Is it the strong men who don’t cry, wonders Nathan Graziano. Or the strong men who do?
In “The Big Lebowski,” The Coen Brothers’ 1998 cult classic, Jeff “The Big” Lebowski, an irascible millionaire distraught over his trophy wife’s alleged kidnapping, tells Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski, an unemployed pot-smoking slacker and the proclaimed “laziest man in Los Angeles County,” that “strong men also cry.”
In fact, The Big Lebowski says it twice.
While far from the most memorable line in a film of epic one-liners, it raises an interesting topic, a topic that any American male who has ever been boned by the ghost of John Wayne is forced to confront: the topic of men crying.
While I agree with The Big Lebowski in principle—this coming from a guy who has been known to tie on a good cry after a bottle of Smirnov and a Jim Croce album—it’s a statement that cannot be oversimplified. In other words, while strong men do indeed cry, it’s frowned upon and complicated to unpack.
When my wife and I had our son in 2005, I had already composed a list of movie series that I couldn’t wait to someday watch with him. For example, when Owen turned 5 years old, I bought us two plastic light sabers, red and green, and the “Stars Wars” box-set. While certainly, at 5 years old, he couldn’t grasp some of the adult complexities in the films, such as the creepy incestuous relationship Luke has with his twin sister Leah, I figured he could wrap his head around the good vs. bad themes. And while my wife asked me not to let our son watch Anakin Skywalker go postal on a school of young Jedi knights in “Revenge of the Sith,” I waited for her to go out one day and showed it to him. It’s cruel world out, I told myself, and it was high time my boy learned it.
Similarly, I can’t wait for the day when my son is old enough to watch other classic series with me, such as “The Grandfather” and “Porky’s.”
My all-time favorite, and the series I was most eager to recently watch with my son, now 7, were the “Rocky” movies. Not only could we hang our hats on our shared heritage with the Italian Stallion—although I’m only half-Italian and my is son a measly quarter—Rocky Balboa is also the ultimate underdog, the punk punching his way to the existential moment where we all can see ourselves in him.
There was a problem, however.
Since Owen was born, I knew the day would come when we’d watch “Rocky II,” and no matter how hard I try to prevent it, I always cry at the end of that film. When Rocky holds up the belt to the television cameras and calls to his beloved wife, “Yo, Adrian, I did it!” I fall apart like the bread in a soggy Italian sub. In fact, I’m choked up writing about it.
So a few weeks ago, after fracturing my elbow, I was prescribed Vicodin for the pain and became fused to the living room couch, searching through Netflix for something kid-friendly for my son and me to watch.
“Owen, do you want to watch a movie about a boxing?” I asked.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah!” my son said as he stood on the couch and began jumping on the cushions, shadow boxing.
“All right,” I said and clicked play. “We’re going to watch ‘Rocky.’”
At the end of the first movie, a lump formed in my throat, my facial muscles tighten and my eyes start to mist, but I held it back. For the life of me, I didn’t want my 7 year-old son to see his father cry. But I knew the widow-maker was on deck, and when Owen asked if we could watch the second movie, I hesitated.
“Isn’t it past your bedtime?” I asked. It was 4 p.m.
“Please, Dad. Please, please, please, please.”
Benumbed by painkillers, I hit play, praying that Owen would get bored and leave to play with his friends before the final scene jerked the tears from my eyes.
As we watched Apollo Creed and Rocky fall to the canvas in the dramatic double-knockdown, I felt the pressure starting to build behind my eyes. “Get up, Rocky!” I screamed, despite the fact that I’ve seen the movie a modest 200 times. “You have to get up!”
“Get up, Rocky!” Owen yelled.
The referee counted to eight, and Apollo slid down the ropes as Rocky pulled himself up. I hugged up my son. “He did it! Rocky did it!” I said as if there was a new Netflix version of the film that I hadn’t seen.
Then, as Rocky held the heavyweight championship belt over his head and began his speech, I knew it was over. My eyes welled, and I bit down on my bottom.
“Dad, are you crying?” Owen asked.
“No,” I said. “It’s the medication that I’m taking for my broken elbow. It dries out my eyes.”
Then the whole absurdity of the situation slugged me like one of those slow motion body-blows from the movie. I couldn’t tell my son that I was crying, that “strong men also cry,” so instead, I lied. My tears of joy were something deeply shameful to me, an act worthy of the deceit.
Mickey Mantle was a crier.
Yes. You read that right. According to Jane Leavy’s biography of the baseball legend, “The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood,” Mickey Mantle—the man who could hit a tape-measure homerun while half in the bag and grinding through a case of The Clap—was prone to fits of crying, drunk and sober.
When I read this, I felt vindicated. If Mickey Mantle would break into tears after reading a headline about a sick child, it should be all right for any man to cry. Mantle was a “strong man,” a pillar of masculinity on par with John Wayne and Truman Capote. Mantle—a gifted athlete, a lady-killer, a hard-drinking baseball demigod who played his entire Hall-of-Fame career enduring agonizing injuries—had cried, and often.
Although it seems if it is in proximity to athletics, it is permissible for men to cry without the fear of emasculation.
For example, on the night of Oct. 20, 2004, the Boston Red Sox where facing the New York Yankees in the American League Championship for the second time in as many years. The previous year Boston blew a three-run lead in the eighth inning when manager Grady Little, a man whose name is now synonymous in New England with the word “brain-fart,” left a tired Pedro Martinez in the game too long. As lifelong Red Sox fan, I was both amped and anxious about the rematch.
It wasn’t long, however, until my anxiety was somewhat-alleviated. In the first two innings, The Red Sox unleashed on the hapless Kevin Brown for five runs, including Johnny Damon’s salami off Javier Vasquez. At the end of the second, Boston led 6-0.
While I felt cautiously optimistic, a lifetime of conditioning as a Red Sox fan left me waiting for the choke, something impossibly heartbreaking and horrendous to happen.
In the ninth inning, when the final out was recorded, I stood up in front of my television, fell to my knees and began to bawl, like I was a strong man. And I felt no shame.
Let us not ignore the subtext here.
The reason many straight males fear being seen crying has to do with the fear of being perceived as soft and feminine, or worse, homosexual. Some straight men bandy the word “fag” around with their friends, busting each other’s balls, as if a sexual attraction to other males lessens their worth as men.
This is unfortunate, and I wish I could say that I’ve never participated in that type of banter, but I can’t. And due to the insecurities that make me fear my son seeing me cry, I’m doing something worse. Not only am I failing to be a man in front of my son, but I’m tacitly teaching him to behave the same way.
While it would be nice to think that by 2012 we would’ve finally buried these cowboy paradigms surrounding American masculinity, this is not the case. We’re still as backwards and dried-eyed as ever. And we still hold on to an unshakable disdain for males who demonstrate female characteristics, such as crying.
The Big Lebowski said, “Strong men also cry.” Perhaps, more accurately, that statement should read, “Strong men aren’t afraid to cry.”
Damn, I wish I was strong.