Each spring, when I teach screenwriting to high school kids at the Governor’s School, I wonder about crying. That’s because I sob when we watch the last scene of The Cider House Rules. When Homer Wells tells the orphans goodnight and says that one line, man, I lose it. And my students don’t know what to make of the tears. They squirm when their full-grown, male teacher cries. And it makes me wonder if, fifteen years into the twenty-first century, the stereotype still exists: Real men don’t cry.
I would like to think that we (men, I mean) are evolving, that crying has, over the decades, become more normal for us. But when you start talking evolution, things get dicey. Darwin was convinced that other animals wept. So was Prince. He thought doves cried. But modern scientists, like Professor Ad Vingerhoets of Tilburg University in the Netherlands, assure us this ain’t so.
In his book Why Only Humans Weep: Unravelling the Mysteries of Tears, Vingerhoets says, “In the sense of producing emotional tears, we are the only species.” And though humans have a monopoly on emotional sobbing, man is the gender that cries the least. Some scientists say it’s because of the abundance of testosterone. Several published theories maintain men have larger tear ducts than women, so we don’t overflow as quickly. Biology notwithstanding, one fact remains constant and unchanging: We don’t cry because, culturally, we aren’t supposed to.
Other things that make me cry: “Misunderstood,” the Apple ad from 2013 in which the sullen, withdrawn teenager makes a heart-warming iPhone Christmas movie for his family. (Update: just watched it again. Currently teared up.) The last scene of the Italian film Cinema Paradiso. Pictures of my daughters when they were happy little kids. (Now, they are happy adults. That, for some reason, does not make me cry.)
I am not a journalist. And I’m not a researcher. But I am weirdly curious about men and crying. So I asked some people about it. This is not scientific, so I won’t cry if you complain about my methodology.
Mac’s Speed Shop. A sunny weekend afternoon. I know the bikers will be out, heading to Mac’s after their rides in the mountains. I want to talk about crying with a guy who rides a Harley. And I mean, I want to talk to a real biker, not some weekend warrior who straddles his mid-life crisis a couple of times a month when he plays dress-up. I spot a pair of guys sitting in some shade at a picnic table. Biker #1, sporting a skeleton dew-rag and a tattoo on his bare shoulder that says “Born to Die” sounds like a Spokesman for the Stereotype. “Men shouldn’t cry. The only time a
man should cry is when his momma dies,” he says. I can’t see his eyes behind his glasses, so I’m unable to tell if he is kidding. He doesn’t look like the kind of man who would pull someone’s leg. Biker #2 smiles at me. I don’t see any visible ink. I’d watched him pull up on a large, black Harley. He’d gunned it a couple of times to announce his arrival as he parked. “Lemme tell you about crying. Chicks dig a guy who cries. Trust me.” He isn’t wearing glasses. He is dead serious.
I’ve never heard of crying as the modern version of an opening line at a bar. Like, “Hi, do you come here often? I do. This is where I do my best crying.”
I ask a dozen female friends if they are more attracted to criers or stoic guys who hold back their tears. Several of them laugh at me when I ask, which kind of hurts my feelings but I don’t cry about it. One says, “Yes, bring on the tears.” Another says, “Showing humility occasionally is a good thing.” They are unanimous in that they all prefer men who cry for the right reasons. “It all depends on what the guy cries about,” one says. “If a guy cries just because the going gets tough,” another says, “I’m not attracted to that.” The Stoic didn’t get any votes. “I view that as gutless.” Conclusion: We men have to know how to cry when.
I call Ron Reece. Ron’s been a practicing clinical psychologist in Greenville for forty years. I figure he will know a fair bit about men and crying. And according to him, the Stoic Man Stereotype continues to hold steady. “Crying has always been thought of as healthy. There’s a value in the release, but it’s harder to get men to cry. Still is.” Reece says that the safety of the circumstances is important for men to release their emotions through tears. “If a man feels threatened, he’s not going to cry.” Reece’s guess is that for every seven women patients who shed tears, there’s one guy who cries. “But now that I think about it, the ratio might even be higher than that.”
The bartender inside Mac’s (I’ll call her T.) probably is all of 85 pounds soaking wet. I ask her if she’s ever had any men crying at her bar. (Another stereotype, I suppose—the depressed guy who bellies up to a bar, looking for a sympathetic ear.) T. doesn’t hesitate with her answer. She launches into a loud anti-crying diatribe. “Are you kidding me? My father was a Marine. I was raised not to cry. You suck it up. I don’t allow crying. There’s no crying here. The other night, one of the waitresses was crying and I was like, ‘Really?’ Nope. No crying.” I want to ask T. what she thinks about “chicks” digging criers, but I think I already know her answer.
Ron Reece talks about the social value of crying, too. “Tears create empathy in others,” he tells me. Does it follow that if men don’t cry, they don’t want empathy? They don’t want someone to understand and share their emotions. And, conversely, if and when men do cry, they desperately want someone to share that release with them?
So what have I learned? Men still don’t cry enough for their health, maybe. It may not be our fault. We can always blame it on too much testosterone and large tear ducts. We can always blame it on society. Females like guys who cry for all the right reasons, and women seem to have a better grip than we do on just what these reasons are. And when I cry at the end of The Cider House Rules, I just want someone to cry with me. That may be wishful thinking in a class full of teenagers.
“Goodnight, you Princes of Maine, you Kings of New England.” The last line of The Cider House Rules.
“Crying does not indicate that you are weak. Since birth, it has always been a sign that you are alive.”
—Charlotte Brontë (a woman)