“Honey, I love you. Won’t you give me a smile?”: Children’s Games and the Promotion of Harassment
There was a group of men at the pool and, true to form, one of them came up to me and said “Give me a smile.” I gave him the “thanks for your request, but not really” half smile and he went back to swimming. A little later he came back and said “I am getting married tomorrow. This is my last night as a bachelor. We are all having fun. I want you to have fun. Won’t you give me a smile?” I told him I was just really tired. Secretly in my mind, I sent up a little prayer for his future partner. I prayed for his partner to be able to have their own feelings and emotions around this man.
My husband saw that I was annoyed and came over to talk to me. He was unclear as to why the smile request bothered me. After all, the guy was “just being nice.” I was surprised that my husband did not understand this form of harassment of women because he has never told me or another woman to smile. He is just not the kind of guy who thinks all space is his space. However, I noticed that most people, especially men, don’t notice all of the ways women are harassed on a daily basis becuase it is so ingrained in our culture.
A few weeks ago, again, a random man told me to smile and this time my son heard it. That got us all talking about the issues around men telling women to smile. My son said, “Oh! Maybe that is why we are not allowed to play the “Honey, I love you” game at school." Of course, I had to know what this game was.
There are a few versions of the game, but the usual way to play it is that the person who is “it” kneels in front of another person and says to them, “Honey, I love you. Won’t you give me a smile?” The other person has to reply, without laughing, “Honey, I love you, but I can’t give you a smile.” If you laugh, you become “it.”
I was surprised to find that the “Honey, I love you” game is in countless pamphlets that suggest icebreakers for group events, even in the workplace. I was especially shocked to see a version of this game in a pamphlet put out by the Unitarian Universalist Association Youth Office. I was not surprised that his is an old game, because it smacks of 1950’s treatment of women, but I was amazed that people still use it today, especially for icebreakers, which are meant to make people feel comfortable and safe in a new space.
This game matters because it speaks to the deep-seated harassment of women in our culture that goes widely unnoticed. If we look at this game, it promotes the “give me a smile” mentality of most men. This is the idea that women are objects, here to be looked at and to act only in ways that men deem appropriate. You can see in my example at the pool, this man did not want me to ruin his festive mood by my unsmiling face. However, that space was not his to claim, and my face and emotions are not his to claim either. “Give me a smile” is a way to say that this person has a right to tell me how to behave and even how to feel. Plus, as a woman, I knew the space was no longer safe for me as soon as he said that.
I was unsafe, even in the presence of my husband, at that pool. The request for a smile is never just about a smile, it's about power. Men want you to act a certain way and exert their power over you. If we don’t smile, will this be the time we get followed? (Which has happened to me.) Will this be the time that it leads to verbal attacks (which I have also experienced) or physical violence- even rape in some cases? If I left the pool, would he follow me? If I asked my husband and son to get out of the pool and leave with me, would this man be even more upset that I publicly refused his request in front of his bachelor party buddies and now everyone knew I had refused to smile for him? What would he do then?
In the matter of a few moments, all of these thoughts ran through my mind because I, like all women, know that no space is safe for us. Most men see all space as theirs and frankly our culture sees all space as belonging to mostly white, middle class males- and if they own it, they have the power to control it. Robot Hugs has a great comic showing how this harassment happens all the time, but many people don’t see it. In fact, when we talk about it, we are often told we are being too sensitive.
If we extend the “give me a smile” issue further, we see that it plays out in even more serious ways.
"Give me a smile" is a common tactic of abusers. When people engage in physical, emotional, or verbal abuse, they often justify their abuse by telling you they love you. This is a very common phrase to hear: “Honey, I love you. I didn’t mean it. Come on, give me a smile.”
Even writing that last sentence causes deep fear in the pit of my stomach, a feeling I know many other women know all to well. Having experiences this, if I were at a new job and we played the “Honey, I love you” game as an icebreaker, I would know this was probably not a space I would be safe in. It sends the message that as long as you love a person or your intentions are good, it is okay to demand actions and exert control over other people. It perpetuates the system all women know too well- the request to change ourselves to someone else’s liking because they own us and the space we are in.
“Give me a smile” is one of the most common phrases used in the daily harassment of women on the street. Stop Street Harassment notes that street harassment starts at a very young age, at least 12 years old. By the time women are 19, 90% of them have been victims of street harassment. [source]
Now that we are becoming more aware of the issues around “give me a smile” and it’s connection to harassment of women, we can take at least one small step to stop it. Stop playing the “Honey, I love you” game. It’s not that hard. There are a ton of other more appropriate and fun icebreakers, and other games to keep groups of kids entertained. Have a conversation in your home, school, or organization about why you won’t be using that game anymore. At the end of this post I give you a few other resources that talk about this form of harassment which you can share with others.
Unless you have had this phrase used on you, there is no way to describe the instant feeling of creepiness, the jolt of fear, and the immediate withdrawl into yourself in order to dissociate from your surroundings as soon as a man says- in that voice- “Come on honey, give me a smile.”
"Smile, baby": The words no woman wants to hear. by Soraya Chemaly
Smile, a hilarious video about how wonderful it is when random men tell us to smile.
I Stopped Telling Women to Smile (And You Should, Too.) by Damon Young
Video of comic, Nikkie Glaser, about how creepy it is when men tell us to smile.
Artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh's campaign, Stop Telling Women to Smile.