Amy Cunningham

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Last updated: February 16, 2019

Amy Cunningham in her impelling study of “Why Women Smile” from the Norton Reader, offers us many revealing insights and ideas that she’s made as a woman analyzing the traditional reasons people, women specifically, smile.  In her essay she goes on to discuss historical, and social reasons for smiling and sometimes the consequences that come from what was thought to be meaningless smile.    I shall begin my paper by discussing how Amy Cunningham analyzes the Phenomenon of “smiling” in general, and when it is particularly related to American culture past and present.  I want to discuss the psychological reasons she focuses on regarding smiling on an individual and on a collective basis.  In the next area of my paper I will dwell on how gender influences smiling amongst men and women. This issue is very imminent in Robert Browning’s “The Last Duchess” when an Italian Duke becomes so infatuated with his wife’s’ beautiful smile that he grows extremely jealous when she smiles at others.  The duke in the end has his wife killed in order for her smile to be his and his only.

Next, I will discuss the role that cultural conventions play in the practice of smiling.  I will also focus in the Renaissance convention and the Dutch Republic conventions as Amy Cunningham does.  I also want to offer some insight on the conclusions that Jean Baudrillard offers about American “smiling” in the Regan era of the 1970s.  Finally, I will discuss the important analyses that Cunningham offers about smiling in today’s 2000 post-modern America.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Cunningham believes that “smiles are not the small and innocuous things they appear to be: Too many of us smile in lieu of showing what’s really on our minds”.  I believe this to be true, many of us smile as either a polite gesture or some of us use our smile as masks to hide what’s really going on.  We want to hide our true feelings so we smile because we don’t want to get asked what’s wrong; we want everybody to think that everything is alright.

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  Sometime we smile just because we don’t want to face reality.  We think that smiling will make it better.  Indeed the definition of the word smile means “to assume a facial expression indicating pleasure, favor, or amusement, but sometimes derision or scorn, characterized by an upturning of the corners of the mouth (Webster).” So we use this smile to camouflage our true feelings.“Bona fide social smiles occur at two-and-a-half to three months of age, usually a        few weeks after we first start gazing with interest into the faces of our parents.  By the time we are six months old, we are smiling and laughing regularly in reaction to tickling, feedings, blown raspberries, hugs, and peek-a-boo games.  Even babies who are born blind intuitively known how to react to pleasurable changes with a smile, though their first smiles start later than those of sighted children (Cunningham).This just goes to prove that as children, before we become influenced with what we are taught by society we smile for the simple reasons to show happiness, laughter, love.

  It’s once we grow older that we are taught to mask our true feelings, that letting people in on your worries is not ok.  “Psychologists and psychiatrist have noted that babies also smile and laugh with relief when they realize that something they thought might be dangerous is not dangerous after all” (Cunningham).  This is the exact same reason adults and people of age travel to amusement parks and haunted houses.  The feeling of being in a dangerous situation but not in actual danger is a form of entertainment for some people.  On the other hand as the definition states people smile for other reasons, in derision, scorn, fear, and contempt.“From the wilds of New Guinea to the sidewalks of New York, smiles are associated           with joy, relief, and amusement.

  But smiles are by no means limited to the expression of positive emotions: People of many different cultures smile when they are frightened, embarrassed, angry, or miserable.  In Japan, for instance, a smile is often used to hide pain or sorrow:This I think goes for everyone, if someone doesn’t feel like talking about their issues or just want everyone to think things are okay they smile.  Some people smile even though they are feeling upset or unhappy even depressed but they just don’t show it and are able to still keep a smile on their face.  Some think that smiles may be able to change your emotions, that if you smile it makes you’re day a lot brighter and happier.  That smiling offers positive results physically and mentally that smiling makes you live longer.  I don’t think that there has ever been a study to prove any of this information to be true.

  It is very difficult to be able to read a persons smile and be able to tell what they are really feeling.  Even though you know a person fairly well such as a loved one you cannot tell immediately how they are feeling unless you have a relationship with that person and you can look deeper behind their smile.We also smile when we are embarrassed, scared, or to ease tension.  For example when you don’t know if you are doing something correctly and there are people watching we often smile to say “I don’t know what I’m doing and I know you know I don’t know what I’m doing and need some help”.  If someone is scared they will often smile as a defense mechanism, to lighten the load.  “By declaring ourselves non-threatening, our smiles provide an extremely versatile means of protection”.Women smile more often than men, a smiling women has become and American archetype “ research had demonstrated that since females often mature earlier than males and are less irritable, girls smile more than boys from the very beginning.

”  People often take a woman’s smile to be nurturing and motherly because women think that is what is to be expected from them.  We tend to lean towards women doctors and physicians because we think that they are more nurturing, the same goes for women teachers and nurses.  It is also this smiling archetype that lead mostly women to sell in advertising campanies.  We tend to believe a smiling woman more than a smiling man when we are unsure about a certain issue.  It is believed that when men smile they are smiling because they are guilty of something they did; they have a mischevious smile leading you to think that they are having mischievous thoughts.

