Private Lives: Big boys can cry... but only sometimes

Any time a man breaks down in tears he breaks an age-old social taboo. But the rules behind the crying game are changing. By Dave Hill
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It is always a huge shock when men cry. One of the most powerful images from last week's funerals in Omagh was of Michael Monaghan, weeping helplessly as he carried his wife Avril's coffin.

We never forget the weeping of men whom we know as fathers or sons, as lovers or close friends, because it may be the most striking, sometimes shocking, evidence we ever get of their capacity for emotional agony and empathy, as opposed to the more conventional form of male outpouring - rage.

And men themselves often have indelible memories of their most uncontrollable sobs, of the mixture of fear and liberation that always accompanies even the temporary shattering of a social taboo - for that is what it is. Big boys don't cry, and don't you dare forget it.

We big boys never do. We never forget the sting of shame when our playground furies and frustrations streamed out through the corners of our eyes instead of adding force to our flying fists. We never forget the gleeful derision heaped, by children of both sexes, on boys who cried easily.

I haven't. Whenever a boy cried in my early secondary school years, that time of massed hormonal turbulence, word would spread like wildfire. A large crowd would gather round him, magnetically drawn to his humiliation and the sight of his self-esteem smashed into a thousand pieces, each one a prized trophy for those with crueler, harder hearts.

His wretchedness, and the punishment he endured for it, also served as a dire warning to every other boy. It passed nobody's notice that when girls cried they would be surrounded by supportive friends, but boys were looked upon as aberrant and untouchable, as if their tears were splashes from some dark and raging river dividing the two sexes, which it was utterly forbidden to traverse. Crying was a sign of contamination by girlishness, effeminacy and, therefore, potential homosexuality, the most heinous sin of all.

Most of us collude in this ruthless gender separation, even when we sympathise. There are many contradictions at work here. Even the most remorselessly machismo corners of our culture approve of crying and other displays of unmanly emotion if the circumstances are appropriate.

Men's sport provides the most illuminating arena for these inversions of normal custom and practice. Boxers provide the starkest cases when, having pounded each other for a dozen or so rounds, they embrace inside the ring and then dissolve into muscular mush.

It is as though through battle men are deemed to have earned the right to behave in unmanly ways. Nobody accuses them of being sissies and, similarly, only those who cling to the xenophobic slight that all Frenchmen are fairies would have doubted the masculine credentials of the World Cup winners as they howled, and hugged and kissed each other's heads,before a world audience.

But that's just one paradox. While a fear of the "unmanned" male exists among both sexes, there are long traditions of approving of men who express their suffering through tears, whether real or evoked. Such encouragement for men to "get in touch with their feelings", to connect with their "feminine side", has become a feminist demand, but its history is both longer and broader. Post-war popular music, for example, is awash with it. The American singer Johnnie Ray, whose biggest hit was called "Cry", used to break down on stage and was variously dubbed The Nabob of Sob, Cry Guy and The Prince of Wails.

Critics and public alike applauded Smokey Robinson for the songcraft and lyrical imagery of two of his finest hits, "Tracks of My Tears" and "Tears of a Clown". In 1975 Johnny Nash, another honey-voiced black American, had a number one hit in Britain with "Tears on My Pillow". Even Ken Dodd hit the sob spot with "Tears for Souvenirs".

Women who've warmed to such songs have tended to do so heartily, men rather more furtively, all part of a bigger picture of ambivalence, some of which is justified.

The notion that a man who can cry is necessarily a man of psychological maturity can be a dangerous one. Paul Gascoigne is said to have boosted the female audience for football hugely when he cried on the pitch during the 1990 World Cup in Italy, but look what we've found out about him since.

At the same, proponents of "new masculinist" men's groups believe that learning to cry together is essential to the therapeutic process of getting men "back into their balls" and, as they see it, out of their most destructive male habits.

The sight of a crying man, it seems, can signify many different things. So perhaps we would be wise not to confuse tearful emotional displays with true emotional articulacy, the skill so many men lack. The continuing existence of the sometimes brutal social sanctions against this ought to bring a tear to everybody's eye.