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Crying men are here again

Let’s start the new year with something positive. Crying. (I am not being sarcastic.)

A young man weeps in grief by the death bed of a young woman. Engraving by Joseph Brown after James Baker (1846). Held by the Wellcome Library, no. 17312i.

Over the past years, TV shows seem to have shown an increasing number of crying men. The Great British Bake Off; interviews with ex-servicemen; sitcoms like Big Bang Theory; the hugely popular Farmer Wants a Wife programmes across the world: they regularly feature men who let it all out.

This development is not to everyone’s liking, as this interview with Mary Berry suggests, but it remains a fact: crying on TV is pretty acceptable nowadays – yes, desirable in some shows – even for men.

Over the past century or so, however, such public show of emotion has hardly been possible for people of the male gender. North-western Europeans, at least, were living under a strict emotional macho regime under which men were not supposed to show their weaknesses: stiff upper lip and all that.

This has not always been the case. In earlier centuries, crying was much more acceptable for men.

Plate 2 from Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Chapter VII: ‘Low Spirits, Anxiety, Grief, Dejection, Despair’ (London, 1872). Photos by Duchenne and Rejlander. Held by the Wellcome Library.

Take for instance the 1782 novel Sara Burgerhart, famous for being the first literary novel in the Dutch language. It was written by Elizabeth Wolff and Agatha Deken in response to Samuel Richardson’s novels in letter form (Pamela, Clarissa). Sara Burgerhart was popular straight away and went through three editions within five years. Even though Wolff and Deken professed to resist the sentimental fashion of their days, their novel carries the traces of it.

Rhijnvis Feith’s novel Julia (1783) was ‘even’ more sentimental than Sara Burgerhart.

One of the most sympathetic characters in the novel, Sara Burgerhart’s guardian, the middle-aged bachelor Abraham Blankaart, shows himself to be a sensitive man from the very beginning. Returning a letter to Sara Burgerhart’s landlady, a widow who has told him the tragic story of her life, he writes:

Would you believe, Madam, that your letter cost me perhaps as many as four tears? Yet it’s the truth. [Again, no sarcasm involved here!]

Sara Burgerhart’s noble love interest, writing to his own brother, also calls himself ‘a sensitive man’. And the third valiant man in the novel (which really is all about a Lovelace-type deceiver) is described by his sister as someone who would ‘dissolve in happy tears’ just from hearing about his sister’s engagement.

The same public approval of male sobs can be gathered from the even greater popularity of Nicolaas Beets’s Camera Obscura, which has gone through countless editions since first appearing in the Netherlands in 1839. For the seventh edition, of 1871, Beets wrote a new preface. It was directed at one of his best friends, the friend to which the book had been dedicated from the start. Just before the new edition came out, this friend had passed away. In his preface, Beets sketches the scene of the funeral. His own ‘lonely heart’ filled with sentiment, Beets recounts how even his friend’s trusty carriage driver had

thick tears rolling into [his] sideburns.

Vincent van Gogh, ‘At Eternity’s Gate’, lithography (1882). Image from the Vincent van Gogh Gallery.

So we are talking actual tears, streaming down bearded cheeks. In these popular texts, crying was a sign of civilisation; sentiment the mark of a good man. A decent man showed that he was capable of feeling for his fellow creatures.

In the later nineteenth and particularly the twentieth century, ideals of masculinity shifted. In that age of nationalism and militarism, each man instead had to demonstrate he was up to the task of defending his nation. If you were a good soldier, you were a good man.

Although I am necessarily simplifying things here, it looks like there has been a genuine going back and forth in this region’s history of emotions: from an approval of a sentimental masculinity around 1800, to emotional rigidity around 1900, and perhaps, now, back to an appreciation of the more vulnerable emotions of men. Crying is permitted again.


N.B. Nicolaas Beets himself felt that his century saw the dawn of a new emotional regime for men. In his essay on grave memorials he deplores the ‘cold’ macho rhetoric of forerunners like Byron, quoting from his ‘Euthanasia’:

WHEN Time, or soon or late, shall bring
The dreamless sleep that lulls the dead,
Oblivion! may thy languid wing
Wave gently o’er my dying bed!

No band of friends or heirs be there,
To weep, or wish, the coming blow:
No maiden, with dishevell’d hair,
To feel, or feign, decorous woe.

But silent let me sink to earth,
With no officious mourners near:
I would not mar one hour of mirth,
Nor startle friendship with a fear.

[…]

But vain the wish—for Beauty still
Will shrink, as shrinks the ebbing breath;
And woman’s tears, produced at will,
Deceive in life, unman in death.

References:

  • Wolff and Deken, History van mejuffrouw Sara Burgerhart, with an introduction by L. Knappert (Amsterdam, 1919), pages 60, 63, 135.
  • Hildebrand/Beets, Camera Obscura (Utrecht, Antwerp, 1982), pages 297, 313.
  • Poetry of Byron, ed. Matthew Arnold (London, 1881).
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Male suicide rates, closed mines and scalding hot water

What makes the men in the north-east of England so violent, both to themselves and to others? British artist Grayson Perry suggests it is because they have a history of doing tough work. But his question may need to be turned around.

In the first episode of his sensitive TV series on masculinity, All Man, currently running on Channel 4, Grayson Perry visits several communities of men: Durham ex-miners, mixed-martial-arts fighters, and the mates of a 30-year-old man who has unexpectedly killed himself. He asks himself why violence plays such a large role in their lives; and in particular, why the north-east of England has the highest suicide rate of England. It’s all to do with machismo. These men are not comfortable talking about their feelings. Nor are they attuned to listen to their own feelings. They bottle up fear, anger, and unhappiness. This explains why the professional fighters whom Perry interviews have a much more healthy mental life than the other men: they have an emotional outlet.

A photo taken in another place of high unemployment and (apparently) machismo: the south of Spain (Granada, May 2016).

A photo I took in another place of high unemployment, and apparently machismo: the south of Spain (Granada, May 2016).

But why the north-east? Because the work the men there used to do in the mines was so tough – the physical exertion, the risk of injury and death, the regular loss of friends and colleagues. Silence was the easiest way to deal with this toughness. And this silence has survived the closing of the mines.

This provides a fairly convincing explanation, except for one thing: the women’s work was tough as well. They lived in tiny cottages or cellars, dark, cold and damp, in most cases working longer hours than their husbands, which work involved things like carrying heavy buckets of water and handling scalding wash and laundry tubs and irons – even more than elsewhere, the men in the mining regions needed a daily scrub and change of clothes. They continued work throughout pregnancy, gave birth many times in their lives in very difficult circumstances, and saw many of their children as well as other family-members and neighbours succumb to disease and accidents. In sum, there is no reason to see their working lives as less tough than that of the men in their communities. And yet, they did not develop the same machismo, the same emotional silence, that Perry sees in men.

The bigger question therefore, is probably not why the men of the north-east are so tough, but why the women managed to stay ‘soft’ and in touch with their feelings. If soft is indeed what they are – they certainly commit suicide less often (three times as little, in the UK). But maybe we need a further explanation for that, one that goes beyond being able to work through one’s unhappiness by talking about one’s feelings: an explanation that includes social roles.

It may have something to do with feeling a useful and valued member of the community; with feeling that your continued presence is necessary for the survival and well-being of the people around you. Social expectations for men and women still differ: working-class men and women in the north of England face different responsibilities. Unable to function as mothers or housewives, when men’s task as breadwinner falls through because of unemployment they may have a harder time than women finding accepted roles in their community.

The cage-fighters have found a marvellous solution to this challenge in their role as knight or gladiator.