In responding to Michael Wolff’s new book about him, Donald Trump tweeted that Steve Bannon “cried when he got fired.”
I’m not a fan of Steve Bannon. Based on what I’ve seen, I doubt that he really did cry, at least not in front of Donald Trump. I think this because, as older American men, they were both raised to see men crying in the same way: As a weakness.
Trump’s deliberate reference to Bannon crying is an example of toxic masculinity at its pinnacle. As bell hooks writes, “Patriarchy demands of all males that … they kill off the emotional parts of themselves.”
Perhaps the most visibly healing emotional act is shedding tears when we’re sad, and so the patriarchy has weaponized the mere act of crying. Boys who cry are insulted, ostracized, and otherwise made to feel less like people. “Boys don’t cry,” we’re told. “Grow up. Don’t be so weak.” Personal experience and a review of the internet tells me that most men have received these messages as they’ve grown up.
At the same time, there is a distinct gap in professionally vetted articles that support it. When I search on “boys shouldn’t cry” and similar phrases, I get a bunch of articles on how emotionally damaging that message is. Good Men Project writers like LeRon Barton (“It’s Okay for Boys to Cry”) and Joanna Schroeder (“Expert Says It’s Good to Let Boys Cry”), as well as sources like Psychology Today, the Independent, the Washington Post, Huffington Post, and CBC, talk about the extreme negative impact of teaching boys not to cry. Loneliness, depression, and suicide are linked to our struggles with displaying our emotions.
If it’s such a defensible position that boys shouldn’t cry, I would think there would be more articles defending it. After all, the notion is under consistent assault. Why aren’t its defenders shouting from the rooftops?
Donald Trump’s casual use of the emasculating weapon on Twitter might well open the floodgates. One of the culturally tragic effects of the media’s normalization of his comments has been to embolden the extremists. Two years, I would have thought the notion of White Nationalists openly marching in the United States absurd; last year, it happened. Now that the dog whistle against men crying has been blown, those who have been hiding in the shadows might feel emboldened.
While there are few formal articles still espousing the viewpoint that boys shouldn’t cry, that message is still very much alive on social media. “Girls don’t like weak guys,” writes a commenter on The Student Room, “So me crying at a breakup, she’s never going to take me back. And while most of the comments on an item on Quora said that it’s fine for men to cry, one person writes, “Crying is a good way to let it out but u shouldn’t cry in front of her. … Be the strong guy you are.”
Publicly, we claim to support the idea that it’s acceptable and emotionally healthy for men to cry. However, is this genuine, or is it simply political correctness?
I’m concerned that it’s the latter: We may claim to accept that it’s fine for men to cry, but when we see a man crying, we get awkward. We start to add caveats about when it’s okay.
Writing in NPR, Hanna Rosin argues that we seem to be stuck. “I think we care a lot less about boys crying than we used to, but more than we will admit,” she says. “Boys can cry, if they do it in just the right way.”
Part of this, I think, is because it is far easier to intellectualize an issue than it is to overcome the deep-level programming. We men have been told from a very early age that crying undermines our manhood. Even in times of my life where it seems cold and removed to not cry, even when I ache for the release of tears, I find that programming weighing down on me. It is not even a clear voice: It is an instinct. Hold back. Now is not the time.
I only remember my father crying once. It was after my parents had had a terrible fight. He thought his sons were asleep. It was something for him to hide. The most enduring moment of my father’s vulnerability, I experienced vicariously. I’m not sure I even ever shared that with him.
Donald Trump ran on the slogan “Make America Great Again.” Some of us worry that what he meant was a return to the era of the detached stoicism that comes with toxic masculinity.
For his part, Barack Obama cried multiple times over his tenure in office. His tears were distinguished and subtle, but he did little to hide them. Many other former Presidents have cried publicly. That Presidents have been capable of displaying this level of emotion is a good thing; that the media collects these incidents as newsworthy reflects on where we still have to go as a culture.
For instance, in 2007, The Telegraph asked, “Do you think less of George W Bush for crying in public?” The question was genuine, and reflects the perpetuated toxicity of the “boys don’t cry” theme.
Another thing to keep in mind: Crying is nested in a complex social context that doesn’t affect just men. In “When White Women Cry,” Mamta Motwani Accapadi argues that white women can weaponize their own tears by using them to induce guilt, consolation, and exoneration.
“When it comes to privilege,” writes A. G. Johnson (quoted by Accapadi), “it doesn’t matter who we really are. What matters is who other people think we are.” When a woman cries under duress, the perspective will often shift from the woman’s role in creating the stress and towards “you made her cry!” When it’s a white woman crying in exaggerated response to a person of color’s criticism, intersectional issues involve race and gender arise.
This context is important to keep in mind as we drive to actively encourage men to learn to express their feelings in a healthy way.
I do believe that it’s more acceptable for men to cry now than it was a few decades ago. I do think men are making progress on our development of emotional intelligence. My son is more open with the complexity of his emotions around me than I was with my father.
Photo credit: Getty Images