  Especially when it comes to selling products most advertising firms will use a beautiful woman’s smile.Sometime a woman’s smile can also get her into trouble.  For example in Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” where the Duke of Ferrara takes on a young lady as his wife and is so intrigued with her smile that he grows insanely jealous every time she smiles at another man.  He warns her that her smile should only be for him but she continues to offer her smile as a thank you for simple favors not even in a sexual way.  Ultimately he ends up killing her because he can no longer stand that she smiles at other men.  This just goes to show that all smiles don’t end up with positive results.

  All this woman was doing was smiling to show appreciation for the men’s services and she ends up being killed over it.Oscar Wilde once said that “a woman’s face is her work of fiction” meaning just because she’s smiling means that’s what she’s feeling inside.  Every man knows that a woman’s smile can definitely be deceiving.

  “American woman’s smile often has less to do with her actual state of happiness then is does with the social pressure to smile no matter what, her baseline social smile isn’t as apt to be a felt expression that engages the eyes like this”. It’s not socially acceptable show your true feelings in public.  If you let someone know your true feelings it is socially unacceptable because we are always supposed to put on the façade that everything is ok.  If you don’t smile there must me something wrong in your marriage, if you don’t smile people will think you have bad children.

  If you don’t smile people will think you are poor.  There are many reasons why women smile to hide their true feelings.Thousands of years ago it was thought that only the commoners and poor people smiled.  Smiling was something that only children and those who didn’t know any better did, it was thought unsightly and very inappropriate The only smile that appropriate was that of the Virgin Mary who’s smile was not that of laughter but of nurturing values.  This smile was directed at young children as if you say. “Do no wrong because I am always watching”.By the Renaissance era this was one of the first times you saw a woman’s smile depicted as a thing of beauty.  Artist would render the smile of a beautiful woman either in a religious painting or portrait.

One of the most famous examples of this is the Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.  This painting has awed the many minds of millions of people.  Some believe it to be a phenomenon how the artist was able to mimic this woman’s beautiful smile on canvas and also how the artist got the woman in the picture to smile.  Some say she was seducing him and some say that this is a sad smile.During the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic the Netherlands started showing more interest in the sciences and the arts.  Dutch artist were starting to be recognized for their painting and sculpting.  The artist who sculpted the women’s faces made the have a lot more depth and more details in the bodies and facial expressions this may have been because by this time women’s smiles were to be considered more socially free.

By the mid 1960’s during the civil right movement smiles changed for the African American people.  Cunningham says that “African American men stopped smiling on the streets in the 1960”s happily aware of the unsettling effect this had on the population.  The whites thought that as long at the blacks were whistling along singing a song and working that everything was alright.  Cunningham says that “the image of the simpleminded, smiling, white-toothed black man was rejected as blatantly racist, and it gradually retreated in the distance.”  Going along with the reason that men smile, some people thought that if black men weren’t smiling they were up to something.  It made them very uncomfortable.Since women have been able to vote they have taken a more feminist approach to smiling.

  Women no longer smile to ease the situation, they are not as quick to throw you a smile because they don’t want to seem vulnerable they want to be strong and independent women.  They want us to think that they don’t need men support them in their everyday lives.  Especially woman who have had a hard life or single mothers, they are less likely to smile because they are overwhelmed and consumed with everyday issues like putting food on the table and making everyday ends meet.  “We see a boom in assertive female comedians who proving that woman can dish out smiles, not just wear them.”(Cunningham)  Woman no longer need men’s approval most women believe they can do everything all by themselves.  “Actress Demi Moore has stated that she doesn’t like to take smiling roles.

  Nike is running ads that show unsmiling women athletes sweating, reaching, and pushing themselves.  These women aren’t overly concerned with issues of rapport; they’re not being “nice” girls-they’re working out.”(Cunningham)  Women’s smiles today are truly their own, they won’t give it to you unless they want you to have it.

In modern advertising adds more than half of the sales campaigns are bases around women’s smiles.  Women have always been portrayed as mostly wholesome, nurturing, homemakers.  We trust them to do no wrong and tell no lies.  This is why most advertisers use women when trying to sell items, especially to other women.

  For example food commercials are always featuring female actors because they play the mothers and the wife’s the ones that keep the family together. Cosmetics and household product commercials also feature mostly woman.  It gives advertising firms an edge to use women because they have more of a convincing smile than men.  “Many longed to be more like her, that perpetually smiling female.  She seemed so beautiful.

So content. So whole.”(Cunningham)Some people who are not form America believe that we are a country full emptiness and fake emotion.  As Jean Baudrillard says in his essay America “Americans may have no identity, but they sure do have nice teeth.”  I think this statement is sort of ignorant because America’s smile is part of our identity.  America is not a third world country to most people don’t walk around this a smug look on their faces.  American’s are generally usually happy, so what is wrong with showing your true emotions.  “They certainly do smile at you here, though neither from courtesy, nor from an effort to charm.

  This smile signifies only the need to smile.  It is a bit like a Cheshire cats grin; it continues to float on faces long after all emotions have disappeared.”(Baudrillard) This may be true to some degree we are so used to smiling now a day that they become less genuine.

  Most Americans believe it common courtesy to smile, this is done mostly to acknowledge the presents of another person.  Most Americans smile because we like it, it makes us feel good.  It’s like a drug, once we do it a couple times and we like it, it gets good reactions and we need to do it.


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