I am an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, College Park, majoring in Philosophy. In the Spring of 2004, I did an Independent Study project (of my own design) on the connected subjects of crying and nudity in American college males. I did my research under the supervision of an American Studies Department professor. In addition to surveying scholarly literature (of which there is suprisingly little on my topics of study), I conducted personal interviews with college men, and focus groups with college men and women. What follows is an excerpt from the rather lengthy paper I produced, documenting the results of my research.
Please note that the aim of this paper is not to be detached and scientific, but rather, to recruit the reader to my position that American masculinity constructions need critical examination.
This excerpt focuses specifically on crying. Enjoy.
Even the most stereotypical of interviewees and focus group respondents conceded that college men are socially allowed to cry in some very specific (and predictable) circumstances: in public over the death of a loved one; in private over the loss of a romantic relationship; or when in evident, excruciating physical pain. That last example, of physical pain, was carefully delineated by each subject who brought it up, to be physical pain that was either believably painful, or “really bad”, from the perspective of another person. For example, a guy could be feeling the most pain he has ever felt in his whole life because of, say, a broken pinky. But unless that finger has changed color, was bent backwards, was bleeding, or in some other way provably “really bad,” the rules would forbid his crying. More surprising was the uncontested assertion in the male focus group that an athlete’s crying in response to losing a very important football game was quite acceptable, even commonplace.
Let me review this point before moving on: So, emotional tears are acceptable in response to losing a game? But not in response to wrenching internal pain from hurt feelings? I prodded the focus group for the ruling principles in the matter. I wanted to know what values governed these specific rules. One male responded: “It’s OK for guys to cry about something if they’ve lost something that meant a lot to them [as in girlfriends, loved-ones, or football games], but it’s not OK if it’s just over hurt feelings, or if the situation can be corrected.”
Hearing that, an epiphany came to me: To these guys, crying is a mark not only of weakness, failure and loss, but one of utter despair. Crying is surrender to emotion; often an acknowledgement of unmitigated crisis. With that premise, it is no wonder that crying at unsanctioned times is viewed as unjustifiable. It is not the crying per se which is so reviled by American college men. Rather, it is the loss of power -- the loss of control over oneself and one’s vulnerability. That’s what was so disgusting to this group about a crying male. Crying symbolizes a failure not in deed, but in thought: a failure to find strength and hope within.
In fact, there seems to be something about a young man’s resisting his need to cry that American society lauds even more than if he never showed any hint of emotion in the first place. This was evident in the interviews and focus groups alike. Several subjects emphasized the importance of clarifying the ‘degree’ of lacrimation in determining whether it was acceptable for a man to cry. One subject responded to my question with his own, asking, “Wait -- do you mean like crying as in teary-eyed or like bawling and sobbing?” The distinction between fighting tears and surrendering to them was of notable importance to the respondents.
The famous Scottish economist Adam Smith (Chew), regarded this manly struggle against emotion as deserving of respect, and quite different from outright crying (Lutz, 295). Smith wrote,
We are disgusted with that clamorous grief which, without any delicacy, calls upon our compassion with sighs and tears and importunate lamentations. But we [revere] that reserved, that silent and majestic sorrow, which discovers itself only in the swelling of the eyes, in the quivering of the lips and cheeks, and in the distant, but affecting coldness of the whole behaviour (qtd. in Lutz, 295).
Surprisingly, even shedding a tear or two with a slightly-cracked voice, flushed cheeks, and a lump in one’s throat isn’t really ‘crying’ by many modern definitions (Harper and Porter, 154). Writing about the emotional reactions of British moviegoers to film, Sue Harper writes that “For some men, even watery eyes fell outside their definition of crying”(Ibid). The subjects of her study spoke carefully, saying, “I have on occasion been moved to a wet eye — but never to tears,” or, “I would never admit to crying in the pictures though I have often had to stifle back what were suspiciously like tears” (Ibid). Even Tom Lutz, himself an expert on crying by virtue of his authorship of Crying: The Natural & Cultural History of Tears, points out that, “A man could let a tear fall, sometimes, in order to show that he was not going to give in and cry” (182). Perhaps my own subjects would have responded differently if I’d had the foresight to thoroughly define “crying” in a way that included everything that even resembled emotionally-driven ocular secretions, ‘choking up’, or outright lacrimation.
The consequences of men’s suppression of emotion is the subject of much scholarly research and modern psychotherapeutic dogma. Nearly every common psychological problem displayed by men is assumed by some psychologists to be a result of the failure of those men to emote vulnerably. From these assumptions, these psychologists reach the conclusion that men need to start ‘getting in touch with their feelings’ in order to achieve emotional health. Psychotherapist Terrence Real, one of the leading male voices in the movement to evoke feelings from American males, summarizes the dogma well:
By equating pain and vulnerability with the repudiated and devalued “feminine,” traditional socialization places boys and men in double jeopardy. First it requires a wholesale psychological excision, then it teaches men not to admit their ache, like the pain of an amputee, for the lost parts of themselves . . . the forces that push boys toward “masculinity” and the forces that push boys toward depression are inextricably bound to one another (233).
The conclusion that those forces pushing boys toward masculinity and depression are inextricably bound to one another is rather quick. Real’s twenty years of work in the field of psychotherapy may have biased his view of American males. After all, his primary contact is with emotionally-troubled men. His argument is specious, particularly to those among us who are in the first place emotional, sensitive people.
