Big boys do cry: why Obama was right to shed tears over dead children

Politicians crying in public always make the headlines – and the tears shed recently by US president Barack Obama have triggered a new round of debate about whether it is acceptable for public figures – particularly male public figures – to express their emotions so openly.

Most of us will remember the picture of the tearful Mrs Thatcher as she was driven away from Downing Street after being toppled by her colleagues. Over the last generation it has become more acceptable for rulers – monarchs, presidents, prime ministers – to show their emotions in public. After the Madrid train bombings we saw the king of Spain in tears at the commemoration service.

But in most cases, these tears have been shed in the immediate aftermath of a national or personal disaster – and what is unusual about Obama’s tears is that they were triggered by the recollection of tragedies in the recent and not so recent past, and his frustration at being unable to tackle the problem in the face of a hostile congress and powerful gun lobby.

The “stiff upper lip” is clearly now a thing of the past. Sports stars and film and TV actors repeatedly shed public tears at moments of triumph or disaster, and the public more often responds now with sympathy than disapproval. In politics the public mood is more ambivalent. Most of the MPs defeated at the last election tried to maintain a dry-eyed dignity – and when Jeremy Corbyn’s victory was announced after the Labour Party’s leadership battle, his rivals all felt obliged to smile and attempt to look pleased for him.

We know now that this approach is not a timeless feature of British culture. Thomas Dixon’s fascinating new book, Weeping Britannia, argues that the “stiff upper lip” was no more than an aberration of the early and mid-20th century, a view taken up by Ben Macintyre in The Times. But it might be better to see a pattern of cultural cycles across the generations, with the cultural pendulum swinging to and fro between the rival virtues of self-control and emotional honesty.

Jesus wept (and so did Oliver Cromwell)

The Bible is full of crying men, and tears are plentiful among the Greek heroes such as Achilles in the Iliad. In medieval Europe the elite felt little obligation to conceal their emotions and that continued as late as the reign of Henry VIII, when we find his chief minister, Cardinal Wolsey, repeatedly weeping in public without embarrassment after his fall from power.

The Renaissance ushered in a different set of attitudes. In the 16th and 17th centuries, under the influence of Stoic and other classical authors, it became essential for elite men to command their emotions, especially in public. Civility and decorum demanded self-control, even in the most distressing circumstances – if a man could not govern himself, how could he be capable of governing others? This new culture applied primarily to aristocrats and gentlemen; those without education or “breeding” were not expected to possess such self-control.

Religious tears became increasingly associated with Puritans and later the Nonconformists – Oliver Cromwell was notorious for his readiness to cry in public. As a result, the idea of a man crying became far less acceptable to royalists and Anglicans, who came to associate spiritual tears with fanaticism and hypocrisy.

Sense and sensibility

The mid-18th century witnessed another reversal. The Methodists revived much of the emotional fervour of the Puritans, while a new culture of “sensibility” made tears acceptable among sections of the elite as a sign of refinement. The novelist Laurence Sterne reflected this culture in works such as A Sentimental Journey and it reached its apogee in Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771). This featured a gentle, sensitive hero who melts into tears at every sad story he hears. The novel enjoyed huge success, even among such unlikely readers as the economist Adam Smith.

We think today of the Victorian period as the high point of emotional repression and the brutal discipline of the public schools was explicitly designed to instil such behavioural values. But even in the Victorian period there was a countervailing strand present in the sentimentality of Dickens’s novels – and the emotional flavour of his public readings exemplified this (remember the outpouring of public grief at the death of Little Nell).

Paul Gascoigne shed tears when he talked of his alcohol-related depresion. Owen Humphreys/PA

A generation ago the tears of England’s first crying footballer Gazza (Paul Gascoigne) created a media sensation, but today footballers’ tears pass almost unnoticed and it’s a similar story in other sports; pictures of Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer shedding tears at a Wimbledon final no longer attract surprise or disapproval.

Looking for onions

But as far as US politics is concerned, the precedents should be a concern for Obama. In 1972 the leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, Ed Muskie, found his political career destroyed overnight after he shed tears at a press conference responding to personal attacks on his wife. His annihilation was one of Nixon’s “dirty tricks”, and a pundit remarked: “There is no crying in presidential politics.”

The conservative reaction was as you might expect: Fox News’ Andrea Tantaros said she would “check the podium for onions” because she felt Obama’s reaction was “not really believable”, while co-host Meghan McCane dismissed it as “bad political theatre”. So it seems highly unlikely that the president’s tears will change public opinion in the US. More likely, opponents will brand them a sign of weakness or hypocrisy, which is how opponents have dismissed the tears of public figures down the centuries.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 106,200 academics and researchers from 3,412 institutions.

Register now