Last summer I watched with interest as Andy Murray wept openly, publicly, on camera, after he lost his Wimbledon championship match to Roger Federer. Having lived through an era when men did not cry – or did so rarely and privately and shamefully – I witnessed Murray’s crying jag through the biases of another time. I found the scene jarring, though not surprising.
In recent months I have viewed movie dramas and reality shows and sports contests and news segments in which men have cried when they’ve lost a girlfriend, a dog, a job, their confidence, a game. I’ve seen them weep –and heard them too, which makes the moment even more uncomfortable for me – when they’ve proposed to a woman, found their lost dog, spotted a rainbow, lost weight. The phenomenon has become so commonplace that Google generates 163 million results when searched for “men crying.” Men, it seems, have been crying up a storm, a practice many have longed for since at least the onset of our so-called “countercultural” movement decades ago.
In the 1960s, when our centuries-long trend toward self-fulfillment experienced a spurt, and when women’s demands for power included a critique of patriarchy, we as a society basically agreed that men were too stoic, divorced from their true feelings, non-emotional, and that this toughness made them less human than was desirable, and somewhat deficient as partners and parents. Today, we may finally have what we so long wanted: dads and husbands and boyfriends and sports heroes who cry. Appreciation for this new man was evident during Wimbledon’s post-game interview as the fans’ generous applause intensified whenever Murray broke down.
What a sea change!
While men have always cried openly, many, during our own history have resisted doing so. On July 4th, 1939, two weeks after doctors announced that he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig stood, in uniform, before more than 60,000 fans at Yankee Stadium. Gehrig hadn’t lost a game or a tournament; he had lost everything. When Sid Mercer, the master of ceremonies, noticed that the shy Gehrig was getting choked up as he listened to teammates’ expressions of gratitude and respect, he decided not to ask the guest of honor to speak and thereby risk publicly crying. So the celebration was over…until Gehrig spun around unexpectedly and walked up to the microphone. He thanked his parents for the sacrifices they made for him. He thanked his wife for the courage she had given him. He thanked the fans for their support. He was, he said, the luckiest man on earth. At one point he brought his hand to his face, his palm covering the bridge of his nose, his thumb beneath one eye, his fingers beneath the other. He was stopping tears before they got on their tracks. Later, he wiped his mouth with a handkerchief. A report implied that after the ceremony, when getting water in the privacy of the dugout, he momentarily wept.
Similarly, when announcing the death of President Kennedy on live television in 1963, Walter Cronkite fought off the urge to cry; his voice paused and filled with emotion, he swallowed noticeably, and, when he glanced upward at the wall clock, his eyes moistened. But he did not cry.
Lou and Walter were the men their society needed them to be. In their time, we raised boys to become adults who would marry, procreate, defend their wives and children from threats, push back on teenage sons when they threw around their weight, intimidate unworthy boys who pursued their daughters, and protect their neighborhoods from danger. These expectations are partially undermined by men who sob openly. Today, in contrast, we expect men to communicate with their partners in a way that will be appreciated – a valuable resource especially when that partner is better educated and earns more money; we socialize them to bond emotionally with their children – a useful attribute for the growing number of stay -at- home dads; we encourage them to become parents who model but do not dictate to their adolescent offspring – a sensible parenting skill. These new expectations are more readily realized by men who cry openly.
Today, we simply do not need the “tough” men we once relied upon so heavily. Sadly, in facilitating the transition to their teary replacements, our tendency is to denigrate their memory by depicting them as emotionless and unloving, while celebrating the men who cry. So it is that Murray lost the match, but won over the hearts of Americans.
Perhaps our understanding of today’s men will be enriched if we thank Lou and Walter and the generations of men whose emotions were sacrificed to the general good. May they rest in peace.
Photo— Flickr/ Chris Connelly