By Laurel Dammann
Unlike many children, I have seen my father cry. Once. It was misty-eyed more than actual tears and it happened so abruptly and then ended so quickly that I sometimes wonder if it was actually the after effect of a sneeze. Then I remember how quickly he ducked his head, hiding himself away again — my father was never one to be embarrassed by a sneeze.
I am fascinated by crying men. That sounds twisted, but given the dry well that was my male role model it makes sense. I should clarify that I do not like it when men cry nor do I feel compelled to make them cry myself, but simply that the few times in my life that I have witnessed a grown man cry I am reminded of when I first saw the Grand Canyon at five-years-old: I was so stunned by the alien landscape that I was scared to blink, terrified that if I closed my eyes for a millisecond the entire martian world would vanish and I would be left wondering if it had just been a dream or if I was insane.
It appears others don’t feel so differently. Esquire created an online slideshow devoted entirely to images of powerful men crying and there are numerous articles dissecting masculinity and what society requires of “real men.” A 2016 PSA about male suicide in Australia urges men to cry by visualizing the problems with the quintessential phrases used to divest boys of their emotional agency. As a new wave of feminists unravel and expand on the idea of what it means to be a woman, they are also having discussions about what exactly it means to be a man. A notable number of us are having the discussions needed to facilitate a more nuanced understanding of the complex world outside our boxes i.e. the six walls built around each of us by a patriarchal society that functions so long as each of us is contained. However, just as some of us are pushing for an inclusive new society, in the privacy of many homes an old, cruel lesson is still being taught.
When my younger brother was very little and sobbing over something innocently earth-shattering, my father sternly told him, “Stop it. Boys don’t cry.” My mother was furious. “Any son of mine will feel free to cry,” she snapped back and to this day she becomes quietly livid whenever she remembers this exchange. I witnessed my brother’s reaction over the rest of our childhood, but I didn’t realize this until years later; when I was an undergraduate and he was nearing adulthood, it suddenly hit me that I hadn’t seen him cry in years.
Tony Porter, co-founder of gender violence prevention organization A Call To Men, told Claire Cain Miller from The New York Times that boys and girls cry about the same amount when they are small and for many of the same reasons. At around five years of age though, boys begin to get the message that crying is no longer something they can afford to indulge in. It is seen as a sign of weakness and any weakness is a fatal flaw to their budding, seemingly ever under threat manhood. At the same time that they are told to “man up” they are shown that anger, however, is acceptable.
What do we do when someone cries? Generally, the human response is to comfort and the act of comforting is an important part of creating bonds between people. Research shows that tears are not just a way to relieve psychological stress, but also serves an evolutionary purpose of deepening relationships between individuals. What do we do when someone is angry? Depending on the context, the reactions can certainly vary, but often an individual outburst of anger is isolating, particularly if that anger is expressed with violence. Psychologists also identify anger as a frequent substitute emotion used to avoid other more painful, more vulnerable feelings. Ultimately, anger runs the risk of not only creating distance between people, but between the angry person and their own self.
Good Will Hunting was the first movie that I saw in which I witnessed a grown man utterly disassemble. I’m referring to the scene in which Robin Williams’ character Sean Maguire tells Will, the vastly troubled genius and survivor of childhood abuse, that, “It’s not your fault.” Maguire repeats the phrase over and over again and Will first responds with habitual violence. Maguire persists and eventually, exhausted and terrified of his own emotions, Will breaks down in one of the most stunning displays of vulnerability from a man ever written into film. I’ve watched that scene too many times to count and cried each time right along with Will not just for the emotional release of a good cry, but because I am able to see parts of myself in a male figure. It makes me optimistic that a man could see parts of myself in him.
The other side of “Boys don’t cry” is “Girls cry.” The results of this differentiation are a chasm between sexes and, given the patriarchal nature of many societies, hierarchical values placed on the concepts of masculine and feminine. In the United States and many (if not most) other countries, crying is predominantly seen as a feminine act and is therefore gendered as female, an unfortunate flaw of girls and women. That makes the act of crying entirely off-limits for boys and men; crying is what girls do, and they’re taught early on that they definitely shouldn’t want to be anything like a girl.
Beginning in early childhood, boys are fit into different emotional cages than their sisters that work to not only damage what is natural and human in them, but are also structured to uphold the suppression of the girls growing up around them. When a boy is denied intimacy with his own emotions, how can he begin to successfully empathize with the emotions of others?
Given the current textbook on manhood, a man who witnesses a woman in tears is more likely to see a crying woman before he sees a crying person and someone he can emotionally relate to without judgement. She is crying because that is what women do, something women indulge in. This perception manifests in our daily lives and fuels a misogynistic culture that is devastating to all. If we propagate a culture that genders emotion and regulates vulnerabilities to women then we not only make female identified persons more vulnerable to the derision, and even violence, of men, but also disempower men by giving them an incredibly limited list of negative responses in which to interact with the women in their lives. It makes a reality out of the ridiculous, sexist adage (and sexist title of a sexist book) “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.” The truth is, we’re all from fucking Earth.