It’s All Right to Cry, Dude


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John Boehner, the outgoing speaker of the House, shed a tear as he announced his resignation.

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Bill Clark/Roll Call, via Getty Images

I saw it only that one time, on an October night almost 30 years ago, so I don’t remember all that much about “Peggy Sue Got Married,” except for Kathleen Turner bumping her head at her 25th reunion and finding herself magically transported to her high school days. But I do remember what happened once I left the movie theater and stood in the cool air.

I cried like a fool.

In the movie, Peggy Sue sees her mother and father, her childhood home and her school-days friends through the eyes of experience. She is able to appreciate things that were beneath her notice the first time around and to detect the flaws in the guy she loves (played by a demented Nicolas Cage). What tore me up was when she was reunited with her grandparents.

I didn’t let it hit me until I was in the parking lot. I had the flowing snot and the hiccupped breathing. I was 22. That was one of the few times I have cried as an adult.

I said, above, that I cried like a fool. That phrase came to me unbidden. It was probably my brain’s attempt to provide me with an offhand acknowledgment of the cultural bias against male tears.

Are men who cry foolish? Weak? Enlightened? The correct answer, I am almost certain, is none of the above. Crying is part of being human, and men are probably just as human as anybody else.

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The musician Kanye West cried while discussing his late friend and fashion mentor Louise Wilson during a BBC interview.

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via NowWatchingTV/YouTube

But the ability to quash or conceal sadness or pain is a virtue long prized by stoics, yogis, monks, kung fu masters and American he-men heroes. It is a foundation of cool. Even in this seemingly nonjudgmental age, men who depart from the script will hear about it. Some will receive a cheer for defying stereotype. Some will be mocked. But male tears in the public sphere still make news.

Decades ago, male crying was a private matter, and the songs that addressed it had a special charge. Among these hits, with vocals that swooped, wailed or moaned, were Jackie Wilson’s “Lonely Teardrops” and Roy Orbison’s “Crying.”

More recently, Will Ferrell has transformed our discomfort with the grown man in tears into comedy, either in character as that champion crier Ron Burgundy or as a version of himself on the talk show circuit, where he once broke down over the breakup of Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson.

But there is a difference between sadness performed and on-the-spot emotion caught on camera, as Senator Edmund Muskie learned during the 1972 presidential campaign, when he choked up on the stump in New Hampshire.

At the time, Muskie was the Democratic front-runner. What appeared to be tears on his cheeks, he said after the fact, were really just melting snowflakes. Nobody bought it. “It changed people’s minds about me,” he said, years later. “They were looking for a strong, steady man, and here I was weak.”

The tide may have begun to turn with the November 1972 release of the song “It’s Alright to Cry.” It appeared on “Free to Be … You and Me,” an album of children’s music celebrating gender neutrality, and it was sung by the All-Pro football player Rosey Grier.

My little sister blasted that record from her frilly bedroom, and Mr. Grier’s song was so catchy and persuasive that it made me think twice. “It’s alright to cry,” he sang. “Crying gets the sad out of you.”

These days, male politicians are practically required to shed a few tears as a way of demonstrating their humanity. The not-so-flappable Barack Obama cried in public the day before he was elected to the White House in 2008. Others who have gotten misty in view of a camera include Newt Gingrich, Mitch McConnell and, most famously, the soon-to-be-former speaker of the House, John Boehner.

Like airline travel and Donald Trump’s hair, Mr. Boehner’s habit of departing from the masculine norm has been a gift to comedians. On “The Daily Show” this year, Jon Stewart played a clip of the speaker tearing up at a news conference while taunting him in the voice of a toddler — “Ooh, ooh, Johnny, you gonna cry?” — as his audience whooped and clapped.

But as Mr. Stewart must have noticed during the years he spent scouring the news for material, people have a funny habit of engaging in the same behaviors they scorn. So there he was, on his final night of hosting “The Daily Show,” getting teary himself as Stephen Colbert festooned him with praise.

Mr. Boehner has not allowed his critics to come between him and a good cry. On Sept. 24, while Pope Francis addressed a crowd in Washington, he stood close by, his jaw tight, his chin as dimpled as a golf ball, and then his eyes went dewy. Out came the handkerchief.

Other recent displays suggest men are slipping out of the emotional straitjacket. Justin Timberlake watered up on stage after a young fan gave him a bow tie, and Kanye West cried while discussing his late friend and fashion mentor Louise Wilson during a BBC interview.

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The baseball player Wilmer Flores wept after he mistakenly thought he was being traded from the Mets.

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Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Another male public figure whose weepiness made news was Wilmer Flores of the New York Mets. Under the mistaken impression that he was about to be traded to the Milwaukee Brewers, he endured the scrutiny of close-up shots that showed him unable to hold back the tears as he stood at the shortstop position on a hot July night.

After the game, the team’s manager, Terry Collins, faced reporters who asked him why he had left an emotional player on the field so long. “We’ve got to play,” Mr. Collins said. “You’ve got to go out and play.”

His attitude seemed in keeping with that of Jimmy Dugan, a crusty baseball lifer played by Tom Hanks in the 1992 movie “A League of Their Own.” Charged with managing a team in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League of 1943, Dugan scolds one of his players so harshly that she weeps on the field. Dugan’s next outburst includes the famous line “There’s no crying in baseball!

Mets fans, known for rude chants, took a surprisingly different view, cocooning Mr. Flores in ovation after ovation in the games that followed the on-field teariness.

It turns out that male crying is socially acceptable in the context of sports, according to a 2015 Penn State study. For fans, “sports is one context in which open emotional expression is considered normal and appropriate for men,” and the same holds true for the athletes themselves, wrote its lead author, Heather J. MacArthur.

The wonderful Mets campaign of 2015 has been shot through with tears. Between games of the National League division series, a fan known as Will in Queens called in to Mike Francesa’s show on the sports station WFAN. His voice broke, and he had difficulty speaking his piece before hanging up.

“Will, are you crying?” Mr. Francesa asked, seemingly in disbelief. He added: “Glad I’m not spending the day with Will. That’d be a tough day.”

A recording of the call went viral, and like Mr. Flores before him, Will in Queens — a 42-year-old middle-school teacher named Will Collins — became a folk hero. To make up for his on-air response, Mr. Francesa invited Mr. Collins to the next game at Citi Field, and there they sat, old school and new school, side by side in the front row.



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