US President Barack Obama’s tears show a double standard at work for the opposite sex

January 9, 2016 3:00 pm

The issue of men weeping – and, in particular, of male politicians blubbing – wells up again.
Barack
Obama’s tears for America’s murdered children on Wednesday as he called
for more gun control have been claimed by supporters as a sign of his
deep emotional response to a national tragedy, and by Republican foes as
an act of “fascist” fakery involving the deployment of an onion, or
some other lachrymal enhancement.

wept as he spoke about the children. Picture / AP

But beneath the party politics
is the issue of whether it’s good or bad for politicians to cry, and
whether tearful men are given greater emotional credit today than
weeping women.
I’m roughly of Obama’s generation and was raised to believe it was OK for men to share their feelings.
That
said, the heroes of my childhood were still stony-faced, emotionless
types – John Wayne, Clint Eastwood – and even “emo” pioneers The Cure
told , albeit sorrowfully, that Boys Don’t Cry.

Blubbing at school was an unforgivable indication of weakness,
and in early adult life a sign of childishness. I remember being
shocked by a Lynn Barber interview from the 90s with Watership Down
author Richard Adams, in which she noted with distaste his frequent
outbursts of weeping.
So for me and men of my generation, old, dry-eyed habits died hard. Weepy feelings were often there, but buried.
When
my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer three months after our
wedding, I remained sad but stoical through the early weeks of
paralysing uncertainty and then horrible treatment. I wanted to be
strong for her and for her mother. Then I found myself racked by great,
yawping, misdirected sobs at Anthony Hopkins’ death scene in the Mask of
Zorro one lonely night.
Since then, things have changed. Up to a
point. I find it easy to cry in front of my wife, and have even
overcome my shame – when, for instance, my grandmother died – about
crying in public. For this we have one person to thank: Paul Gascoigne.
I’m
not even a football fan, but I can see that the sight of Gazza
grizzling in the 1990 World Cup England-Germany semifinal opened the
floodgates. Here was a brilliant sportsman and emotional oaf giving hot
vent to his feelings, in the most macho arena possible. These were the
tears that became a torrent. Suddenly it was all right for sportsmen to
cry: one by one, David Beckham and David Seaman, Matthew Pinsent,
Michael Vaughan, Tiger Woods, Andy Murray and Chris Hoy followed Gazza’s
leaky-eyed lead.
And weirdly, though I don’t think this had a
knock-on effect in other spheres (we still don’t expect tearful Oscar or
Nobel Prize speeches from men), it did in politics. As “authenticity”
began to be prized over policy, it suddenly became OK for male
politicians to yank out their hankies.
Tony Blair claimed to have
shed tears over the Iraq War. Bill “Bubba” Clinton cried so often, he
would have been better nicknamed “Blubber”. George W Bush cried over
military losses, while Obama regularly weeps at election victories and
Aretha Franklin concerts as well as at massacres. Nobody begrudged
then-London mayor Ken Livingstone the catch in his voice as he responded
to the 7/7 bombings in the capital, though they were less forgiving
when he wept at his own party election broadcast in 2012. (Such openness
is subject to local sensitivities and national characteristics, of
course: when the ferociously butch Vladimir Putin apparently cried over
an election victory, he blamed it on the cold wind in Red Square.)
But
in the Western political world as in just about every other sphere of
life, a double standard is at work. If Leonardo DiCaprio were finally to
win an Academy Award for The Revenant this year, after four
nominations, and if he were to break down at the podium as a result, he
would doubtless be praised for overcoming the emotional barriers put on
men. Yet tearful women from Sally Field to Gwyneth Paltrow are still
ribbed for not keeping their emotions in check.
Similarly,
Hillary Clinton’s tears on the campaign trail against Obama in 2008 were
seen as a disaster until polls suggested they played well with female
voters. The rivulets running down Margaret Thatcher’s face as she left
office in 1990 were seized upon by commentators – at last, a sign of
weakness!
The fact is while it’s acceptable, if discomforting,
for a woman to cry in private, the publicly weeping female is seen as
irrational, out of control, dangerous. By contrast, a bloke who blubs in
public is today thought brave, noble, in touch with his feelings.
It’s
yet another example of a reversal of former mores, where men have taken
on a trope that was used to keep women in check – tearfulness as a sign
of weakness – and turned it to their advantage.
I don’t at all doubt the sincerity of Obama’s latest lachrymose outburst, but if I were a woman it might make me smile wryly.
Because, ladies, if you didn’t laugh, you might cry.

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