Skip to main content

Big Boys Don't Cry: Masculinity from Jesus to Michael Fassbender

Professor Bernard Capp, Department of History

Published in November 2014

Is it okay for a man to cry? Should they model their tear ducts on those of the passionate Ancient Greeks, zealous biblical figures, staid Victorians or today’s emotional sporting greats? Bernard Capp, Emeritus Professor at the University of Warwick’s Department of History has been charting acceptance of crying and men who cry throughout the ages. Words by Professor Bernard Capp and Gareth Jenkins

Michael Fassbender
Is it okay for a man to cry? Maybe during certain films or if he’s watched his team lose 2-1 at home to Worcester City. You would think that, in the twenty-first century, we’ve reached a stage where we don’t need to ask the question anymore but type ‘is it okay for’ into Google and ‘Is it okay for a man to cry?’ is one of the top results (along with ‘Is it okay for a dog to eat spiders?’ And ‘Is it okay for a girl to ask a guy out?’).

Of course, the answer is yes, but there have been periods in history when men “simply did not cry” under any circumstance. Professor Bernard Capp explains how the idea of the ‘stiff upper lip’ has waxed and waned in popularity; the ‘New Man’ might be dominant now, but over the centuries attitudes have repeatedly changed in response to wider cultural shifts and they remain complex and contradictory today.

Christ weeps1. It used to be expected that men would cry

The Bible is full of crying men, and tears are plentiful among the Greek heroes such as Achilles in the Iliad. In mediaeval Europe the elite felt little obligation to conceal their emotions and that continued as late as the reign of Henry VIII, when we find his chief minister, Cardinal Wolsey, repeatedly weeping in public without embarrassment after his fall from power.

 

 

Leonardo Da Vinci2. It all changed for Renaissance Men

The Renaissance ushered in a different set of attitudes. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, under the influence of Stoic and other classical authors, it became essential for elite men to command their emotions, especially in public. Civility and decorum demanded self-control, even in the most distressing circumstances; if a man could not govern himself, how could he be capable of governing others? This new culture applied primarily to aristocrats and gentlemen; those without education or ‘breeding’ were not expected to possess such self-control.

 

Johannes3. Modern man was a bit weepy

But if Jesus had wept tears then men crying could not always be wrong. If a man displayed no emotion at the death of his wife, did that not suggest he lacked all human feeling? Such issues triggered a lively debate across the early modern period. Tears of self-pity, fear or weakness were always condemned; tears in the face of bereavement, or tears of compassion, were acceptable, though only in moderation and not for too long (views which echoed the sentiments of the Roman author Seneca). The best tears were spiritual: tears of remorse for one’s sins, and of gratitude for Christ’s saving grace.

 

Oliver Cromwell4. The English revolutionised crying

Religious tears became increasingly associated with Puritans and later the Nonconformists; Oliver Cromwell was one who would cry in public. As a result, the idea of a man crying became far less acceptable to royalists and Anglicans, who came to associate spiritual tears with fanaticism and hypocrisy. Attitudes hardened after the Restoration and, as some commentators observed, since every individual had a different constitution, an abundance of tears provided no guide to genuine emotion.

 

 

Dugmore5. We found a Method for feeling

The mid-eighteenth century witnessed another reversal. The Methodists revived much of the emotional fervour of the Puritans, while a new culture of ‘sensibility’ made tears acceptable among sections of the elite as a sign of refinement. The novelist Laurence Sterne reflected this culture in works such as A Sentimental Journey and it reached its apogee in Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771). This featured a gentle, sensitive hero who melts into tears at every sad story he hears. The novel enjoyed huge success, even among such unlikely readers as the economist Adam Smith.

 

Napoleon6. The French changed our concept of masculinity

A generation later attitudes had reversed again and Mackenzie’s novel was now dismissed as comically absurd, even by some people who had once found it deeply moving. Twenty years of intense warfare against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France had generated a much tougher concept of masculinity in England.

 

 

 

Spock7. The Vulcans Victorians suppressed their emotions

We think today of the Victorian period as the high point of emotional repression and the brutal discipline of the public schools was explicitly designed to instil such behavioural values. But even in the Victorian period there was a countervailing strand present in the sentimentality of Dickens’s novels, and the emotional flavour of his public readings exemplified this.

 

 

 

70s models8. Flares came in but emotional flare-ups were out

In 1972 the leading contender for the Democratic Presidential nomination, Senator Ed Muskie, found his political career destroyed overnight after he shed tears at a press conference responding to personal attacks on his wife. His annihilation was one of Nixon’s ‘dirty tricks’, and a pundit remarked, ‘there is no crying in presidential politics’.

 

 

 
9. So many years of hurt, but our tears were still gleaming

A generation ago the tears of England’s first crying footballer Gazza (Paul Gascoigne) created a media sensation, but today footballers’ tears pass almost unnoticed and it’s a similar story in other sports; pictures of Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer shedding tears at a Wimbledon Final no longer attract surprise or disapproval.

10. Some of us can give a stellar performance

Male as well as female tears are acceptable at today’s Oscar award ceremonies and in films themselves (let’s not single Michael Fassbender out for shedding a tear on the silver screen). Today’s politicians and leaders are readier to shed a tear in the face of a personal tragedy or major disaster but there are still acceptable and unacceptable forms of men crying for men; the king of Spain shed 'acceptable' tears at the memorial service after the Madrid train bombing in 2004, but a politician shedding tears after being accused of an expenses scandal was mocked as weak and unmanly.


Professor Bernard CappBernard Capp is an Emeritus Professor at the University of Warwick's Department of History and a Fellow of the British Academy. His works include The Fifth Monarchy Men (Faber, 1972), England's Culture Wars (OUP, 2012) and When Gossips Meet. Women, the Family and Neighbourhood in Early Modern England (OUP 2003; 2004). Following When Gossips Meet, Professor Capp's recent research into masculinity and the expression of emotion in early modern England has been published in Past and Present, 224 (2014) under the title, ‘Jesus Wept, but did the Englishman?’ His current project examines the drive to impose moral reformation and discipline on the English people in the wake of Parliament’s victory in the civil wars.


Images: Michael Fassbender in Shame (via Giphy)
Antonello da Messina's Ecce Homo, Detail: Gesicht Christus (via Wikimedia)
Leonardo Da Vinci's Homme de vitruve (via Wikimedia)
Michael Schönitzer's Johannes Gutenberg (via Wikimedia)
Samuel Cooper's Oliver Cromwell (via Wikimedia)
Henry Hare Dugmore (ca 1890) (via Wikimedia)
Jacques-Louis David's Napoleon Bonaparte (via Wikimedia)
Victorian Spock (via themarysue.com)
The 1970s-1974 Jours de France ad by Mo (via Flickr)
Terry Butcher and Paul Gascoigne of England (via Gettyimages)