“Crying: Acceptable at funerals and the Grand Canyon.” —Ron Swanson, from a coming episode of Parks and Recreation
Memo to pundits, comedians and political reporters who are not quite comedians: Yes, John Boehner cries. A lot. We get it. It made news when the new Speaker of the House teared up on Election Night, on 60 Minutes, at the swearing in of the new Congress, &c. His lugubriousness first became a staple of late-night jokes, then a crutch of Washington reporters looking for punchlines and light features. And now it is, apparently, an actual pundits’ point of discussion.
Not only have Boehner’s critics used the waterworks as an easy way to poke fun at him, but Fox conservatives like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity have expressed actual concern at the message his frequent tearing up sends. Not to seem overly, well, weepy about the issue, but aren’t we finally ready to retire the “crying = weakness” and “men don’t cry” messages?
Granted, we have at least come farther than we were in 1972, when Edmund Muskie’s “melting snowflakes” were actually a matter of serious national scandal; Boehner’s career is—I would hope—not in any serious danger over this. He doesn’t seem to be painted as a weakling for crying, so much as slightly silly.* And while there are probably still double standards at work (Nancy Pelosi was probably never as free to cry in public regularly, with impunity), at least in 2008 when Hillary Clinton choked up in New Hampshire, it was news, but if anything (as her subsequent win suggested) it may have benefitted her.
*[Update: It’s interesting, actually, to look at how the popular stereotyping of crying has evolved since then. The subtext of all the Boehner jokes—and even serious discussion—is not that he’s behaving like a little girl or that he’s somehow effeminate; it’s more that he lacks discipline or self-mastery. It’s different, yes, but it’s stupidly reductive all the same.]
But here’s the thing about double standards: they’re double, which is to say, they cut two ways. People may feel freer to joke about Boehner’s crying because they feel he’s in no real danger from it, but the underlying attitude—it is shameful, or at least risible, for a man to cry—affects real people. (Bloomberg BusinessWeek, for instance, used Boehner as a peg for a story on “How Not to Cry at Work.”) And while I don’t pretend that men suffer as much from sexism as women do, it’s still no good to anyone to send the message that there’s one acceptable way to be a man in public.
Boehner’s the most powerful man in the House; he can handle being made fun of. But the continual crying jokes are not just lazy at this point—and they’re very lazy—they’re also retrograde; if they’re not sexist, they just reflect a warped attitude toward emotion, period.
Make fun of John Boehner’s giant gavel all you want. But speaking as the father of two boys, that we continue to send, even in jest the idea that crying is unmanly (or, at least, unserious) at this point in history is, well, sad.