Much has been made of the incoming Speaker’s copious waterworks. Generally, there are two readings of what they mean. One: The fact that John Boehner cries at the drop of a hat means that the world is changing and that gender rules are falling away. If this heavy-smoking, burly-voiced, golf-loving, manly Republican can weep in front of the world, as he did most recently (over and over!) in a 60 Minutes interview , as well as after the Republicans took the House, and on innumerable occasions before that, why, surely our opinion of what constitutes masculinity is changing.
Two: A female politician could never cry like that without being pilloried (read: Hillary’d ). Therefore, the cultural landscape is just as sexist as ever.
The latter argument is more on the money. Here’s why. Boehner’s weeping constitutes something new only in its degree. The man is a faucet. He has cried while explaining how his life is the embodiment of the American Dream . Three times, if you count the 60 Minutes segment . (“What set you off that time?” Lesley Stahl asked at one point in wonder.)
Boehner has also cried while talking about ” providing for the safety and security of the American people” during a debate over Iraq War funding. He has cried during his acceptance of a pro-life award while talking about the fact that his parents had 12 children . He has cried, in other words, while talking about values. His are moral tears, if you will.
As it turns out, this doesn’t break any new ground in terms of gender rules. That’s because, according to Marianne LaFrance, a social psychologist at Yale, while women crying for a whole variety of reasons is socially sanctioned (albeit not in professional settings), there is one type of crying that men engage in far more often than women. It’s crying for the sake of sentimentality.
“Women seldom cry when they’re feeling sentimental,” LaFrance says. “Men are more likely to.” LaFrance calls this crying over “flag, apple pie, children and family…It’s more a value [statement]: ‘These are the things I care about and watch me being caring.’” (Another sentimental cause: football games. Women don’t usually cry over football games. Men do.)
Sentimentality is not a core emotion like sadness or anger. A man crying from core emotions might be seen as weak and ineffectual. But Boehner crying from the strength of his convictions works out for him because it implies “that he comes from really good stock,” LaFrance says. Which is not to say he’s doing it on purpose – just that all of us unconsciously absorb what type of crying is permissible for us and what type isn’t.
Sentimental crying doesn’t read as terribly personal. It’s a distanced kind of crying, an almost intellectual kind of crying. (Another big-time male weeper, Glenn Beck, also tends to cry from a place of sentimentality, over things like American values. It is intended to communicate how deeply he cares about the fate of our country, though it often comes off as hammy.)
All of which is why, while it’s true that a female pol couldn’t get away with Boehner’s waterworks, we shouldn’t consider his tears remarkable for anything other than their copiousness. Rather than breaking gender stereotypes, the incoming Speaker is perched carefully inside them, bawling his eyes out.
Photograph of John Boehner by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.