Earlier this year, Pixar had us all in tears. Inside Out didn't just elicit tears in the way Up and Toy Story 3 had before, but made the very issue of sadness its central theme — and a vital character. As New York Times critic A.O. Scott pointed out in his review of the film, "Sadness, it turns out, is not Joy's rival but her partner. Our ability to feel sad is what stirs compassion in others and empathy in ourselves."
Note that both Riley and Sadness are female characters, which makes sense. Women are often seen as more sentimental and prone to tears than men. Yet recent discussions of men crying at the movies make visible a gendered double standard of how tears are commodified in contemporary discussions of film.
Back in September, Americans got their first look at Creed, Ryan Coogler's take on a Rocky film, which centers on Adonis, the illegitimate son of the Italian Stallion's rival/best friend. The film site Birth.Movies.Death cheekily shared the clip with an eye-grabbing headline, "The New Creed Trailer Wants to Give You Some Manly Tears." Weeks after the film's release, those words ring true — and continue to be echoed on social media:
Indeed, much of the discussion of Coogler's take on the Rocky mythos has centered on the way it marries a testosterone-riddled genre (the boxing film) with a surprisingly tender storyline that effectively guarantees any warm-hearted individual will shed a tear or two during the film's two-hour-plus running time.
"Manly tears," though, is a perfect distillation of the gendered way American culture understands crying. Here's how Urban Dictionary defines this now-ubiquitous meme, hilariously skewered by Key and Peele.
Manly Tears: what men shed as a quiet, dignified showing of being deeply moved. Whereas merely bawling your eyes out will open you up to accusations of being emo or a sissy, a manly tear shows you're mature enough to show your emotions without whoring for attention.
The term already genders the process of crying. Men don't cry; men shed manly tears. What's so fascinating about the outpouring of emotion during screenings of Creed and how vocal both critics and audiences have been about it (the film ends "with a scene guaranteed to wring a bucket of tears from fans of Rocky Balboa," as RogerEbert.com's Odie Henderson put it) is the way it appropriates the language of tear-jerking as a mark of quality. In other words: Creed is being lauded for so skillfully getting men to shed tears.
Yet one need only read through a couple of lists of "Best Tearjerkers Ever" (from, not coincidentally, Harper's Bazaar, Entertainment Weekly and Cosmopolitan) to note that crying at the movies has often been associated with women. Films like Steel Magnolias, Terms of Endearment and Beaches — all of which share a similar storyline to the new Rocky Balboa flick — are described as chick flicks, ones in which tear-jerking is enough to turn off audiences that think crying is a feminine trait.
This is a relatively modern invention. As Sandra Newman points out in "Man, Weeping," from Homer's "Iliad" to medieval writings, the sight of men crying was "universally regarded as an admirable expression of feeling" — with little to no shame associated with the practice. By 2015, shedding "manly tears" has become an ironic pose with which to inhabit a healthy emotional space. Expressing emotion through manly tears is not only allowed, but seen as a badge of honor.
Real men don't cry; to do so is to indulge in what, in terms of sentimental poetry, has been dubbed by academic Isobel Armstrong as "the gush of the feminine." Getting men to cry, it follows, is hard. For that, it is a somewhat worthier endeavor.
That the tears Creed and Inside Out elicit out of grown men are borne out of nostalgia, for the childlike wonder of the movies and for prized memories of childhood, further testify to the way contemporary American masculinity relies on estrangement to validate and elicit emotion. Wrapped in a boxing movie, or in CG-animated environment, male viewers and critics are left open to admit to their weeping without jeopardizing their credibility.
There is, this being 2015, progress being made, as recent studies suggest modern masculinity is headed in the right direction; that includes dispelling the destructive myth behind thinking displays of emotions are signs of weakness. While Creed shows us that men are on board toward indulging in a good cry, even as their language still belies a gendered understanding of sentimentality, we might stand back and try to examine why it is that a film making men weep is a mark of quality. What confines some movies to the "chick flick" bin shouldn't elevate others.