A whirlwind 20th century history about Australian women and their smiles.
Grace Tame’s recent media appearance at Lodge, as the end of her term as the Australian of the Year loomed, provided a forum for thoughtful and nuanced discussion in the media about the social power of women’s bodies. As Grace stood next to the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, she decided not to smile at this federal government representative for the media before them. The absence of her smile led to the re-emergence of a historic debate.
Australia’s mainstream media quickly realised that this was an event worth their commentary. As I saw hot takes appear, memes develop and commentaries published, I asked myself how did the Australian media come to champion demands that women cater to the needs of others, with a smile? How long have Australian women received commentary on their bodies and been told to smile? What happens when women don’t smile? I watched Grace’s deliberate action and wondered if a smile can be a weapon? I wanted answers and wanted them now.
Australian magazine and newspaper archives from the 1920s to the 1990s, retrieved from the National Library of Australia’s Trove, show, historically, such demands on women were unusual. Almost a century ago, in 1925, women were instructed not to be ‘out of date’ like the Mona Lisa (take that Leonardo da Vinci!). They were informed, ‘Under no pretext or provocation must the modern woman smile. It is almost as bad to laugh.‘ This jewel of wisdom came from the Sydney based newspaper, the Sunday Times. A publication that perceived itself as modern, fighting for ‘progress and reform’ within Australian society and culture. The demand for women to control their emotions formed part of their progressive stance.
Examing material from 1938, I found articles discussing the 150th Anniversary of the First Fleet landing in Australia. Indigenous leaders declared a Day of Mourning in response to white Australian celebrations. While their protests were covered in the media, there was no linked commentary regarding Indigenous women’s smiles. From this period I located a generalised statement, made under the lifestyle banner ‘OF INTEREST TO WOMEN’. Here women were informed they must smile (how very confusing for those that came of age in the previous decade!). This action was urged for ‘the good we may do to others, if only we will smile and bring sunshine with us.’ Within the previous decade, smiling had become not about personal beauty concerns but an action undertaken by women, singularly or as a group, for the good of others.
What of that period of World War Two? Surely women’s smiles were not a concern of the Australian media. It is, perhaps unsurprising that they were. Women were told to keep smiling while rationing, as they dealt with increased food costs, the death of loved ones, public protests about conscription and general social and cultural disruption that occurred in response to the war. The idea that women’s smiles were for others was pursued. The article ‘Smile, Please!’, was written ‘MAINLY FOR WOMEN’ (raising the question that some men could benefit from such direction?). The author informed women, even after ‘working seven days out of seven’ they should smile for photographs.
As a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, the mainstream Australian media was not just concerned with the smiles of the “everywoman.” Now truly dedicated to the notion that a woman’s smile healed all, in 1954 The Mercury (Hobart) ran a story about Queen Elizabeth II. As a news story carried by the paper detailed how the young Queen visited women and children in a London hospital, the example indicated how Australian women could behave when confronted by children and women receiving medical care. What an interesting time to get a smile on. Unlike previous articles, this piece was accompanied by a powerful black-and-white photograph that presented the monarch smiling for someone off-camera. Here was a woman with immense power- elite, white, and young- showing Australian women what to do to ensure others felt comfortable, safe, and acknowledged in her presence.
By the 1960s, there was no standout article that indicated how women meet such demands. Instead, what appears in the archives of this decade is a normalisation of women smiling in public, even in difficult situations. The databases showed an increase in discussions about women’s smiles across multiple sections of the newspaper, from career news to fashion to sports pages. No matter where Australian women were, what they were doing, they were smiling for community and country. In the media, the Australian woman’s smile has become a marker of women and their pleasant nature as they succeed- be it at work or during leisure time.
The 1970s, an era defined by feminist ambition, protest and assertiveness, brought a new tone to the mainstream media’s commentary. In 1977 The Women’s Weekly demonstrated that the media shifted from representing smiles as a beauty concern or a social good. According to the Australian Women’s Archives Project, The Women’s Weekly was a magazine very good at ‘keeping to majority tastes.’ Under the editorial guidance of feminist and journalist Kay Keavney and the headline of ‘SMILE POWER’, a smile seemed to be a tool in the moderate women’s liberation kit. With a subtle shift in language, smiles were represented as something a woman could choose to use. As the article’s author noted, ‘When I delivered a stunning smile to one city slicker the poor man looked outright embarrassed and started reading a newspaper’. Here the Women’s Weekly seemingly catered to women’s need for control, and offered a demonstration of how to push back against men’s demands for smiles by choosing when they smile. Even if it made someone else uncomfortable.
In the 1980s women the print media was push aside in the archival record while Australian women asserted themselves in anti-discrimination conversations on television. In1988 SBS Television launched a new programming initiative A Woman’s World. Produced by Sylvia Ordonez and presented by Clare Dunn, this program examined Australian films made by women in the 1970s and 1980s with a panel discussing issues such as ‘sexual harassment, domestic violence and incest, menopause, menstruation, and aging.’ One program discussed films such as It’s Just a Compliment Luv and Give Us a Smile. Such discussions showed how men weaponised demands for smiles and how Australian women could regain their power.
By 1997 alternative music and independent print media offered young Australian women a different means to deal with demands to smile. The riot grrrl movement arrived in Australia. With it the understanding that mainstream print media had played a role in destroying women’s self-esteem through little things, like demanding 24/7 smiles. Raised on the unapologetic anthems of Bikini Kill, L7, Sonic Youth, and Courtney Love, these young women focused on changing the ‘ideals set by society on how a “lady” should act.’ For these women, this meant breaking away from the mainstream media and creating diverse ways of being feminine.
Instances such as Grace Tame’s media appearance are an opportunity to question the values that underpin the demand ‘that woman needs to smile’. And, as she has added to the conversation recently, men too. The mainstream media’s tendency to demands smiles from women is evident since the mid-twentieth century in Australia. These archival excerpts offer some insight into how powerful women’s bodies, and the way we choose to use, see and comment on them, can be. So, before you demand someone smile, think about this glimpse at the past and consider what you are really asking for. Is it their compliance and to reinforce a status quo that makes you powerful? If the answer is yes, you need to stop speaking and start listening.