Obama's tears show a double standard at work for the opposite sex

By Nick Curtis

President Obama wept as he spoke about the children. Picture / AP
President Obama wept as he spoke about the children. Picture / AP

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.

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 us, 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.

Telegraph Group Ltd

- Daily Telegraph UK

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