Editor’s Note: Anushay Hossain is a writer and political commentator based in Washington. For more, visit AnushaysPoint.com. The views expressed are her own.
Thank White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders for the latest reminder that even women entrusted with high positions of authority can promote sexist ideas about women.
Appearing on CNN’s morning program, “New Day,” Wednesday, Sanders sang Donald Trump’s praises for his State of the Union speech, and then delivered the jaw-dropping suggestion that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi should smile more.
“That room … was grossly divided, I’ve never seen Nancy Pelosi’s face like that,” said host Chris Cuomo, commenting on Pelosi’s stony expression as she listened to the speech. “How can he unify that room?”
Sanders’ response? “…I’m going to be a little bit in disagreement with you. I think Nancy Pelosi looks like that all the time. I think she should smile a lot more often. I think the country would be better for it. She seems to embody the bitterness that belongs in the Democratic Party right now.”
While it should be no surprise that Sanders, who stands behind a podium with the White House seal and regularly lies to and misinforms the American people, would borrow a line from an average cat caller on the street, it is doubly upsetting for another reason: Sanders is only the third woman to serve as White House press secretary. Even people who oppose her boss’s policies might have expected better from her.
But let’s recall that her job is basically to justify the actions and/or deflect accusations away from a man who was infamously heard, loud and clear on tape, boasting that serial sexual assault was a perk of his “star” status.
And to date, Sanders has covered for the President in the face of at least 15 women accusing him of sexual misconduct, repeatedly parroting his denials and throwing doubt on the women’s stories. She has backed every anti-women policy of the Trump administration, on issues ranging from equal pay to reproductive health care.
Sanders’ suggestion is a classic, sexist line as old as time. Regardless of how much harm or harassment a person consciously intends to cause a woman by using it, the request itself assumes that women owe the world – and principally men – something. They don’t – not even a smile.
Moreover, as writer Erika Hardison notes: “the sexualization behind telling women to smile is alarming. It makes women feel that we are only meant to be happy and pretty, and it’s a passive way to engage into an unwanted conversation. Asking a woman to smile is a selfish act, and it’s rarely in a caring tone; it’s condescending and it turns a simple gesture into something sexual. Instead of asking a woman how she actually feels or being open minded to the idea she might not be interested, there are men that will berate a woman into doing something that she isn’t comfortable doing. That is unacceptable.”
Artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh echoes Hardison’s sentiments in her anti-sexual-harassment art series, titled “Stop Telling Women to Smile,” in which she addresses gender-based street harassment by creating a visual and bold presence for women in an environment where they do not always feel comfortable or safe.
Sanders’ comment was out of line. Pelosi’s expression was not. Trump is not giving Democratic lawmakers, men or women, much to smile about.
Pelosi said as much in her tweeted response to Trump’s speech, noting its self-congratulatory tone and lack of vision. “He promised unity, but sowed division,” Pelosi wrote. “America deserves better.”
Clearly, Pelosi is not happy with the President or his policies. So why should she smile?
As one of the most politically accomplished and experienced women in Washington, who has served her country far longer than both Trump and Sanders, it is disgraceful that either of them would try and reduce Nancy Pelosi to a “pretty woman” who should just be quiet and smile. Going way beyond partisan politics, Sanders’ comments are offensive and demeaning to all women.
Even worse? The White House Press Secretary’s comments are a depressing reminder of how women can be just as sexist towards other women as men.