I didn’t cry until I was three years old. Maybe that’s not true, but there’s a lot of mythology surrounding my childhood. My parents also maintain, for example, that I was born asleep and remained asleep for twenty hours out of every day. It’s not that I’m jealous of my baby self, but I have been on my feet for ten hours already today and it’s only four in the afternoon.
Nothing lasts, least of all those things which are at one time considered your defining traits. Teased for much of my childhood, I earned myself a reputation as a bit of a crybaby. At the age of eleven, I attended the birthday party of one of the more popular girls in the class and was named among the ugliest girls in the school by democratic vote. Secret ballot, but not really. The rest of the night I spent curled up in a corner, sobbing quietly to myself and refusing to tell anybody exactly why when asked. Not that a group of adolescent girls would have had much problem figuring out the source of my insecurity.
We talk often about learning to repress. Mostly in “gendered terms”: that men should not cry because it is not masculine and women should temper their hysteria in public so as not to appear too feminine (too weak). I could write for hours about all the ways in which I have learned my repression, and how very hard it is to unlearn it. How though, did I learn to cry?
Absence of the act is always posited as the learned approach; Crying is natural. Men are strong enough to overcome the natural temptation to tears, proving themselves. It’s a Herculean feat.
Women are ‘allowed’ to cry, even taught to do so, but at great cost. Lucky us.
In the 2001 Studio Ghibli film Spirited Away directed by Hayao Miyazaki, the protagonist, a young girl called Chihiro, is stuck in a spirit world following an altercation with– Actually, just watch the film, it’s wonderful. She’s stuck, and separated from her parents, and she’s losing the opacity of her goddamn skin. So she’s a little on edge, and a little weepy. There’s a common reaction to this film, one which riles me for reasons beyond it’s my favourite film stop complaining and watch it please, that of ‘She’s so annoying and whiny. Why can’t she be stronger?’ I always have to stall myself from posing the question of how stressful it would be to get stuck in a spirit world and come at these comments from another angle. Because it’s not that the critics don’t think, realistically, that this situation would have them feeling worse for wear. What’s specific to this kind of media response is that Chihiro is a ten year old girl. She is not a ‘baby’ anymore, and there is only room for one kind of young female protagonist in media these days: The strong girl.
The noise of women is piercing. Laughing becomes cackling, debating becomes shrill (so much so that female politicians across history have had to check their frequency), and crying draws eyerolls every time. I remember sitting in an ex-boyfriend’s living room, surrounded by his friends, as they mercilessly mocked Serena Williams’ grunts and yelps of physical exertion, pretending at swooning orgasm, this powerhouse of a woman was reduced in parody before my eyes to something even more worthy of laughs, a woman in pleasure.
Which brings me to Sinead O’Connor, ridiculed for various reasons over the years, and the quintessential ‘lookalike’ for women with shaved heads everywhere until the birth of Eleven from Stranger Things. This year she returned to the public eye in the midst of a storming public conversation about mental health and suicide. Chester Bennington’s death was still fresh in the public mind, rightfully bringing with it a resurgence of think-pieces and op-eds regarding the importance of disclosure, more specifically the provision of an environment in which a person feels comfortable with that disclosure. We need to make it okay to say we’re not okay.
O’Connor’s video sits with contemporary and particular comfort on a website known for emotional ‘excess.’ YouTube is filled with reaction videos, with upsetting pranks, coming out stories, vlogs riffing on a variety of contentious or personally traumatic topics, and the still relevant ‘Leave Britney Alone.’ The confessional nature of the video, its upsetting content, and how easily it slips into the broad cyberspatial narrative of ‘oversharing’, how normal it seems in this context, is unsettling. It belies how easily it can be swept under the rug. And indeed, O’Connor made the press for a day or so, inspired a slew of cruel memes, and faded once again from the public consciousness, pixellated tears and all. Her upcoming appearance on Dr. Phil is sure to reignite the conversation somewhat, but it doesn’t quite have that same ‘wow’ factor only a public breakdown can, fleetingly, provide.
