What happens when you tell one of the greatest athletes of our time – a four-time Olympic gold medallist, who has 12 world championship golds under her belt and the status of a global superstar – to smile? You get a winning put down, that’s what.
Simone Biles, the American gymnast who soared to unprecedented international fame and acclaim at last year’s Olympics, made it clear that she would not be lowering her level of focus for anyone, least the host of Dancing With The Stars, which she appeared on this week. After she performed, she was subject to the critiques of the judging panel, one of whom said she had improved, but should be careful not to “dance like a metronome”. At which point Tom Bergeron quipped that he was “waiting for [Biles] to smile at some of the compliments”. “You didn’t,” he added.
“Smiling,” Biles replied calmly, and quick as a flash, “doesn’t win you gold medals.”
What Biles did on that stage was communicate something that women so often want to say on the street, and in bars, and in taxis: she said that we’re more than just something to look at
You can almost hear her words sizzling on the page. So unsurprisingly, the response has deeply resonated with women around the world. Although, in this case, the context should not be conflated with cat-calling – it's important to note that Biles wasn’t walking alone in the street, or in a bar minding her own business, or getting the train home when she was instructed to smile – it is another example of how women are expected to act in public. And how deliciously satisfying it is when they refuse to comply.
Because, often, it’s not easy to rebuff the “smile, love!”, or “cheer up, darlin’!” comments, usually shouted from a distance, without risking further embarrassment, fear, or plain old exasperation. The belittling bullshit consistently thrown in our direction – and there’s no question that is does only happen to women – is the patter of a stranger so arrogant and disrespectful that he thinks it’s OK to tell you what to do despite this being your first (and only) exchange. Men who want women to smile think nothing of publicly chastising you, simply for not pleasing them.
It means confronting someone – or taking back a morsel of control – is near impossible. So seeing someone we admire doing it so perfectly (just as Serena Williams did back in 2015) is heartening. What Biles did on that stage was communicate something that women so often want to say on the street, and in bars, and in taxis and in every situation that we’re expected to act the perennial “good girl”: she said that we’re more than just something to look at. That, surprisingly, we’ve got bigger things on our minds than how we look, or how we’re perceived; that it’s not our job to provide aesthetic entertainment – and that we’ll smile when we damned well want to.
Biles is right: smiling doesn’t win you gold medals. And aren’t we all busy winning?