Crying Shame

We don’t look down on movies designed to make us laugh—why do we look down on ones designed to make us cry?


Ansel Elgort and Shailene Woodley star in The Fault in Our Stars.

Photo by James Bridges/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Seldom have so many words been spilled about the spilling of tears as in the past week, as the media has covered the phenomenon of (mostly) teenage (and mostly) girls streaming into the megaplexes, forearmed with boxes of tissues and ready to “ugly cry” their way through The Fault in Our Stars, based on John Green’s best-selling young-adult novel. #TFIOSfeels testimonies and streaked-face selfies mount daily on Twitter and Tumblr.

The dusty showbiz term “weepie” has been hauled back into circulation, along with ratings by numbers of “hankies,” for this tale of teen love that is not only star-crossed but oxygen-tube-assisted, tumor-ridden, and Grim Reaper-pursued—an attempt at rescuing from cliché the cancer-romance plotline that’s haunted Hollywood since 1970’s Love Story.

Yet there’s a mixed tone to a lot of TFIOS talk: Even critics who like it feel compelled to joke about the tears. It’s the same skeptical edge that’s embedded in the word “tearjerker” itself, which reflects our collective ambivalence about movies and other art that seems to aim deliberately to make people cry. Often TFIOS reviews have titles along the lines of “A tearjerker that achieves genuine emotion,” as if the two traits were inherently at odds.

We don’t have this attitude about movies that openly try to make us laugh, another external, physiological, otolaryngological response. There’s no such thing as comedy too excellent to laugh at, yet artful tragedy is asked to seek, in Wordsworth’s famous phrase, “thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” Artists who do traffic in wet eyes and cheeks are often called cheap: melodramatic, manipulative, sentimental, Spielberg.

Likewise, most of us have noticed that we’re more likely to laugh aloud at a movie when we’re in company, whether at home with friends or in the dark of cinema with strangers. But for crying to be equally contagious is more shameful than sweet.

This is not a permanent and universal condition: Enlightened 18th-century French and English gentlemen of fine sensibilities as well as passionate 19th-century Romantics felt a regular show of tears in apt company was de rigueur. But we cool 21st-century customers prefer to suppress public sniffles, unless you’re a celebrity or politician in need of career redemption. At the movies we’ll allow a few brief tears, but only with embarrassment do we indulge in the kinds of gulping sobs over doomed dogs and estranged toy cowboys that we might permit ourselves in private.

As a rare exception, TFIOS’s ugly-cry-fest intrigues me, because in the past couple of months—noticing that as I get older I’m becoming a softer touch for pop-culture pathos—I’ve begun a larger project of investigating what transpires when people cry over art, and what meaning we can take away from those tears: From where do we inherit our protocols and hierarchies of emotion, and how well are they serving us?

I’ve done surveys of friends and acquaintances asking them what art makes them cry and why, and started reading into the question’s long philosophical history and more recent neurological and social-science research. For instance, communications scholars at Ohio State University in 2012 studied people’s perspectives before and after watching the gloomy epic Atonement, and found that the benefit of the ordeal was not in cathartic emotional purging nor even schadenfreude: It was that the narrative spurred them to reflect back on their own relationships, like a kind of mindfulness booster shot.

Still, that seems too limited a cause for the ancient, global, and reputedly uniquely human practice of shedding tears, not only over our own sadness but over made-up stories, pictures, and songs. In particular with TFIOS, that inner-reflection explanation doesn’t seem like it would apply as much to teenagers (aren’t they incessantly obsessing over their social relationships anyway?), nor does it show why people would make a communal event of it, heading excitedly out in packs to TFIOS’s super-bawl. What might we imagine the teens are seeking, and why with this movie in particular, and how if at all do we factor its power as a tear-delivery system into its value as an artwork?

People congregate to weep collectively in many cultures and circumstances—sometimes in religious rituals of self-flagellation, or with designated keeners and wailers at funerals, usually women, whose role is to intensify group mourning by setting off chain reactions. In various cities around the world today there are “misery clubs” with names like Loss, where people who feel their daily lives don’t offer enough emotional release can join up with the like-hearted for a good blubber, often fueled by a mopey movie.

Likewise, lachrymose expectations greet any concert by sorrow specialists such as Portuguese fado singers, their pop-chart equivalents like Céline Dion or (in the irony-enhanced division) Morrissey, emo bands like Dashboard Confessional, or even the solo-piano segment of an otherwise upbeat Taylor Swift show.

That said, the adolescent sob flick seems to occupy its own category. Each generation has at least one, whether The Notebook or that foundational screen-teen text, Rebel Without a Cause. Deirdre Dolan in the New York Observer in 1998 reported on “Streetwise Adolescents Drowning in Their Titanic Tears,” describing a very TFIOS-like scene of groups of teens attending the James Cameron blockbuster over and over with the express intention of breaking down. She quotes one 16-year-old boy who spontaneously reconceives the Aristotelian model of catharsis: “Like, say you have a lot of little things building up, you can just wash them all away. The first time I saw it, I started crying when she jumped off the lifeboat, and the second time, I started in the opening credits.”

