Who decided “big sons don’t cry”?
It’s not rare to see powerful and high profile men overcome with feeling at times, but when they do, it’s usually met with some form of criticism or seen as a showing of weakness. Simply put, in today’s world boys and men are simply not expected to display vulnerable feelings like sadness and grief.( But anger is usually -AOK !)
When we think of the founding pillars of “manliness, ” we think of strength, courage, and stoicism, and we often assume that it’s merely always been that style . After all, ancient Greek warriors didn’t yell! Medieval knights didn’t call! Men just don’t yell! It’s, like, biology or something! Right? Right?
A couple of historians recently took to Reddit to debunk this myth once and for all.
A user named Sassenacho prompted the thread on the r/ AskHistorians subreddit with a simple question: “Today, there are voices that call for( much needed) adoption of men’s emotionality, but it is still various kinds of taboo. I was wondering when and why this changed in western society.”
The rationales that ensued were fascinating.
Cassidy Percoco, a curator and historian at the St. Lawrence County Historical Association and author of “Regency Women’s Dress” kicked things off, explaining that “masculinity and tears have not always been at odds.”
Those rough and tumble medieval knights with their shiny armor and big swords? Percoco says they were actually expected to sob on occasion.
“In the Middle Ages there was a trope of masculine sobbing being a mark of religion love and knightly chivalry; by the 16th century it was well-established that a masculine human was supposed to have deep emotions and to show them — in some cases, through tears.”
It was a part of the whole chivalry thing and a sign of religious devotion.
As far back as Biblical periods and in the age of Greek and Roman heroes, crying out of sorrow or sadness was just something humen were expected to do.
From there, Percoco jumped forward to 17 th and 18 th century England. Hundreds and hundreds of years later, men exclaiming and sharing their impressions — a gentlemanly trait known as “sensibility” — still hadn’t run out of style.
“A gentleman was to be courteous to women and other humen, to talk problems out, to keep from exploding into loud showings of fury or drunkenness. You might think that that would also put the kibosh on crying — giving way to impressions of all sorts — but this was not the case. Another gentlemanly trait of the eighteenth century was sensibility, which today sounds like it ought to mean “rationality” but is actually being aware of and susceptible to one’s finer emotions.”
Alex Wetmore, deputy prof in the English department at University of the Fraser Valley, chimed in as well to explain that in the mid-to-late 1700 s, popular fiction often celebrated male leadings who wept “a lot”!
“People are often interested to hear that there was a period of time of a few decades( 1740 s to 1770 s) where fiction devoted to all those people who scream( a lot !) was not only acceptable, but, in fact, tremendously popular and widely celebrated.”
Wetmore identified an archetype, which he calls “The Man of Feeling, ” who appears in a ton of novels from that epoch.( Wetmore even wrote a book on the subject .)
“When I try to explain this recurring character form to students, I usually describe him as like a comic book superhero … BUT with the notable exception that the ‘superpower’ of men of feeling is an ability to spontaneously shed copious quantities of tears.”
It’s quite the contrast to the unflinching action heroes we see today.
It wasn’t until the early 1800 s that things began to change, and men started feeling the pressure to hold those tears in.
Percoco and Wetmore were both hesitating to prescribe a definite cause and effect relationship, but they do suspect the Industrial Revolution played a big part in turning the tide.( Reportedly, some mill directors actually trained workers, usually men, to suppress their feelings in order to keep productivity high .)
The age of the stoic and emotionless cowboy( a la John Wayne, who most people concur never cried in a movie) wasn’t far behind, followed by the gun-wielding “Die Hard”-ian action heroes of modern cinema.
But … while fictional macho humen may have been repressing their tears, the real men of the real world were doing the same thing they’d always done: wearing their hearts on their sleeves.
For instance: General Ulysses S. Grant exclaimed when the Civil War eventually aimed. President Eisenhower cried on the eve of D-Day. And baseball legend Lou Gehrig exclaimed when the Yankees retired his number.
And, yet, since it took hold about 200 years ago, the expectation that “boys don’t cry” persists.
Today’s world is certainly not one that celebrates open displays of feeling from men, often to their harm.
Research reveals that these repressed feelings can often come out in unhealthy and harmful ways, and it’s all so we can meet a standard of masculinity that, likely, never truly existed.
Next time you catch person bemoaning the “wussification of American boys” and yearning for a day “when humen were humen, ” it might be worth asking them when, precisely, they think that was.
Make sure to visit: CapGeneration.com