There are so many songs about smiles. ‘Smile, though your heart is breaking’. ‘Smile, and the whole world smiles with you’. ‘You’re never fully dressed without a smile’.. It’s an extensive collection.
There is nothing nicer than seeing a genuine, heart felt smile. That unique expression that conveys a myriad of positive emotions. Love, gratitude, happiness, amusement, satisfaction, freedom, joy. It can also be an empty expression that represents nothing positive. A painted on shield and display of obligation. A mask to conceal pain. A determined veneer that conceals the most heinous of emotions. Fear, betrayal, desperation and emotional paralysis.
At some of the worst moments of my life I have possibly worn the most determined smiles. Something I retrospectively observe when viewing images from my past. An oddly frozen expression; snapped when recording occasions that were intended to inform the world my life was grand. In the ensuing years I have had others tell me they noted I often looked like a ventriloquist’s dummy. That my eyes looked scared or blank. Perhaps testimony to the fact you can’t always hide your emotions, even when you are extremely practiced at it.
The question remains .. why DID I always smile? Why did I try so hard to convey happiness and conform to social expectation? Quite a multilayered question. The first and most obvious answer is I was in a situation where I had no choice. A holiday snap on a social media post showing how fabulous it all is can’t be accompanied by an image where life doesn’t look sunny. The photo will be examined by the other party and you’ll be berated for not portraying the desired image. I didn’t just perform for the camera lens. I determinedly smiled at social occasions, at work, when cooking, when cleaning the house, when watching television. A smile was my armour. A smile was safe. Not smiling was a dangerous choice.
As children and young women we are told to smile for authority. To show respect. Smile at teachers, parents, pastors and policemen. A particular young woman recently refused to smile at our Prime Minister. She was authentic in revealing her emotions and has weathered a storm of criticism. Where were her manners? How hard could it have been to just smile and not create a scene? Why was she so arrogant? Didn’t she know her place at such an important event?
Grace Tame’s now infamous side eye has opened up an interesting dialogue. She herself has said that her innate programming to please and respect a powerful authority figure was insidiously entangled with the heinous abuse she suffered as a teenager. The wife of our Prime Minister has now publicly denounced Tame’s lack of ‘manners’. I certainly do not condone needless disrespect and random rude behaviour towards others. Yet, where are we as a society if we cannot express ourselves when we have justifiable cause? Why should a withering glance from a young woman cause such uproar? In mere seconds she challenged the status quo of the privileged male. She cast aside his authority and his power. She harnessed her own power.
She was authentic.
She was unafraid.
She was unapologetic.
It is my hope that in years to come, Tame’s response to a powerful male will be viewed as less out of the ordinary. The women of my generation often struggle to break the patterns imparted by our mothers, our mentors and our teachers. We bear the restrictions of long standing programming and social expectation. For all the progress I have made, my first instinct is still to smile. To not betray an internal dialogue which may be expressing fear, anger or revulsion. A female who scowls or verbally expresses such things is not ladylike. Our personal truth may incite a negative reaction from an observer. We could be labelled as a man-hater. A ball-breaker. An arrogant woman.
A Grace Tame. A Brittany Higgins. A Virginia Giuffre.
I am reminded of a moment five years ago when I had left my former life. I was returning to my first day at work since my flight and was both traceable and vulnerable. Within hours, the man I had escaped appeared at my workplace and was waiting for me. As I sat at a lunch table he approached, stood over me and pulled me aside. It was as I had feared and expected. As he walked towards me I instinctively did the one thing I was trained to do. I smiled. I still recall the cognitive dissonance of that split second. Filled with adrenaline I succumbed to social expectation and an engrained habit of self preservation. It was a hectic few minutes. I held my ground and walked away from him with the assistance of colleagues aware of my predicament.
It was the last time we ever spoke and the last time he was ever gifted an unjustified smile.
The time has come to discuss topics hitherto seen as either taboo or insurmountable. Domestic violence. Coercive control. Sexual assault. The corrupt mechanisms that prevent women from being safe and receiving justice. The failures in the system. If the established cycle of abuse and misogyny is to cease, archaic social norms must change for women. We have the likes of Grace Tame and her brave compatriots to thank for removing the lid from this mammoth jar of worms. These admirable women are making noise. We owe it to their bravery to join them.
Soldiering forward, let every smile be for the right reasons.
I would like to write you a letter as an Australian constituent. I would particularly like to write you a letter as a woman. Under normal circumstances I’d not principally define myself as my gender. There is so much more to me than that. But these are not normal circumstances. As an Australian woman I find myself living in a time where my circumstances feel extraordinary. In this instance my gender is central to what I would like to say.
