Big boys don’t cry was something that my mother taught me from a young age. This was repeated throughout my childhood by grandparents, teachers, television and my friends. It was not until adulthood that I realises the strong impact these inherently sexist, stereotypical words had on me and my understanding of manhood and masculinity. “Man up”, “stop acting like a girl” and “don’t be a pussy” are other statements about masculinity that I was forced to hear over-and-over again in popular culture, school and from amongst my peers. These reductionist throwaway taglines have been used to pigeon-hole masculine identity and have had a truly harmful effect on young men in society. In this article I want to strongly challenge these idealisations about men, taking particular grievance with how the act of crying or showing one’s emotions is castigated as being unmanly or effeminate. I will challenge the assumption that woman are the sole proprietors of emotional expression, I will reject the idea that men should be forced to internalise their feelings because of their gender and I will forcibly dissociate myself from all branches of societal thought that would prefer the average male citizen to deal with their own inner turmoil, depressive episodes and even suicide, before discussing their problems and concerns with others. Before I begin my refutation of the idiotic statement big boys don’t cry, I will give a few insightful statistics about male depression and suicide that may allow us to understand the epidemic we are dealing with.
It has become evidently clear that men are far more prone to death by suicide than women. Around 800,000 people commit suicide every year (WHO 2016), a large number of which are young males unable to face the pressures of life and who feel that nobody wants to listen to what they have to say. In some countries, such as U.S. and Ireland, men are approximately four times more likely to commit suicide than women. Some studies suggest that the suicide rates globally are set to double by 2020, with the number of young men taking their own lives set to dramatically increase. Over 90% of all suicides are underpinned by mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and an inability to live up to society’s expectations (Befrienders Worldwide 2016). It is for these reasons we need to address the topic of why men are committing suicide at such alarming rates and whether or not our societal constructs of masculinity may be responsible for this.
Men are killing themselves around us and we are complicit in these actions because we endorse a society that would prefer men to take their own lives than to disrupt the status-quo of male stereotyping and castigation. Men are killing themselves because of stress, depression, anxiety, an inability to communicate their issues with other people and to find help through their problems. They feel, and quite often are, helpless. Nobody wants to help them because they are supposed to be able to help themselves. Society views these men as less than human because they do not hold up to the dictates of what it means to be a man, i.e. fully autonomous, independent and responsible for what happens to him. Men that need help are told to ‘man up’, ‘be responsible’, ‘real men need to be able to do x, y, and z’ and other short-sighted and unhelpful statements that further castigate men for not following the pre-established male code of standards to live by. These inequalities between the genders is something Western society has a lot to answer for and for which we have a responsibility to change. We need to alter these perspectives by changing our behaviours and we need to rid ourselves of discriminatory viewpoints and statements against men. One such way we can combat this is by breaking away from harmful stereotypes such as big boys don’t cry or the understanding that it is effeminate to display your emotions.
Big Boys Don’t Cry is Harmful:
Crying is natural. It is the outward expression of an internal emotional state, whether it be happiness, joy, fear, sadness or laughter. It is most commonly associated with feelings of distress, sadness and pain. In its biological formation it is the secretion of liquid from the tear-duct as a result of a neural connection receiving information from the brain about a particular emotional state. Very often it is the uncontrolled reaction of intense emotional stimuli on the part of the individual human-being, being exhibited in an outward emotional response. It is a biological reaction elicited by human-beings in response to events that are causing them emotional distress and upheaval. So far it has only been categorically shown that human beings cry. We are the only species in the animal kingdom that demonstrates the emotional phenomenon of crying. Therefore, making the bold statement that men should not cry is doing two very striking things: It is firstly trying to impossibly alter and enforce societal pressures upon distinct evolutionary patterns and it is also attempting to remove man from the definition of ‘Homo sapiens’ by placing him in the realm of the non-human animal that does not cry. Both of these consequent outcomes are truly absurd and are quite frankly, scary.
All of these points raise some very interesting questions and address some frightening issues underpinning societal norms about masculinity and male identity. One thing that stands out is why society deems it more appropriate to endorse the further internalisation of emotion by the male population rather than discussing and expressing their problems and emotions openly? Why is it okay for women to vent their concerns and distress, show their emotion and talk about what is bothering them, but if guys do this it is seen as something wrong, contradictory to their gender and should be scolded for doing so? How can we control this evolutionary reaction to emotional distress or grievance simply because societal constructs dictate that it is un-masculine to cry? And more importantly, why should we? These are all important questions that we need to ask ourselves in order to determine how we, as individuals and as a society, can change this spiralling pattern of internalisation of grief and pain, and the resultant ever-growing numbers of men committing suicide.
However, it must be made clear that men being prohibited to cry is only one issue in a long list of problems that is causing the stagnation and one-dimensionality of male identity and personalised construction of masculinity. We are forced to abide by a rigid formalised enclosure of what it means to be a man, societal creations enforce stereotypes, idealisations and negative shaming for those that do not abide by what our emotional code of conduct dictates for a 20-year-old white male, a 45-year-old Asian guy, a 60-year-old African-American man or an 8-year-old boy in the playground. Men should be strong, brave, powerful and very often emotionless. There is no such thing as a ‘strong, silent type’, because we are all supposed to be strong and silent. Or more accurately, strongly silent. It is not good enough to simply veer away from using sexist sayings and terminology towards male identity, it is much more important to practice it and change the idea that men are either sub-human or robotic entities devoid of human responses such as emotion and feeling. Big boys don’t cry is simply a symptom of a devouring malaise that is eating us away from the inside. We have the opportunity to quarantine it before it is too late or we can overlook it, allowing it to continue to fester and spread.
Befrienders Worldwide (2016) Suicide Statistics, available from: http://www.befrienders.org/suicide-statistics
WHO (2016) Global Health Observatory, available from: http://www.who.int/gho/mental_health/suicide_rates/en/