When I was a little girl, I got the message that men did not like it when women cried.
Particularly if it was during an argument or disagreement. That was as good as blackmail.
I was indirectly told that it did not matter if my tears were genuine or not, they would always be perceived by men as intentional and manipulative—a way to get what I wanted out of them.
I must have been around five or six when I first heard this—kindergarten aged, anyway.
Throughout my life, I heard a similar message repeated. I learned that any excess of emotion I showed in front of men would earn me a dismissive scoff and the question, “Are you on your period?” I learned that, throughout history, women have been accused of being hysterical and insane because they tend to express more emotion than men do. And, only yesterday, I heard the comment that finally made me break down and write this article:
“You can’t cry as a woman. If you cry, then you give away all of your power.”
Let’s just make it clear now: the amount of emotion you express has absolutely no connection to your level of power. You can be a total badass while simultaneously crying at dog food commercials.
So far in my writing I have been focusing on the female experience, simply because I was born and raised female. I know what it’s like to be a woman, while I’ve never lived as a man. But, I do believe that this is not an issue that stems from the way we traditionally view women and their emotions. Rather, it is an issue that stems from men, and the way that we, as a society, traditionally view them and their emotions.
Many men are taught, essentially from birth, that not only are emotions a bad thing, they are decidedly un-masculine (read: feminine). We allow young boys to express emotions like anger and aggression, and even happiness to a somewhat subdued extent (if they’re too openly happy, they risk being accused of being feminine or, worse, gay).
We’ve all heard the expression “boys don’t cry,” and that expression comes from somewhere, culturally. We teach boys that they shouldn’t cry, that if they’re sad or troubled or struggling they should bottle that up and shoulder the burden themselves. They should not reach out. They should not talk to someone. They should not cry. They should buck up and be a man, grow some balls, rub some dirt in it, and move on.
I’m not trying to say that no man is in touch with their emotions. I have known many men who are even more in touch with their emotions than I am. What I am talking about here is the cultural stereotype that “boys don’t cry,” and how this idea has affected some men.
This idea that men can never be vulnerable or excessively emotional leads to many, many problems for the men who take this message seriously.
Pent-up unhappiness needs to come out in some way, and if men aren’t going to talk about it or deal with it directly, this can sometimes surface in the form of aggression toward other people, or self-harming behaviour. But “boys will be boys,” right?
For others, this unhappiness leads to clinical depression, which in and of itself is a major problem that we, as a society, need to address, especially when you take into account the fact that men in America die by suicide 3.5 times more often than women.
But, in many cases, men who take this message of “boys don’t cry” too seriously end up, to put it simply, emotionally immature. They become men who don’t know how to deal with emotions when they’re confronted with them. Men who assume that every time a woman cries, she is weak and manipulative and evil. Men who just emotionally check out of a situation when it becomes too much or too big for them to handle.
My point is, when we teach young boys that “boys don’t cry,” they can’t deal with their emotions and work through them. All we do is hurt them in the long run. We take away their opportunity to learn about their emotions and how to deal with them in a healthy and mature way.
But, this is something that’s getting better, right? As feminism becomes more mainstream and we begin to question gender roles more openly, we, as a society, are becoming more accepting of male emotions, right?
Well, actually, if the personal experience that I shared at the beginning of the article means anything, I’m tempted to say: no. In fact, in some ways, this issue actually seems to be getting worse.
Even as we talk more about feminist issues, society at large still has this tendency to think of things as a binary of good and evil, right and wrong, and gender still tends to fall into that binary worldview. We’re opening up more and more every day—discussing transgender issues more openly and acknowledging the existence of gender queer or non-binary people (to some extent at least). But, at the same time, I believe we still tend to split gender into this idea of man/masculine, as opposed to woman/feminine. And, more than that, as with most binary systems, depending on our perspective, we tend to value one end of the spectrum, while disparaging the other.
We like light better than dark, no pineapple on pizza better than pineapple on pizza, and men better than women. And, along with that hierarchy, we also categorize all the behaviours traditionally associated with the two genders.
There is a reason society tells men they should be emotionless: because, in society’s eyes, emotions are weakness.
Women are emotional, and that’s what makes them weak (even hysterical, insane). Men are better suited to the world of leadership, protection, and big business because they don’t let emotions get in the way; they are strong. And, as women emerge more and more into these fields, they tend not to be accepted for the emotional, vulnerable women that they might have been taught to be from childhood.
Rather, they are expected to become more like men are expected to be: hard and emotionless. And, even then, they will constantly live with society’s doubt about whether they can achieve that level of “strength.” For proof, look at the fact that, recently, we, via the media, posed the doubt that a woman could be as successful a president as a man because when she gets her period, she might get PMS and declare war on Germany or something.
Except emotions are not weakness. In fact, if anything, they are strength.
Being able to discuss our emotions enables healing, as well as bonding. Being able to understand the way someone else is feeling and empathize with them allows us to connect with them on a human level. I’d argue that experiencing and expressing emotions actually makes us better leaders, as it makes us want to understand the people we are leading, as well as the people who could potentially be our enemies.
I may be a weak, manipulative, hysterical, emotional woman to some, but I believe being an empath is my superpower. It is the reason I haven’t lost myself for good in the depths of depression. It is what helps me understand and love people, rather than give up on them all as cruel or worthless. It is what makes it possible for me to reach out to others, even help them through difficult times. It is what makes my life worthwhile. I don’t know where I’d be if it weren’t for my connection to my emotions.
Emotions are a treasure that much of society looks down on “feminine” people for possessing. But the truth is, they are a gift that we should give more “masculine” people as well.
We treat emotions as though they are shameful, something to be be hidden or ignored, but they are beautiful, and human—all of them.
They have the capability to turn us into better people. All we need to do is accept them, get to know them, and allow ourselves to experience them for what they are.
Author: Ciara Hall
Image: Gregorio Puga Bailón/Flickr
Editor: Khara-Jade Warren
Copy Editor: Nicole Cameron
Social Editor: Travis May