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When the President Cries Are They Freedom Tears?

Last week President Obama cried before and after he won re-election on Tuesday. That’s not remarkable, but the fact that the news media generally didn’t make a big deal out of it is. In this article Nathan Palmer explorers how traditional/stereotypical masculinity can be nearly unachievable and asks us to think about what impact the President’s tears may have on this narrowly defined version of masculinity.

Sociologist Michael Kimmel thinks that masculinity is homophobic to it’s core. At least that’s what he argues in the article The Rules of Masculinity. To be clear, he is not arguing that all men are homophobic, but that masculinity is defined by it’s opposition to femininity. To be the stereotype of a manly masculine man you have to destroy every spec of femininity within you. There’s no room for any “sissy stuff” among “real men”. Kimmel’s argument is not that men are all homophobic, but that masculinity is defined by it’s fear and hatred of male expressions of femininity.

“But wait,” you may be asking, “isn’t femininity defined by it’s opposition to masculinity?” Yes, it is, but not to the same degree. For instance, a little girl who “likes boy stuff” or displays masculine traits is often called a tomboy. Often when a little girl is called a tomboy it is not intended to be taken as offensive nor is it received as offensive[1]. However, can you think of a scenario where a parent wouldn’t take offense to calling their little boy a sissy? To be masculine is to be free of femininity, but you can still be feminine and display masculine characteristics.

The Mask of Masculinity

If to be a “real man”, you have to be without a feminine side, then damn near no one can be a “real man". All of us have a masculine and feminine side[2]. For instance, if being masculine means being fearless, then no one can be totally purely masculine because everyone experience fear. If being masculine means never crying or showing any emotion other than anger, then no one can live up to that. So if being a real manly man is nearly impossible, what’s a fella to do?[3] That’s easy, fake it.

Kimmel, and many other gender scholars, argue that masculinity can be thought of as a mask or a front. It’s something that “real men” put on when they are in the company of others. But when they are alone or sometimes in the presence of those they trust, they let their guard down and show a fuller version of themselves. Many women report that their male friends are nice, caring, and sensitive when they hang together, but if there are other men present those same men put on a tough, insensitive exterior.

The Fear of Being Unmasked

Kimmel has a standing bet with his friends that he can start a fight on any school playground in the United States with just one question. All he’d need to do is walk up to a group of boys playing and ask, “So, which one of you is the sissy? C’mon point him out. Who is it?” Their eyes will fill with anxiety darting from one classmate’s face to another. One boy’s hand will pop out from his chest to single out the unlucky target. “He’s the sissy!” The boy in question will throw his head back and furrow his brow in disbelief. “Yeah! He’s the sissy!” A cacophony of voices and a flurry of pointing fingers will drowned out the “sissy’s” protests. With the stage set the little boy will have two choices: start swinging or run away crying.

Men, Kimmel argues, live in a constant state of fear of being found out. They aren’t as tough as the say they are. They aren’t as strong as they want you to think they are. In a real moment of crisis they might fold up, but they present themselves as superhuman, fearless, and ready for anything. Men are faking the funk, so to speak, and deep down they feel ashamed. One of their greatest fears then is being unmasked and having their masculinity stripped away from them (sociologists call this being emasculated).

When The President Cries Are They Freedom Tears?

But, maybe things are changing. Last week President Obama cried twice, the day before and the day after he won re-election and then… almost nothing happened. While his tears made headlines, they were largely either supportive of or indifferent to his display of emotion. I’m not saying there wasn’t a joke or two made poking fun at his masculinity, but the president cried and the world didn’t explode.

The main argument Kimmel makes in The Rules of Masculinity is that we need to allow for a broader definition of masculinity. We need to allow for males to display their feminine sides and in doing so reveal to the world their full selves. I am a man and I cry, get scared, need help, am terrible with directions, can’t fix anything mechanical to save my life. When the President cries he frees up some room in the world for more realistic presentations of masculinity. And he somehow cries a single tear out of one eye… how does he do that?

Dig Deeper:

  1. Think about how masculinity has changed compared to your parents and grandparent’s generations. What changes do you see?
  2. Have you seen in your life examples of men putting up a tough front when in public? If masculinity is a part of your gender presentation, how do your behaviors change when in public?
  3. To emasculate is to take away a persons masculinity. How do men and women emasculate others? Think of examples that are more common among men and then think of a few that are more common among women.
  4. Do you think the news media would have made a bigger deal of Obama’s tears after the election if he had lost? Can winners cry and losers not?

  1. To be clear, this is not to say that women are not harassed, abused, or otherwise sanctioned for displaying masculinity. Young girls absolutely are, but I am arguing here that there exists some space for masculine little girls where there is much less space for feminine little boys.  ↩

  2. To be more clear. As a society we collectively assign some characteristics with masculinity (e.g. aggressiveness, independence, etc) and other characteristics with femininity (e.g. empathy, submissiveness, etc.). This is what sociologists call the social construction of gender. Studies have shown that the assigning of certain characteristics with men/masculinity or women/femininity can vary widely from one society to another, so there is nothing inherent about the characteristics we associate with femininity/masculinity.  ↩

  3. We should note that masculinity is a gender and not a sex. That is, while in the United States we commonly expect males to perform masculinity, a person of any sex could perform it.  ↩