Last night, the world watched President Barack Obama give a loving, respectful, glowing tribute to his wife, Michelle. As he spoke, we watched him do the many things we have watched other men do to avoid crying in public (and maybe even privately). He rubbed the end of his nose, his lips twitched and quivered for a brief moment, he blinked more than usual, he looked down, he looked up. And then at the moment of barely being able to contain his tears, he took out his handkerchief and dabbed his eyes. The only thing missing was the ‘cough.’
This morning I posted on Facebook, “For the record: 1. Barak and Michelle are role models for loving, admiring, respectful partners 2. Watching Barak tear up and then trying (and succeeding) in stopping those tears made me sob. What a glorious tribute to his wife and family. 3. I still long for the day when males learn that they can cry and have those tears be a sign of heart, pain, passion, joy, sentiment…all the reasons society ‘approves’ of tears produced by women. When emotions are allowed to come forth, they are kept pure.”
As a side point, I appreciate that for those of us who are not President Obama fans, my comments will be abrasive. My suggestion is to separate the presidential job from the husband job.
When boys are taught that it is not okay to cry but it is okay to fight, the aggression behaviors increase as they grow up into men. As someone involved in women’s issues for over 30 years, I agree with those who believe that if men could express their sadness rather than convert it to anger, there would be fewer incidents of violence. I have sat in rooms filled with men who have rued the day they were violent to girls/women and who talked about not knowing what else to do with their feelings. Men, who as boys, watched their fathers’ anger escalate and who were among the victims of their fathers’ violent acts, and vowed to never be like them. And then they were told over and over again not to cry, not to be a baby, etc. And when as boys they kicked and screamed, they were told to calm down; they were not told to stop.
Andrew Reiner wrote about the effect of culture and stereotypes in his article, “Teaching Men to be Emotionally Honest” (New York Times, April 4, 2016). Mr. Reiner who teaches an honors course, “Real Men Smile: The Changing Face of Masculinity,” writes, “What boys seem to need is the very thing they fear. Yet when they are immunized against this deeper emotional honesty, the results have far-reaching, often devastating consequences.” He goes on to cite numerous references describing what happens to men in their academic, personal, and professional lives as well as what happens to the people around them.
As women, we have to do a better job of appreciating that men are just as capable of being depressed, scared, hurt, and sad as we are. This is not a sign of weakness. This is a sign of humanity. Brene Brown, in her book, Daring Greatly, writes, “Here’s the painful pattern that emerged from my research with men: We ask them to be vulnerable, we beg them to let us in, and we plead with them to tell us when they’re afraid, but the truth is that most women can’t stomach it. In those moments when real vulnerability happens in men, most of us recoil with fear and that fear manifests as everything from disappointment to disgust.” In an interview (Redbook Magazine, September 12, 2012), Dr. Brown said, “Women can either embrace and help men walk across the tightrope, or we can be the ones who push them off.”
It is not brain surgery to know that our emotions cannot be stifled, cannot be locked up in drawers forever. They have to be expressed somehow. We have pushed to change the physical aspects of the Barbie and GI Joe stereotypes to make these characters appear more real. It has been just as needed — and perhaps for much longer — to alter the inner beings of these stereotypes. That would be a game changer for all of us