There’s too much male blubbing in public life
Last Sunday’s London Marathon had me in tears. Not as I battled agonisingly through the wall at 20 miles. No, I was at home on the sofa, with the digestives. And yet again — it happens every year — I blubbed softly at the inspirational tales, the people running in memory of friends who’d died, the sheer personal achievement of everyone involved. This year, though, another thought entered my reckoning. It was the memory of another male who confessed to crying at the television: Ed Balls. A couple of months ago he told how he often cries at the Antiques Roadshow, when someone says that a family heirloom means more to them than any amount of money. ‘Incredibly emotional,’ he called it. Then there was Ken Livingstone, damp-cheeked at the tales told by people in his own campaign video. We live in an age when it’s perfectly acceptable (possibly, indeed, electorally advantageous) for a grown man to admit to crying. All a long way from the era when Bobby Charlton felt the need to apologise for welling up because he’d just won the World Cup. The World Cup.
On balance I’m glad there’s no longer any shame attached to the tears I shed at TV programmes, or movies, like the bit in Toy Story 2 where Jesse gets left by the roadside. (Good job too, for those tears were many.) But I can’t help worrying that there’s another side to it. As Holden Caulfield says in The Catcher in the Rye, ‘You take somebody that cries their goddam eyes out over phoney stuff in the movies, and nine times out of ten they’re mean bastards at heart.’ Is all this New Man lachrymosity, this ‘Look at me, darling, aren’t you glad you’re living with a guy who’s unafraid to show his feelings?’, simply an excuse to hide (possibly from ourselves as well as our darlings) some rather un-New Man attitudes? Content to have exhibited our feminine side, we become emotionally lazy. Or just lazy lazy. Once we’ve earned our relationship brownie points with a little light weeping, we happily ignore the pile of washing-up that’s been sitting there since dinner because it’s our turn to do it and we just can’t be arsed.
These suspicions about sobbing have grown as I notice that, oh, look, my partner’s doing the vacuuming again. And the ironing. Quite a while since I did that. But I can’t be an unreconstructed chauvinist, I tell myself — I cried at Marley and Me only last week. Shortly after lifting my feet up so my partner could vacuum underneath them. The suspicions grew when a man I know admitted to blubbing during films (‘often ones I hate’), while also acknowledging ‘I know for a fact I am very insensitive’. He’s even started crying at television adverts (‘often after drinking’). What does it say about us that we so easily shed tears for people — often fictional characters — who are safely tucked away on the other side of a screen, who we can disengage from at the flick of a remote? What does it signify about our real relationships?
Is it a subtle refinement of the old ‘show her you care by buying her loads of stuff’ trick? A grand’s worth of Christmas presents, huge bouquet of lilies on Valentine’s Day, five-star city break for her birthday and that’s it, you’re sorted for the rest of the year. No need to bother with any of the little things, like rinsing the sink after you’ve shaved, or taking the kids to the park so she can have a bit of peace for an hour. Or — God forfend — actually listening and trying to help when she’s got a problem, rather than absentmindedly muttering ‘mmm, that’s terrible’ while secretly wishing she’d shut up so you can carry on watching (and quite possibly crying at) the Test match. Really showing you care is about the small stuff, the awkward stuff, the day-to-day run-of-the-mill stuff that gets on your nerves but which she does all the time because you never do. She’d much rather you put the rubbish out regularly than take her to Paris. (Inevitably, when I check this with my partner she says she’d much rather I put the rubbish out regularly and take her to Paris.)
It’s not that crying at television or films is bad in itself. It’s only when it becomes an excuse for not trying in other areas that there’s a problem. Some of the men who do it, I suspect, are the sort of men who propose to their girlfriends in public. The ostentatious gesture is seen as romantic, but real romance is about making the other person happy, not about showing off how romantic you are. Similarly, crying at movies shouldn’t be about showing off how caring you are. You need to back it up with some practical action. Otherwise it’ll all end in tears.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 28, 2012