NEW YORK – America squandered an important national moment.
Judge Brett Kavanaugh wept. On national TV. For 45 minutes. The startling visual of a top-tier political figure quaveringly weaving between the emotional cones of anger, embarrassment and despair had the potential to launch a national conversation about masculinity and society’s response to men who lay bare their emotions.
Men need permission to cry, to be vulnerable, too. The #MeToo movement is giving women permission to proclaim their victimhood without shame. Under better circumstances Kavanaugh’s display might have given leave to American men to admit that they too are emotional beings, that they hurt and feel as much as women.
Instead of a national conversation about masculinity and gender norms we got predictable partisan politics.
“A crying Brett Kavanaugh. This is what white male privilege looks like,” sneered the headline of an op-ed by The Sacramento Bee’s Erika D. Smith.
Scorn was the standard liberal response to Kavanaugh’s furious, weepy reading of his prepared remarks to the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Men, particularly white and privileged men, find that they can get away with acting like colicky children, and they are infantilized when it suits them,” Jamil Smith lectured in Rolling Stone, equating acting out with childishness. “His testimony was a tantrum.” Smith’s emotion-shaming piece was titled “Brett Kavanaugh’s Fragile Manhood.” Not very PC.
Conservatives were no less hypocritical.
Right-wingers broke macho form in the divide over gender norms, defending their sobbing nominee. During the break between Christine Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh’s appearances Rush Limbaugh presciently mused aloud: “Do you think Kavanaugh should cry?” Rush answered his own question: “Noooo.” Team politics prevailed. Despite the judge’s failure to take his on-air advice Rush later pronounced himself pleased: “He unloaded on them!”
Senator Elizabeth Warren, a progressive considering a 2020 presidential run, mirrored Trump’s description of Kavanaugh but for Ford: “brave, compelling and credible.” Calling Kavanaugh “unhinged,” she said he “whined, ranted, raved, and spun conspiracy theories.” Praise versus contempt: the personal has never been more political. Had the roles been reversed, had Ford been the angry/weepy one, there is no world in which Warren would have described her as unhinged.
“I don’t believe in crying,” Trump told a biographer. “It’s just not my thing. I have nothing against it when someone cries, but when I see a man cry, I view it as a weakness. I don’t like seeing men cry.”
Crying makes me uncomfortable too. “The feminization of America,” a conservative colleague texted me as we watched Kavanaugh. Initially I agreed. Watching a man cry gives me what Germans call fremdscham: vicarious embarrassment for someone else. John Wayne didn’t do waterworks and neither do most guys. Studies find that men cry about one-fifth as often as women.
Were Kavanaugh’s tears the frustrated, desperate expression of an innocent man falsely accused before his friends, family and an entire nation? Or, as one of detractors alleged, did he wimper “because his past finally caught up with him and deep down, he knows it”? Could it be something in between, a blend of anger because some of the accusations are false and self-pity because others are true? We’ll probably never know what really happened at those high school and college parties.
But we don’t need to know why Kavanaugh cried to see why they matter.
However you assess Kavanaugh’s tears, they marked a giant leap for public emotionalism and a major political moment for malekind. Even in a Democratic primary campaign so dominated by liberals that George McGovern ultimately won, Edmund Muskie’s teary press conference defending his wife’s honor in New Hampshire made him look like a wimp. It marked the beginning of the end of his 1972 campaign—and he cried a lot less than Kavanaugh.
After Colorado congresswoman Pat Schroeder broke down during her announcement that she wouldn’t run for president in 1988, The Chicago Tribune reported that “women reacted with embarrassment, sympathy and disgust” over a display that seemed to reinforce the sexist stereotype that women were too emotional to lead.
Twenty years makes a difference. Running against Barack Obama in 2008, Hillary Clinton cultivated a steely Maggie Thatcher-like image — and watched her polls sink. “If you get too emotional, that undercuts you. A man can cry — but a woman, that’s a different kind of dynamic,” Clinton observed. Turns out, voters don’t really want female versions of Spock from Star Trek. Talking about the toll of campaigning at a New Hampshire diner, she shed a few drops in search of a boost. The brief emotional display was almost certainly planned but she won the primary.
If the ideological shoe were on the other foot, if Kavanaugh were a Democrat and he were being grilled by Republicans, I bet my fellow lefties would embrace this moment. They wouldn’t be contemptuous. Far from questioning his judicial temperament because he cried, they’d applaud his courage. Conversely, Ford’s story might be disbelieved because she kept it together and stayed calm.
Men may not cry as much as women. Some scientists think testosterone inhibits tear flow. All the same, it is natural. “All their lives they were told, ‘Real men don’t cry,’ yet studies show how crying is a way for the body to release toxins from the body,” Sam Louie wrote In Psychology Today. “From a physiological perspective, when humans get stressed there is an increase in adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). Over time as this builds it leads to more stress that demands to be released.”
For a political figure like Kavanaugh, however, research suggests that crying in public can achieve something even more important than releasing toxins: being relatable. According to a 2013 Tilburg University study published in Evolutionary Psychology, “respondents report being more willing to provide support to people with visible tears than to those without tears.”
Interestingly the left-leaning commentators opposing Kavanaugh’s confirmation focused on the nominee’s anger more than his tears. Tacit approval or fremdscham?
There’s nothing like a good cry. Men want that privilege, too.
Ted Rall is a political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist.