The Double Bind Behind Hillary Clinton’s Smile

I made it through the second presidential debate without benefit of a drinking game. The next morning, I busted out a piece (“What ‘Criminal Minds’ Tells About Donald Trump’s Sniff”), which I later shared on Facebook. Taking a look at the Donald’s nasal commentary seemed a relatively light-hearted analysis, and I felt I’d gotten the debate completely out of my system.

And then I read this comment:

“But WAIT!!! What does that say about Hillary’s Joker-like I’m-a-maniac grin??”

That Whole Smile Thing

Pink happy face on blue background with words "SMILE!" surrounding.

Bear with me as I go a bit ballistic over all the commentary on Hillary Clinton’s smile.

First Debate=Not Enough Smile

MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and Atlantic editor Steve Clemons, among others, instructed the Democratic candidate via social media to smile more.

WTF, people? Seriously—nobody criticized Trump’s sourpuss expression. When was the last time someone told Obama to bust out a grin? Is Putin even physically able to smile?

In the article “’Morning Joe’ Gets Heat for Telling Clinton to ‘Smile.’ But Was It Sexist?,” Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown University linguistics professor with an interest in interpersonal communications, is quoted about the sexist undertones behind this urge to see Clinton smile: “You don’t notice when the men don’t smile because you don’t expect them to. People notice what is unexpected.”

According to The Christian Science Monitor article, it’s what Tannen calls a “double bind”:

“A double bind means there are two mutually exclusive demands, and anything you do to satisfy one violates the other. All female politicians experience a double bind because the demands of being a woman violate the demands of being a strong leader.”

Smiling, it seems, marks us as feminine. Of course, that’s not to say that men don’t smile; Marianne LaFrance, professor of psychology and  Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Yale University, has written extensively about smiling, which she sees as a gender marker that maintains cultural roles.

In an article by Terin Patel-Wilson for Yale Scientific, LaFrance theorized that women smile more frequently than men due to their lesser societal status. Those with less power have a greater need to please.

Second Debate=Too Much Smile

So here we are in the second half of that double bind with my friend’s aforementioned Facebook post, which prompted me to search. Sigh. The results weren’t pretty.

Screenshot showing Google search results on phrase "Clinton Smiles Too Much"

On Twitter, references to “fake smile” and “she just comes across as my bitchy wife/mother” and “condescending” popped up like malignant growths.

Not enough smile and she’s a bitch.

Too much smile and she’s a bitch.

Clearly there’s no way Clinton will win the smile debate. But I don’t think that’s the root of the fight.The over-riding problem isn’t about not enough/too much “smile”—the real problem is the “she.”

Women Are No Strangers to the Forced Smile

Pink happy face on blue background with words "SMILE!" surrounding.OMG, if I had a dollar for every time I was told to smile. How about $5 for every instance I faked a smile while some bozo pontificated on something I wasn’t at liberty to protest?

What woman hasn’t faked a smile?

Let’s take another look at that putrid Donald Trump/Billy Bush video from 2005—but skip to the point where Trump and Bush exit the bus, which fast-forwards through the most hideous lewd comments. This time, focus on Arianne Zucker, the actress greeting the two men (and, unknown to her, the woman they’ve just been ogling).

Zucker offers a handshake in greeting. Bush, however, pushes for more: “How ‘bout a hug?” She acquiesces and, as she leans in toward Trump, he takes a kiss. She then hugs Bush.

On her face is the fixed smile of a woman in an uncomfortable position. She’s there on behalf of the soap to welcome Trump for his cameo appearance on Days of Our Lives. The men are important, so she has to put on a nice face, even though they’re like two creepy teenagers trying to cop a feel.

Grin and bear it.

You’ll notice that the minute the three reach their destination, Zucker quickly disentangles herself from the chummy arm-in-arm arrangement.

Job done. Smile off.

Why I’d Like to See Hillary Clinton Stop Smiling

Pink happy face on blue background with words "SMILE!" surrounding.As the second presidential debate wore on, I became increasingly frustrated by Clinton’s firm smile. Oh, I understood why she needed to project a calm, positive demeanor in contrast to bluster and boorishness.

As I got angrier and angrier over disrespect, interruptions, and slander, I itched to see Clinton drop her polished veneer. I wanted the stern, focused face I love in “Texts from Hillary,” the famous Blackberry-reading photo by Kevin Lemarque.

I wanted her to drop the placid Miss Universe facade and open up a visual can of warrior whoop ass.

I wanted her to stand up for all of us women who have plastered on a grin and borne it like good girls.

But Clinton’s savvier than I am. She knows America’s not quite ready for a female take-no-prisoners non-smiling debate dominator. She gets the double bind better than any of us.

And that, my friend, is what I have to say about Clinton’s grin.

Read More About Smiles Here

“‘Morning Joe’ Gets Heat for Telling Clinton to ‘Smile.’ But Was It Sexist?” by Story Hinkley

Deborah Tannen, author of The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words

“The Subtle Smile” by Terin Patel-Wilson

Marianne LaFrance, author of Why Smile? The Science Behind Personal Expression and Lip Service:Smiles in Life, Death, Trust, Lies, Work, Memory, and Politics

Pink happy face on blue background with words "SMILE!" surrounding.



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Published by Leah Nyfeler

I'm a writer, editor, runner, and adventurer who is always looking for the next new story, exciting adventure, and good meal/book/movie. My focus is on helping people find their best, healthiest self through sharing what I know and how I've come to learn it. In addition to my blog "Enjoying the Journey: Observations on the Fit Life" at, my articles have appeared in a variety of print and online magazines. You can hear me as part of the 2015 Austin cast of Listen To Your Mother.

0 thoughts on “The Double Bind Behind Hillary Clinton’s Smile

  1. I thought Clinton did a masterful job with her countenance at the third debate. She appeared serious and thoughtful…and unruffled. I don\’t know how the smile/don\’t smile crowd could find fault.

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