Archive for Sunday, January 27, 2002

Smile not a sign of subjugation

January 27, 2002


Some deep thinker recently argued that the head-to-toe burqua some Muslim women are obliged to wear is no different from the "enforced smile" of a checkout girl in an American supermarket.

It's a preposterous conceit that shows the depths of intellectual dishonesty in which some sophists fish for evidence of America's evils.

Let's face it: America has many sins and excesses. But it's beyond silliness to suggest that American women are compelled to smile, presumably pressured by our own male-dominated society.

In the first place, smiling is optional in America. If you scowl on the job and some do you don't get beaten by the local holy men. Moreover, though some find the veiled look seductive, the burqua is designed to cover up beauty. It is an emblem of modesty. Some women actually favor the burqua because it helps curtail the advances of aggressive men.

Modesty, on the other hand, is a virtue that's been obliterated in our hedonistic, exhibitionistic culture. Women and men are willing to expose any part of their anatomy to attract attention. A smile, whether worn by a checkout girl or a candidate for Miss America, whether spontaneous or calculated, is part of the arsenal. Women and men are advised to smile when their picture is taken because a smile is usually more appealing than a frown.

Of course, there are smiles ... and smiles. In my own case, the impulse to smile is best suppressed. My smile comes across as a fiendish grin, a predatory grimace or the leer of a lunatic. It has caused many a swaddled infant to scream for its mommy.

To protect the public from this nightmare I wear a long face, the mask of a grouch. Unfortunately, this often inspires meddlesome strangers to attempt to cheer me up. "Smile!" these do-gooders exhort me. Nothing puts me in a fouler mood. I silence them by replying, "You might find it hard to smile if you only had another week to live."

The most famous smile in the world, of course, is the Mona Lisa's. Many have tried to guess its meaning, but no one has been stupid enough to suggest that it's the symptom of a repressive male-dominated society.

Leonardo da Vinci was obsessed by "the smiling of women and the motion of great waters," wrote Walter Pater. The smile he put on Mona Lisa is "unfathomable" and has something "sinister" about it. "She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and has learned the secrets of the grave."

Those arresting words suggest that the Mona Lisa's smile expresses feminine power, "mystique" and Sibyl-like wisdom. Keep that in mind the next time a checkout girl smiles at you.

The burqua, on the other hand, manifests fear of female power and the misogyny which springs from male insecurity cross-cultural themes throughout history. The suppression of women is one of the chief reasons for the loss of vitality and prosperity in much of the Muslim world today, according to the scholar Bernard Lewis. A culture that smothers half its population loses half its potential.

Any American dad who's watched his daughter play soccer or excel in a pursuit that was once the exclusive province of men is a likely fan of women's lib. We should all rejoice that American woman can boast, "We've come a long way."

But nothing in moderation in America, everything to excess. The magazines and entertainments that cater to our teen-age girls encourage them to dress provocatively like promiscuous Lolitas whatever it takes to attract the guys. Is this liberation?

In the words of a song, "In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking. Now, heaven knows, anything goes." And, in America, anything to make a buck. Someone has launched American Burquas, a "fashion project" which plans to exploit the covered look. And a swimming suit catalog just arrived in which buxom models show off bikinis with variations on the American flag motif.

"The classic stars and stripes get spangled to create our Sparkling 'Patriot' print," proclaims the ad. "Sheer mesh ... Plunging neckline ... Spaghetti straps ... Thong bottom ... Poolside or seaside, your love for your country will come shining through."

Not to be a curmudgeon, but isn't this a little shameless? Is this not going too far?

George Gurley, who lives in rural Baldwin, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.

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