With the recent news of Harriet Tubman being put on the US $20 bill came a weird and unsettling backlash: people suggesting that maybe the US could find a “more attractive” photo of her.
One where she’s smiling.
Aside from the fact that none of the dead white males on any other US currency are smiling, and that no one demands those founding fathers look more attractive for the money-using public, there’s something else unsettling about this: the idea that appearing happy is the only appropriate facial expression.
Harriet Tubman had zero reason to be beaming in that photograph. Sticking a smile on her face would have changed nothing, and it would have been a lie.
Reading the Tubman-smile social commentaries, my mind quickly jumped to the memory of a stranger telling me, early in my grief, that things “couldn’t possibly be as bad” as my facial expression seemed to say they were, and that I really should smile. Don’t be so sad.
Right. Embrace the light, man. Shake off that darkness. Nothing can be that bad. Everything will be better with a smile.
How many times grieving people are asked to lie, to match our faces to a socially acceptable smile, rather than wear a face that more closely matches our hearts.
Barbara Ehrenreich calls this the “tyranny of the positive.” I love that.
There’s nothing wrong with smiling when you actually feel like smiling. There’s nothing wrong with looking on the bright side when you feel like looking on the bright side. There’s nothing wrong with finding gratitude, shaking off some darkness, or finding the humor inside something.
There’s nothing wrong with it when you choose it for yourself. When it’s assigned to you, that’s where the problem lies.
That others are uncomfortable with your reality is their problem, not yours. That other people would be more comfortable if you just pretended to be happy and smiling is their problem, not yours.
Your grief is yours. Your life is yours. Do whatever you want with your face. Harriet’s with you, and I am too.
How about you? How has ‘the tyranny of the positive” shown up in your life? As always, I love your comments.