It is gratifying and endearing for we emotional-types to think that secretly, beneath a façade of invincibility and indifference, masculine men are always frightened, passionate, loving and warm. But the fact is that sometimes, we can have no idea whatsoever about the truth of the matter. A well-constructed façade prevents us from knowing anything about a man at all. Furthermore, it should at least remain a considered possibility that for some men, there is no façade at all -- that some men are just not very emotional. Taking the view that stoicism is somehow ‘illegitimate’ gives us an air of privileged enlightenment, breeding a subtle arrogance justifiably reviled by our emotional ‘inferiors’.
The unwelcome entreaty to men to ‘get in touch with their feelings’ is errant even if its audience is secretly suffering. Little good can result from attempting to convince such men to ‘open up’ to others by condescending them. This condescension itself is an excellent reason for them to beware vulnerability.
Furthermore, it is contradictory and insulting to posit simultaneously that a man should express his feelings, and that you will, by the way, be letting him know shortly what those feelings are. All males, even stoic ones, deserve more respect than that.
I have in the last few paragraphs disclaimed the idea of imposing sensitivity and emotion upon unwilling men because I want there to be no mistake about my purpose. That's because I desire to recruit you to the position that males who have chosen to forgo a hypermasculine façade should be treated with the same honor and respect that America currently reserves exclusively for “real men”. But I have no agenda to sissify college men, and in making my argument, I wish to avoid imbuing any American men with ‘hidden emotion’ that is not really their own, but my own.
Though I can make no claim about the emotional repression of any specific male, I have shown that repression of emotion by males is commonly valued in American culture. It is to those men who do participate in this self-suppressive behavior that I now turn. I do not know who these men are. Of course, perhaps these men don’t know ‘who they are’ either. For such self-suppressed men, masculist Herb Goldberg contended in 1976 that the question, “How do you feel?” is incoherent, because they have for so long considered it their responsibility to feel absolutely nothing:
It is very much in style today to urge men to feel. However this urging is partially reminiscent of taunting a crippled man to run. It is unlikely that a mere act of will on his part can unlock the hurricane of repressed feelings within him. Today's man is the product of massive, defensive operations against feelings. These defenses are geared to protect him for survival's sake by transforming the host of powerful, socially taboo impulses, needs and feelings into acceptable male behavior. To survive and contain these repressed feelings he must detach himself increasingly from all relationships that might stimulate or provoke him into an uncontrollable response. Because feelings are not permitted free expression the male lives in constant reaction against himself. What he is on the outside is a façade, a defense against what he really is on the inside. He controls himself by denying himself. [Emphasis in original] (qtd. in Robinson, 134-5).
One more recent (and more scientific) analysis than Goldberg’s demonstrates that the gender-variegated rules governing crying are changing somewhat. Faith Fritz at Missouri Western State College conducted a controlled, scientific experiment in 1997 to determine how three homogenous groups of male and female subjects (totaling 95 individuals) reacted to one of three different videos of a college-aged male. In the first group’s video, the male (an actor), cried while discussing a tragic hunting accident that happened to one of his close friends. In the video shown to the second group, the same actor cried while discussing his struggle with alcoholism. Finally, in the third group, the control video, the male confederate did not cry at all. In each video, the script was exactly the same -- the only variable was at what point the actor cried, if at all. After watching their respective videos, each participant filled out a survey regarding their attitudes about what they had just watched. Fritz concluded that overall, the societal view of male weeping may be seen in a more positive light than older literature on the subject predicts, but only under some circumstances. The subjects seemed to be more forgiving of crying over the loss of a friend than over personal problems, corroborating the outcomes of my focus group discussions.
There are some unique circumstances under which American men are actually expected to cry, but few of these apply to the college man’s culture. One notable exception is that very-occasional, emotional male crying is increasingly mandated in the rituals of heterosexual courtship (Lutz, 191). My discussions with college women supported the men’s well-known locker-room secret that displaying joyous tears to a female about how important or beautiful she is will advance his cause of winning her heart. The authenticity of these tears, according to the male focus group, is unimportant. The only requirement is that the display appears authentic to the courted woman.
This circumstantial allowance for the exhibition of disingenuous emotion among men is not inconsistent with the ordinary expectation that college men not show emotion. On the contrary, it conforms to precisely the same maxim, commanding a college man to disregard whatever it is he may actually be feeling, and play his assigned part -- read his assigned lines -- in an elaborate social drama. The theatrical terms in the preceding sentence are meant metaphorically, of course, but the conclusion that follows is meant literally: The American culture I have examined realizes the value of a man by his abilities as an actor. And that's a shame.
Chew, Robin. “Adam Smith: Economist and Philosopher.” Lucidcafé Interactive Café and Information Resource. Jun 1996. 14 Apr 2004
Fritz, Faith. “The Perceived Societal Attitude Towards Men Who Cry.” Student and Faculty Research. St. Joseph, MO: Missouri Western State College. 1 May 1997. 25 Apr 2004.
Harper, Sue and Vincent Porter. "Moved to Tears: Weeping in the Cinema in Postwar Britain". Screen 37.2 (1996).
Lutz, Tom. Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1999.
Real, Terrence. I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression. New York: Fireside, 1997.
Robinson, Sally. Marked Men: White Masculinity in Crisis. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.