If Oscar winners were chosen based on barrels of tears shed, Coco, Lady Bird, and Call Me by Your Name would be in a dead heat for Best Picture. Check your social media feeds, especially Twitter, and you’ll find critics and civilians alike chronicling not only which movies made them weep but how many times, how hard, and for how long. “Ladybird was really good but at the same time it’s making me cry really hard at a bus stop in front of strangers so I hate it,” reads a typical example. Forget word of mouth. This awards season, it’s all about tears on Twitter.
Heaving sobs, of course, aren’t necessarily an indication of cinematic excellence; there’s a reason why the term tearjerker carries dismissive connotations. I myself walked out of Coco with soggy sleeves but an overall sense of disappointment. So what accounts for the tsunami of tears on social media, which, during last year’s flood, may have been one of many factors that contributed to Moonlight’s triumph at the Academy Awards? (Teary raves on social media, after all, kept the unlikely winner in the conversation through awards season.) The answer has a lot to do with the kinds of instincts and emotions that social media encourages and the very specific ways that these networks allow us to express them.
Foremost is narcissism. Speaking as someone who has most definitely posted about crying in the theater, let’s be real: Writing that I left a movie with a wet face says as much about me as it does about the movie, if not more. In the case of a “great” film like Lady Bird, such “confessions” double as brags. Those who announce they wailed during Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut publicly mark themselves as both artistic connoisseurs and real-life analogues of Saoirse Ronan’s lovable and precocious if bratty title character. There’s a performative sensitivity to some of these social missives, too. An online culture of competitive authenticity and wokeness has begotten a tendency to pose as more receptive and empathetic than thou. Applied to cinephilia, you get umpteen tweets about “ugly-crying” at Lady Bird or (usually men) jokingly bemoaning the dust that made them tear up during Coco.
Even if such posts were intentional boasts (and I doubt they all are), that’s not strictly a bad thing. An emotional reaction to a film, particularly an unexpected one, might lead to greater introspection about why a movie had the impact that it did. The tears that stung writer Meredith Woerner’s eyes during Wonder Woman’s early fight scenes, for example, led to a larger conversation (we might call it film cry-ticism) about how seldom we see women’s martial strength on display in blockbusters. A tweet that recommends a movie solely on the basis of its Bellagio-esque waterworks has its critical value, too, in asserting the merits of a melodramatic mode. Weepies have never enjoyed a lofty reputation, since the genre is seen as emotionally manipulative (as if that weren’t the point of most art) and associated with girls and women. But these responses suggest that plenty of people simply want to go to the movies to cry. The tear-soaked adulations for several of this year’s awards season competitors hopefully herald a future in which films won’t be penalized for baldly pulling on the heartstrings.
Such informal recuperation of feminized genres is vital, but the more likely explanation for why Facebook and Twitter drowned in tears during the opening weekends of Coco and company is that the social media giants have long encouraged us to exhibit our emotions. Mass communication on the internet has always incorporated some sort of imagistic component; before emojis, we let colons, parentheses, and other combinations of punctuation marks speak for us. Facebook, Twitter, and other companies have built on that pre-existing gravitation toward focusing on and amplifying our emotions. These days we’re offered one of six sentiments with which to respond to a Facebook post while typing “congrats” on Facebook Messenger will trigger a menu of GIFs that, when shared, are meant to heighten positive feelings through animation and/or exaggeration. And, of course, such emotional expressions, good and bad, are facilitated by screens. It’s much easier to type that The Big Sick made us cry, especially to strangers or acquaintances we rarely see in person, than it is to say it aloud to a friend in the unpredictable meatspace.
Is crying during the last scenes of Lady Bird a noteworthy emotional event or just part of life’s minutiae? Does the difference matter on Facebook, where they vie for the same hearts, wows, or sunset-hued rage faces as every other life update? That leveling of urgency makes it difficult to know whether we should consider these accounts of movie crying important or irritating. On the one hand, a greater emotional openness and a democratization of the conversations about how art influences us surely count as progress. On the other, I’m not all that interested in someone tallying their teardrops to post the sum on Twitter.
I’m not here to be anyone’s sob police. Cry if you want to; tell the world about it if you feel compelled. But it’s worth examining how we have come to express ourselves the way that we do, especially on platforms that coax us into performing our identities in the ways that they design: through emotionality, hyperbole, narcissism, and authority through (seeming) intimacy. The moviegoing cry-terati would do well to take a page from the groundbreaking directors they admire to remind themselves that there’s more than one way to tell their story.