engage in a practice that has the power to reinforce positive feelings, to numb discontent at a crucial moment: when discontent might usefully be accessed and harnessed.
Thinking about these situations got me thinking about habits. The repeated and repetitive nature of demands on women to smile makes situations like these key places where habits can be formed or broken by everyone involved in the situation. The victim of harassment is never, ever, responsible for it. Catcallers, as well as complicit passers-by, need to re-examine their habits, to break them, to replace them with better ones. In terms of our own habits, it can be helpful to develop habitual responses to catcalling which we find empowering.
The ways in which we are often called upon to habitually use our smiles as tools to ward off sadness or discontent calls to mind philosopher Michel Foucault’s theory of how habits can change our nature. He wrote of how, from the point of view of political authorities, the ideal citizen’s body is malleable and thus politically compliant. These ‘docile bodies’ can be shaped and altered by authority figures, who demand that they act in a certain way. Responding to the commands of authority, for instance by bowing or staying silent when requested, and so on, the docile subject develops ingrained habits of obedience that change their ways of thinking. Eventually, as a product of habitual actions, ways of speaking, and patterns of life, this recalibrated nature and temperament causes the citizen to choose obedience of their own accord.
Recently, however, the philosopher Catherine Malabou has suggested that we can use the inherent flexibility and malleability of our nature to our own advantage. She calls the body’s tendency to shape the mind ‘plasticity’. Plasticity can be a passive phenomenon of adapting to the pressure of circumstances, like that which Foucault describes, where we allow authority figures to shape us. But it can also be an active one, where we choose our own habits and thereby sculpt our own (second) nature. For her, plasticity is both a cultural phenomenon (we all have ingrained cultural habits and the ability to create new cultures) and a neurological one.
Malabou’s considered use of neuroscientific evidence throughout her philosophical works provides a useful counterpoint to the ways in which glossy mags like Cosmo often quote a scientific study to support ‘psychological’ claims like the notion that smiling makes you happy. Malabou herself uses neuroscience as the touchstone for her theories of political resistance. She quotes research by the neuroscientist Marc Jeannerod which states that
Brooklyn based street artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh
habitually using certain synapses (the structures which allow electrical signals to be passed between nerve cells) when we perform certain actions and have certain thoughts strengthens those synapses and increases their responsiveness (and by contrast, synapses which are rarely used become increasingly less responsive). Malabou’s ideas of plasticity are closely related to Jeannerod’s description of how our neural pathways reflect our habitual thoughts and actions, making us increasingly adept at performing those thoughts and actions that we most habitually perform (or as the neuroscientist Carla Schatz said, simultaneously creating a popular axiom that itself has been increasingly visible in mainstream media, ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’).
“According to its etymology – from the Greek plassein, to mold – the word plasticity has two basic senses: it means at once the capacity to receive form (clay is called “plastic”, for example) and the capacity to give form (as in the plastic arts or in plastic surgery). Talking about the plasticity of the brain thus amounts to thinking of the brain as something modifiable, “formable”, and formative at the same time…”
Most excitingly, she continues,
“…plasticity is also the capacity to annihilate the very form it is able to receive or create…to talk about the plasticity of the brain means to see in it not only the creator and receiver of form but also an agency of disobedience to every constituted form, a refusal to submit to a model.”
The last idea that Malabou mentions, that of destructive plasticity, of the way that the adaptable body and brain can become “an agency of disobedience…a refusal to submit to a model” seems especially useful when we are thinking about disobeying people who want to control us through our bodies. She suggests that we can use our ability to alter the way we think by adapting the way we behave and respond to situations, as a tool for resisting stable roles and existing power structures.
The quotation above suggests that it is not inevitable (as Foucault suggests) that we simply allow ourselves to be moulded by the demands of others into docile, obedient subjects, and to be unconsciously shaped by the dominant cultural norms of our time. There is a flip side to this coin. By being conscious, instead, of how our brain responds plastically to our thoughts and actions, we can choose to cultivate certain ideas and practices that enable us to shape our thought-patterns for ourselves in ways that enable us to refuse to submit to unwanted dominant cultural models. The fact that authorities can use our propensity to be shaped by our habits to exert a strong hold on us also entails that we can use our habits to create strong resistances to others’ claims over our bodies. The very malleability that other people aim to exploit when they ask us repeatedly to smile, to catcall, to demand smiles of others, to keep quiet, and so on, can become our weapon for resisting their demands. Whether that means destroying our previous habit of telling discontented people to ‘just grin and bear it’, or telling strangers to smile for us, or whether it means finding ways to counteract unwanted demands to smile that acknowledge and harness fruitful discontent, we can lay down habits that increasingly help us to break away from, and to challenge, the power structures that perpetuate harassment like this.
But these ideas also suggest that we ought perhaps to be aware that even those gestures and responses which we believe are helping us to resist oppressive authorities are the products of habits and thus could themselves have been produced by those authorities. It is potentially problematic that the ways we desire to manifest our resistance might have been conditioned by those very power structures we want to resist. And this is surely something we should additionally strive to become aware of: an awareness which might be arduous to cultivate, but which would be worth it in the end.
Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish (London: Penguin, 1991; first published in French, Paris, 1975)
Catherine Malabou, What Should We Do With Our Brain? (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008)