While Donald Trump is diagnosed left right and centre with every mental illness under the sun, much the same as the white male terrorists the Western media loathe to name as such, the world becomes ever more hostile a place to the mentally ill. Our liberal obsession with ‘talking about it’ and ‘being aware’ is sucking the marrow from the backbone of real mental health activism, or real steps toward change. We are all aware, and we can all talk, but it’s in what happens when we talk or when that awareness is transposed into action that the focus should lie.
Critiquing our communal reaction to the crying woman seems as good a place to start as any. My own experiences with crying can be followed in a narrative of peaks and troughs. I have been deeply depressed for much of my life, priding myself on that very repression I had to learn after a teary-eyed adolescence and the deep sense of shame associated with it. We are told that crying is a release, to ‘have a good cry’ and ‘let it all out,’ but when convenient for everyone involved, and everyone is always so involved.
“The noise of women is piercing.”
To make a woman’s noises less inconvenient, they are aestheticised. The jewelled tears on iconography of the Virgin Mary serve as an example. They are aestheticised in a way different from the empathetic animation of Miyazaki’s sobbing Chihiro. There is no empathy in the construction of a beautifully mourning mother, there is only glorification in the name of the son. The visual aesthetic aspects of crying are glorified, as opposed to that disgusting, cloying noise. The difference is that the noise, the breathing embodiment of the beautiful crying woman requires something of the Other. There is need in that noise, and a call to response. The artistic tear remains frozen in time for us to examine, needlessly and at a remove. But the very language dictates the shared nature of the act – not something sterile or solitary, but a call and response mechanism, as much as an emotional release. ‘Cry’ itself comes from the Latin quiritare meaning ‘raise a public outcry’, the Middle English version of the word meaning ‘ask for earnestly or loudly.’ There is a commonality or dyadism to the act.
So then what of death, a final solitude often resulting in a vast swell of ‘public outcry’? It’s been twenty years since the death of Princess Diana, whose funeral we uphold as the pinnacle of public mourning. Far from the Pieta, from Mary holding her dead son, the dead Diana could almost be pictured in a sick aestheticisation as holding the body of a nation in her many-photographed arms. Public outcry is, in a way, the only acceptable outpouring of emotion. We retain our etymological purity, if nothing else.
There exists a stereotype of the silently hysterical woman, who insists “I’m fine” in such an unconvincing tone that we find her ridiculous, husbands roll their eyes at her falsity, and sitcoms play on her lack of subtlety. Just say it how it is, Susan! What we don’t address is the concept of permission, the need for permission in order to justify an emotional response without being seen as something worse than the silent hysteric: The noisy hysteric. To not go through this charade, of unconvincingly ‘pretending’ at a fineness everybody knows we don’t feel, is to be a problem. (Tell me later, Susan! or better, don’t tell me at all, sort it out on your own, wait for me to come to you.)
Even worse? Admitting you’re not fine when nobody even asked. Who asked for Sinead O’Connor to upload that video? We only appreciate the noises women make when we can twist and appropriate them for our own gain: For comedy or for art. The beautiful depressive, the tortured mind: those who need to be sad in order to produce for us the things which make us happy. These are appreciated, though I would pay attention to the gender dynamics here also. I’m specifically remembering Robin Williams here, the contemporary comedic counterpart to Van Gogh’s ‘useful’ artistic depression. Of course, Sylvia Plath played her useful part as an iconic line in a Woody Allen film, bless her tortured soul.
Most of my ex-boyfriends have told me I’m pretty when I cry, but I no longer want to bear pain beautifully. If I have to grow into my snotty self in my twenties the way I never did as a newborn, I will try to learn not only how best to heal, but how best to do away with the notion of convenience. For my own good and too for the good of those women I have found too noisy myself, whose tears I would have turned to jewels at best, but any stone will do. I’m not fine. Not many of us are – there is so much to cry about. •
None of the images presented in this article belong to Shakespeare and Punk or the author. Image of Mary source: Marcelo del Pozo/Reuters