Last week, Disney’s Marvel Studios released the first trailer for their upcoming film “Captain Marvel,” due in theaters on March 8, 2019. I’ve written before about how excited I was to see DC’s “Wonder Woman” movie, and I had a similar reaction to the “Captain Marvel” trailer. I squeaked. I cheered. I smiled uncontrollably and pointed out returning characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe like they were this season’s hottest gift items, and I had a wish list going.
The rest of the world — or at least those who care about the release of a new Marvel movie — were similarly excited by the preview, and the fan theories and Easter egg spottings began to roll in.
And then, that special brand of nerdy misogyny woke up and started tweeting out criticisms, as it always does.
One of the most common complaints about the trailer was that the actress playing Captain Marvel — the talented Brie Larson — did not smile in the trailer. Apparently this was enough for some corners of the internet to start speculating that the movie would be terrible because Larson “didn’t have the emotional range” to do the character justice.
“Smile more,” was the general comment from the trolls, and soon several trailer shots of Larson edited with a grin on her face were making their way across the web.
Larson responded to this backlash in style. The actress shared some photos on her Instagram account that depicted male leads from other Marvel movies, which had been edited to give them ridiculous grins. Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, and Chris Evans as Captain America were all re-imagined, as Polygon put it, to “look like total doofuses.”
The Instagram post highlighted the double standard that women in the acting industry face when it comes to appearances. When men try to look stoic, brooding or serious for a role, they are often praised for showing character depth and conveying the gravity of the situation; when women try it, they’re often told to go back to looking pretty and non-threatening. To “smile more.”
I realize that Larson is a public figure, that the internet trolls are just trolls, and the movie will likely stomp any lingering complaints with its box office success, but the assumption that women are supposed to conform to this image is a tale as old as time. It’s not limited to the Hollywood sphere or the internet. Every woman has experienced some form of discrimination like this, maybe without even realizing it. I’ve experienced this. People have been telling me to “smile more” or “cheer up” since I was around 12 years old, and to this day I’ll occasionally hear it.
Now, to preface this, smiling is part of my job, and it’s a nice way to open things with someone new or someone I’m genuinely happy to see. It’s polite. There are countless women out there in customer service jobs, interpersonal careers and whatnot where smiling is a requirement, not just an expectation. But when I’m not on the clock, when I’m walking down the street or trying to buy a cappuccino, the request from someone else to “give me a smile” feels like I’m being asked to “sit” or “roll over” like a trained animal.
And the strangest thing is, I’ll do it. I’ll give whoever is requesting the smile a grin as wide as the Mississippi, hoping they go away. I’m not sure when I learned this Pavlovian response, but it’s certainly easier to do than trying to explain to someone why I don’t owe them a smile. And in a world where Tiffany McKnight of Texas was murdered in April after refusing to let a man use her cell phone, Loreal Goode of Missouri was killed in June after refusing to drive a man to a pawn shop and loan him $36, and a 14-year-old Oklahoma teen was stabbed in August when she turned down the advances of another 14-year-old, it’s a heck of a lot safer.
There is this population of men out there that believe women owe them something in life, be it a smile, a favor or a relationship — and when they face reality and denial, they can lash out. While women are not always blameless in this circus of expectations, the evidence points overwhelmingly to men as instigators in stories like the above. How they got that way can be attributed to a number of factors, and I look forward to sitting down and debating them over Thanksgiving this year with my family, but the problem remains. How do you combat a belief like that, a belief that is harmful for both women and men?
It’s not a problem that will be solved easily or quickly. A good place to begin is by fighting misinformation and entitlement, and teaching everyone, men and women, the powers of respect and kindness. And to take a page out of Larson’s book, adding in a little humor. The next time someone asks you to smile, ladies, try telling them the Botox won’t let you show emotion for another hour and a half.