Working for Justice

The Privilege of Tears

At dinner with friends last night I asked, over the bread basket, what my fellow diners thought of President Obama’s speech on gun control this week. (Don’t worry, we moved on to lighter fare.  At least in terms of conversation.) Although generally well informed, three out of four said they hadn’t watched it. “I saw pictures though,” they all apologized.

Given that I’m of the generation that gets a substantial portion of my news from Instagram, I knew exactly what they had seen.  Still, I pressed on:

“Yeah? What pictures?”

“Of the President crying.”

This, after all, was the immediate story.  Recalling the victims of Newtown, the President, who a few years ago, days after the shooting, had attempted to comfort the families of the twenty first-graders who were killed, let a few tears run down his cheeks.  It was those tears, as much as what he said, that made headlines.

The Left commended him for his depth of feeling and true commitment to a solution.  The Washington Post ran an article within hours titled, “President Obama cried in public today. That’s a good thing.”  The author, while attempting to sidestep the political, wrote, “I don’t have any sort of personal position on Obama or his gun control executive orders.  But, I do have a strongly held belief in favor of men—including male politicians—crying in public if necessary.”

Sure.  But with any luck (and, you know, a lifetime of public service, a couple of attempts, and generations spent laying the groundwork) the next president will be a woman.  Are we equally in favor of her tears?

In her 2010 book, Big Girls Don’t Cry, Rebecca Traister writes about that moment in New Hampshire in 2008 when Hillary Clinton didn’t actually cry, but her voice softened and cracked. As Traister describes it, the immediate reaction was, “It’s over.  A woman having shown emotions?  It’s done.  There was a bit of glee on the part of Obama supporters.”

Though he has often been roasted for his unflappable cool, candidate Obama, a man, was free to emote.  And he did.  He cried publicly during both his 2008 and 2012 campaigns.  This certainly isn’t the first time he’s cried in front of the cameras as President.  Heck, he even cried recently when Aretha Franklin sang “Natural Woman” (a moment both awesome and ironic).

Clinton, on the other hand, despite having significantly more experience than her competition, was focused on being taken seriously—and as a woman, crying makes you a joke.

The double standard that labels a man who cries progressive and a woman who cries regressive puts the female candidate in a bind: how can she ever be relatable, likable, or “natural” if to express natural emotion is seen as an expression of her natural weakness?

Of course, there are those on the Right who question the authenticity of the President’s display of emotion on Tuesday.  They use feminizing words in describing it, calling him “soft” and “manipulative.”  But to many others (including Trevor Noah, ICYMI) the President’s tears were humanizing.  My question is and it’s a genuine question: Do female candidates get to be human?  Are we there yet?

Both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, are lauded for their seemingly innate ability to charm. Maureen Dowd wrote that Hillary’s voice cracked during the 2008 campaign at the moment it seemed that after “all those years in the shadow of one Natural [she faced] the prospect of being eclipsed by another Natural”.  But consider that Hillary’s comparable lack of likability might not just be personality, but a consequence of constantly having to fight limiting gender stereotypes.  Because as human, as natural as it is, man or woman, to allow oneself a cry every now and again, what did almost shedding a tear mean for Hillary?  As Traister explains, “Such bliss was there at Clinton’s journey from the front of the social evolution class back to the primordial stew of high-strung, overwrought femininity that even those who noticed that she had not actually wept could not help but tell the story as if she had.”

Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP

Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP

Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP is a nationwide litigation law firm with offices in New York, Washington, DC, San Francisco, San Diego, Nashville, and Baltimore. We represent individuals against powerful interests. We act as a private attorney general in support of the private and public good. Learn More

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