I have never been a person invested in politics. I was one of those citizens who voted, left the polling booth and got on with my day. In fact, voting was something of an imposition. An obligatory task undertaken to not receive a fine. A day every few years where there was a sausage sizzle and a bunch of persistent people championing their parties by shoving ‘how to vote’ flyers in my face. I’d check off my identity at the front desk, take my sheets of paper and fill in the minimum obligatory boxes with the pencil provided. I didn’t give it much thought. Folded tightly, I’d post my contribution to the fate of the nation in the boxes at the exit door and be on my way.
Mr. Morrison that has all changed.
Because of you.
When you won the last election I took little notice. My life was trundling on and I was still ignoring politics. After all… what real difference did it make to my day to day who resided at Kirribilli? Politicians come and go. You were not exactly inspiring but I never really listened to you. You were just ‘ScoMo’. ‘Scotty from Marketing’. An underwhelming, average, middle aged white man chairing my country. I’d seen a parade of those like you in my half a century.
Now I see you are in fact extraordinary. I have a keenly awakened interest in politics borne of hearing you speak. In the last few months I’ve listened to your words very carefully because they matter. They matter particularly because I am a woman.
You see Mr. Morrison, I am one of the women at the heart of the Women’s Safety Summit you just addressed. That summit was about my past life and my future. I am one of the faceless, depressing statistics of family and sexual violence.
My years of walking past the sausage sizzle and putting pencilled numbers at the top of a ballot form have now ceased. I don’t enter polling booths any more because I am a silent voter. I don’t have a registered address on the roll. Women like me don’t wish to be easily located. We keep our heads down and we create a new life with as much distance between ourselves and a perpetrator as possible. We may refuse to be afraid and we may fully embrace the freedoms we have achieved escaping a past life. Yet, we don’t really have all of our freedoms do we? As I absorb your rhetoric as my Prime Minister it would appear that as a woman I am solely charged with the task of keeping myself safe.
I think the first time I really sat up and took notice of your qualities was when Brittany Higgins came forward with her allegation of being raped at Parliament House. Such a bright, brave young woman. Such a difficult thing for her to do knowing her story and her life would be dissected under a microscope. I can see she took that step both for herself and for all the faceless female statistics who are not heard. After all, if this could happen at Parliament House what does it say about the plight of an ‘ordinary’ Australian? Surely this would be addressed in a definitive way. A swift denouncement that this could ever happen within the seat of our government. Suddenly politics was less remote to me as a disinterested observer. This was relevant on a level I had never experienced. I waited to see what you would do. What you would bring to such a heinous circumstance. Your response provided enormous clarity.
You did nothing. Placed under a pressure you clearly resented you gave the whole mess some lip service. Empty words whilst desperately trying to deflect what this crime (it remains a crime) meant in real terms. You did what every corrupt entitled male I have ever known has done when confronted with an inconvenient woman. You buried her truthful narrative as hard as you could go and waited for her to fade. Waited until yet another victim, exhausted from screaming into an abyss, might just run out of fight. After all this crime was just a problem to you. Not the life of a young, bright, ambitious and intelligent woman. Not her health and her future torn apart. Her bravery belittled and mocked by your mindless arrogance.
Women marched on your seat of power to stand behind Ms. Higgins. Women like me. The faceless statistics. You did not come out to meet them. I realised at that moment exactly who you are. Everything that gesture encompasses.
Mr. Morrison, since that moment I have watched you with a very keen interest. You have not disappointed me. A myriad of circumstances have arisen affording you the chance to win back a modicum of respect from women such as myself. The Christian Porter episode was one that gave extra clarity to who is at the steering wheel of my nation. Someone only interested in their own power. Their own ego. The Boys Club. Someone who should not be.
Someone I placed there through my own apathy as an Australian voter.
As we enter what I hope may be a pivotal time in the journey of Australian women I take hope from power houses such as Grace Tame. Articulate, strong, determined women who will not be cowed by the gaslighting tactics of a man such as yourself. Grace Tame. The only victim survivor placed at the table of the Women’s Safety Summit. A summit to which Brittany Higgins was not officially invited but added as a last minute afterthought. Well of course. Who wants an extra problem at a table merely seen as an obligatory exercise to appease persistently vocal females? Women who are dissatisfied with how they are perceived as the victims of abusers. Women wanting to address what is blatantly lacking in our system to protect and support them. The gender who need to learn more efficient ways to keep themselves safe.
Mr. Morrison. Next time I fill out a ballot form from the tenuous safety of my unlisted address you and the LNP will not be on it. I finally had my political awareness raised by your extraordinary performance as the leader of my country.
To anyone who was once also apathetic – I would ask that you join me. Find your political awareness and your voice. We owe it to Katherine Thornton, Brittany Higgins, Grace Tame and every faceless woman victim survivor. Like me.