Even those who barely followed the Chandrayaan-2 lunar exploration mission knew how ISRO’s Dr. K. Sivan broke down and wept when they lost contact with the Vikram Lander last week. This week also saw two male sportspersons weep openly on camera. Yao Ming cried, taking responsibility for China’s defeat at the Basketball World Cup. Rafael Nadal sobbed elatedly after triumphing at the US Open Tennis Championships. Public attention during such personal moments is not always tasteful, yet these events spur discussion on a strangely divisive topic: crying openly. Many still find displays of emotion weak and unprofessional. Especially in men.
Of course, some will say that as a feminist I am predisposed to enjoying men’s tears (delicious, especially with a citric twist of bitterness – haha). Funnily, this is almost true. It’s not enjoyment, per se, but an appreciation for when someone has been willing to break through their own conditioning and be vulnerable and honest in a given moment. When we understand patriarchy to be a structural problem that oppresses people of all genders, we see what toxic masculinity does. The simplest manifestation of it is that boys and men are rarely permitted the catharsis of tears.
While women are undermined as being hypersensitive by nature, crying in professional situations is viewed on similar terms. When I was growing up, I watched and internalised a clip of Oprah Winfrey (or if my memory fails me, another influential woman) saying that she would never, ever cry in front of anyone in a workplace. I started working in my mid-teens, and learned quickly how to display anger professionally but to always cloak pain until I was in a more private space. I believe this to be true for many women who work outside the home. We steel ourselves.
One of the experiences that made me begin to unlearn this conditioning was being at a presentation several years ago in which a young woman broke down midway, due to criticism. I was powerless in that situation, but neither did I feel outraged on her behalf, because she was doing something that I could not relate to. I was aware that of the two senior men there, one enjoyed demoralising her, while the other saw it as a rite of passage that would instigate better performances. In the time I continued to work there, I saw many women crying in the same seat. I knew it was why they kept leaving, while I stayed, eroding a little more each year with all the humiliation I swallowed and expressed only as anger. I often found a way to tell them that they deserved better; but it was almost too long before I gave myself the same permission.
Tears have a natural place in every aspect of life – love, work, and even leisure (a great book, a thrilling game). They not only provide release, but also help us see the truth of our own emotions. An uncontrolled spate of crying tells us what we need to know, what matters to us, and what we should do next. Without that heartfelt expression, we sometimes cannot gain the momentum for the following step.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 12th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.