One thing you can usually rely on in the teen-teardrops field—unlike in adult melodramas, which can as easily be about marriage, family, interpersonal conflict, etc.—is that somebody will get sick and/or die. In fact, narratives of illness and death go back to the historical wellspring of teendom, as U.K. rock critic Jon Savage shows in his essential Teenage: The Prehistory of Youth Culture. In Goethe’s 1774 The Sorrows of Young Werther, the elder brother of all YA lit, the lead character’s passionately tormented, foppish, lovelorn delicacy culminates in suicide, inspiring fashionable young imitators (some of them all too literally) across Europe, like an 18th-century version of Bauhaus or Joy Division.

But Savage also describes the 1875 journals of French 17-year-old Marie Bashkirtseff—an eloquent girl who is as fixated upon 24-year-old Emile Audriffet as TFIOS’s clever and articulate Hazel Grace Lancaster becomes with Augustus Waters, and likewise suffers from life-threatening illness, the symptoms of undiagnosed tuberculosis.

She roils with adolescent heat to “burn everything, to be in exasperation, to suffer everything and live, and live!” And yet she also laments that “death for me is a close relative,” and fears that if her journals are read after her passing, people would not perceive in them the first “photograph … of a woman’s existence,” but tut, “Poor child, she was in love with Audriffet, and all her despair comes from that.”

Bashkirtseff’s journals were published in 1887, after her death from TB, and became a TFIOS-like international hit. They were discussed in popular magazines in Europe and America as an unprecedented insight into female adolescence, and even praised by the British prime minister of the day, William Gladstone, as revealing “a true genius, one of those abnormal beings who … seem to be born into the world once or twice in a generation.” Or, if you’re a YA novelist or filmmaker, once or twice a season.

From there the pattern was set: The ultimate teen is a dead teen. TFIOS makes a point of linking its heroine to Anne Frank (controversially, in the screen version), and then there are all the icons (often in their 20s, but still avatars of adolescence) from Rimbaud and Keats to James Dean and the teen death songs of his era, to River Phoenix, Kurt Cobain, and Aaliyah, and back to the O.G. star-crossed duo, Romeo and Juliet. Not to mention the latest YA pop-culture sensations before TFIOS, the already-dead teen vampires of Twilight, and the mortally imperiled underage warriors of The Hunger Games.

On the surface it’s obvious why: A dead teen will never age, lose her beauty and idealism, and become that worst of all beings, an adult. But there are other elements in motion: We say that reckless adolescents have no sense of their own mortality, but they are often preoccupied with it as an abstract fact, grappling for the first time with the existential puzzle. This, along with their extreme mood swings, can produce a kind of fascination, a fear-attraction to death’s shadow.

This makes death continuous in a way with romance. It can be symbolic not only of the loss of childhood but of the promise and threat of eros. As common Great Unknowns, sex and death can seem like mirror images to young adolescents. And for girls particularly there’s even some realism in the thought that while it sometimes feels like one might die for lack of sex, seeking it is nearly as dangerous, with its risks of pregnancy, disease, and violence—the whole treatment of desperate virginity versus fatal vampire sex in Twilight is so comically blatant it’s barely a metaphor. Poetically, death is adolescent sexuality’s evil twin, even a formidable rival. In TFIOS sex happens mostly off-screen (question: after their mutual deflowering, do Gus and Hazel ever do it again?), but dying is ever in the foreground.

You might say that the teen weepie picture is cathartic of all these adolescent anxieties, but theorists are increasingly dubious about whether or not catharsis exists, at least where tears are concerned. Do you actually purge emotions when you cry over art? Perhaps instead you acquire some emotions you’ve never had before, in response to unfamiliar situations, as if in a kind of rehearsal—for instance, for the eventual experience of losing someone you love. Maybe screen sorrow provides practice at both feeling and channeling feeling.

After all, a teenager is at best a few years past phases of childhood when crying fits weren’t something she could consciously manage. What a pleasure, then, to choose to cry, perhaps along with your friends, and then have the movie end and come slowly back to neutral. And then do it again. It might relate to potential emotional trauma the way a climbing wall or a roller coaster can act upon a fear of heights, as a kind of exposure therapy.

In her book Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church, Christian scholar Kenda Creasy Dean finds evidence of that quest for emotional limits in a coming-of-age tale that predates even Goethe, St. Augustine’s Confessions. In his youth, Augustine wrote, he “loved to suffer, and sought out occasions for such suffering.” Dean adds, “Youth still want to suffer in the Augustinian sense … to be completely affected, to be moved by overwhelming experience—the louder, the weirder, the wilder, the sadder, the better, so it seems. Tears are the measure of being passionately affected, and the knowledge that tears can be manipulated does nothing to mitigate their hold on us.”

Tom Lutz, in his 1999 book Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears (where I also came across Dolan’s Titanic report) points out that tears often have been seen, however wrongly, as guarantors of truth, less able to lie than mere words. The notion speaks to the adolescent fever for authenticity, for sorting the real from what Holden Caulfield would call phony.

