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All these references to Emma Raducanu’s smile make me uneasy – we wouldn’t say the same of a man

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The last three weeks have been exciting if you are an avid tennis fan, like we are in our family. But even if you aren’t, you couldn’t have escaped the excitement of the US open final last weekend as Emma Raducanu, an 18-year-old British player, became the first qualifier to ever win a grand slam tournament – coming through the rounds undefeated. 

Her victory has not only brought immense joy and pride for all here in the UK, especially during such bleak times, but also it is a great victory for women’s sports in terms of representation to inspire young girls into sports. Even my five-year-old watched her match, excitedly told everyone about Emma’s victory at tennis the next morning, and also reminded us that she played better than Emma, and could probably beat her “easy-peasy”. 

She has been only learning to play tennis for a few months, and it is far too early for her to aspire to be a professional tennis player, but already she could see what was possible with hard work, and determination. We need more role models like this around for our children to emulate. 

But along with the huge accolades has come a barrage of well-meaning advice and comments about Raducanu’s smile. Yes, her ability to handle pressure and mental strength seems exemplary, but the way that the media has caught on to her smile is disconcerting, with several commentators preferring to talk about her “dazzling”, and “euphoric” smile, rather than her tennis . The way many of the bylines have offered their advice to her to “keep smiling” is definitely very much rooted in our gendered societal norms. It is a reminder of how often women are constantly being told to manage and regulate our emotions, to “cheer up” and smile.

Surveys with adults have shown how more than 98 per cent of women reported being told to smile at some point. 15 per cent noted that this was more frequent than once a week. In a study of 583 college students, 95 per cent of women were told/asked to smile, compared to 77.5 per cent of men. Additionally, 67.5 per cent of men told/asked another to smile, compared to only 48.5 per cent of women. 

Smile solicitation – or asking someone else to smile – is based in social dominance theory, where one group has more power and privilege than the other, and can therefore impose expectations on them. Much of this is also rooted in the belief that women’s bodies are not their own, which means that they are not allowed to make decisions about their bodies, and that everyone – even strangers – have a right to comment on them and their emotional expressions. 

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Women in the public domain get this a lot. We know how Victoria Beckham has been criticised for not smiling enough and called miserable. We saw how Serena Williams, who has often been labelled “angry” on court, was badgered by a male reporter in a press conference after a long and exhausting match as to why she wasn’t smiling.

Absence of a smile has a greater impact on how a woman is perceived, as compared to how a man is perceived. Different standards are applied to men and women by both men and women, who perceived non-smiling women to be less happy, carefree, warm and less relaxed as compared to men. For a woman to be perceived as competent, they have to appear warm and amicable. These two are strongly inter-linked for a woman, while for a man these two qualities are not related. 

A man can be perceived to be competent without having to appear warm or friendly. In 2006, the chairman of the Republican National Committee asserted that Hillary Clinton was “too angry” to be elected president. However, during the presidency election, she came under attack for not being emotional enough; for not smiling enough, for being stilted. Joe Scarborough, host on MSNBC, tweeted in March 2016: “Smile, you’ve just had a big night”, and former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus tweeted in September 2016 that, “Hilary Clinton was angry and defensive the whole time – no smile and uncomfortable…”

Women in particular learn from a young age that they have to be nice and smiley; that anger is not a good emotion, that any strong opinions and assertiveness will be labelled as “bossy”. And so women use a number of strategies to manage emotions, especially in public domains. 

Girls and boys also show no significant differences in smiling until they reach early teenage years, when girls start smiling much more than boys, and similar differences have been noticed in teenagers and adult women. This means that expectations around women having to show nurturing and positive expressions, especially externalised as a smile, become more heightened with age. 

Girls develop a proclivity to appease adults, and often smile to ease discomfort of others. This gives them the message that their emotions are not their own, that they have to learn to hide their true emotions and conform to societal expectations. Research with girls aged 8-12 years old shows that this constant expectation from girls to be smiling, to be having fun, detracts from the political issues surrounding status of women in our society, and the broader framework of inequality that these girls are growing up in.

Stoicism is something not valued in women, going back to the ideas of a masculine and feminine ideal that is used as a yardstick to judge women against, where women’s anger is demonised, and their pleasantness valued. These tropes of masculinity (as well as femininity) are toxic – the expectations that are placed on women to perform a certain emotion in order to be accepted, and be acceptable, is itself a form of sexist microaggression. 

Whether Raducanu smiles or not is unrelated to how good a tennis player she is. Perhaps people, especially men, could stop asking her to smile – and let her get on with what she does best.

Dr Pragya Agarwal is a behavioural and data scientist, author, speaker and founder of research think-tank The 50 Percent Project

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