Yet Lutz also points out another benefit of crying—a kinkier one, if you credit neurological evidence that pleasure and pain centers are adjacent in the brain, suggesting points on a spectrum of sensation rather than opposite poles. So maybe a melodramatic movie is more like emotional S&M, and the expelling of tears not entirely unlike, well, other enjoyable fluid releases associated with this point in the life cycle.

Which gets us back to why people might look askance at movies like The Fault in Our Stars in ways they don’t interrogate comedies: Perhaps it’s just an excuse for an emotional wank and therefore is exploiting for effect rather than genuinely confronting the awful realities of young people dying of cancer. Can the imperatives of melodramatic emotional climax and the ground-level truths of families dealing with mortal illness actually be reconciled? TFIOS has been praised for reintroducing realism to the YA movie genre, but it’s easy to see the risks that accompany that attempt and the price of getting it wrong.

Young-adult fantasy fictions such as The Hunger Games and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series or Buffy the Vampire Slayer avoid such pitfalls by transposing adolescent crisis into allegorical fantasy worlds, while still treating it with seriousness. If a character is wounded by an arrow or an errant stake, you undergo the encounter with death, the need for vicarious emotional experience, the introspection and all the other salutary effects of the cultural crying game, but in a safer, set-aside arena.

The trouble is, that approach seems to draw a boundary rather than a bridge between teen and adult fiction, and sacrifice some of literature’s power to link us to our contemporaries’ inner lives. If you read The Fault in Our Stars, Green is scrupulous about grounding the cancer theme, keeping the disease from becoming its own kind of superpower that bestows superior wisdom and transcendent love. The mundane details of illness, the limiting subculture of exile in “Cancervania,” and the constant coping with patronization and misaimed sympathy pervade Hazel’s narration.

It’s much harder for the movie, both in its commercial impulses and in its sheer visual explicitness, to do justice to that interiority. The mass cult audience for any successful YA book shrilly demands a literal fealty to the original. Plot points must be checked off and so must beloved lines of dialogue and capital-letter Epiphanies, with little space for connective tissue. The result, I’m afraid, is that to the uninitiated the film is closer to the negative stereotype of the teen tearjerker than, for example, last year’s The Spectacular Now, also starring Shailene Woodley and penned by the same screenwriters.

I bring this up because I think the TFIOS weeping wave comes with a quirk: My theory is that most participants are kids who read the book and are granting the film a pass by projecting into it the qualities they already love. The huge returns of its June 6 opening, which put it atop that weekend’s box office, began to dive the very next day; this weekend, it fell 67 percent in revenues, to fifth place. Translation: Its core fans are not pulling in legions of new converts.

I experienced this effect myself when I attended the movie twice in a row, fresh from the novel (mainly via Kate Rudd’s superb performance on the seven-hour audiobook). At 7 p.m. the theater was full of teenagers. By the three-quarters mark in the film, the Richter level of nasal and epiglottal incidents in the room was sufficient to constitute an unofficial second soundtrack. I was among that chorus, cheeks soaked, moved by my memory of being moved by the novel and moved by the mood of the crowd.

But in the second, later screening, with an older and less invested audience, I began to watch TFIOS more as a film and leave the book behind. It started to seem kind of dreadful—overdone dialogue, several posturing performances, lumpy pacing, stiff cinematography, overcranked tweemo soundtrack. Woodley’s perfect incarnation of Hazel and Laura Dern’s solidity as her mom were still powerful, but I don’t think many in the house got verklempt.

When the novel brings on the waterworks, they are tears of empathy—with the film, they are much closer to what Hazel emphatically does not want: idealization and pity. Despite its protestations, and Green’s own endorsement, the movie is not far from being a gender-reversed Love Story, a typical cancer movie with a few twists and updates.

This is not to dismiss the life experiences the teen misery clubs are having with their #TFIOSfeels. But it does make me doubt the film will join the lasting landmarks of the genre, compared even to Titanic or, for instance, Say Anything—at which the TFIOS opening voiceover (not from the novel) takes an utterly unearned swipe, about movies in which everything is “fixed with a Peter Gabriel song.” (Dear TFIOS director Josh Boone: You wish. Yours, Cameron Crowe.) (Also: Dear Ed Sheeran: Good luck. Yours, Peter Gabriel.)

The missed chance is a shame, as Green’s novel has all the makings. But it called for a form as of-the-moment as its narrative voice, such as an HBO or Netflix miniseries: Today’s TV, after all, is the acme of tear-manufacturing machines, since the hours we viewers spend with series characters serve to bond us, which can make protagonists’ later misfortunes devastating.

A TFIOS miniseries might have tackled public ignorance of the features and customs of Cancerland with more of the rich texture of the book. It could have immersed the viewer in the dragging passage of Hazel’s days and years in the outlands of illness, in the fearfully slow progress of her relationship with Gus, and in the excruciating decay into the conclusive Terrible Event—that is, all the “little infinities … within the numbered days” that become Hazel’s most prized possession.

And with all that, it might have done much more to prove that “tearjerker” need not be a slur. It can be a time-honored artistic mission into the wilds of human vulnerability, which are only as simple as you make them out to be.