Some are calling right-wing Ohio Republican John Boehner “The Weeper of the House,” as he strengthens his control over the US House of Representative’s agenda. New Speaker Boehner openly tears-up when he talks of his own working class background and his personal success in achieving “the American Dream.”
Speculators say he’s mentally unstable or that this reflects trouble with alcoholism. I wouldn’t be surprised if both were true.
But there’s a larger issue too. John Boehner has to navigate its waters as carefully as any other male.
What he’s doing when he sobs in public is pushing the boundaries of an exacting and complicated code of masculinity regarding the expression of emotions other than anger and “righteous” indignation. How can a man get away with this without being put down as weak, feminine, or gay?
Imagine the chorus of criticism if Nancy Pelosi reacted with tears. There’d be little pity. Her ability to lead would be suspect.
She’d be labeled a hysterical woman unable to control her feelings. We’d hear putdowns in terms of uncontrollable monthly cycles and the spread of fear that we don’t want her as our leader in times of military crisis.
In the short-lived TV series, “Commander in Chief,” its woman President of the United States had to prove otherwise. In every crisis situation, particularly numerous military ones, she had to be tough-as-nails and militaristic. This was no time to make her a follower of Gandhi or have her demonstrate how non-warrior solutions work better.
While real-life Nancy Pelosi or fictional President McKenzie Allen, show ability, power, and leadership over men, there’s little way either can get kudos for any of this. The more of these they appear to have than the men around them, the more they’re known as “man-haters,” “bitches,” or succubi.
Imagine as well how openly gay Democrat Barney Frank would be criticized if he cried as often as Boehner in public. Frank must keep a stiff upper-lip and use his quick wit as a sharp weapon to best those who criticize him.
Yet when the calm and reasoned Edmond Muskie broke down and cried while defending his wife during the 1972 presidential campaign after the Manchester Union-Leader smeared her, it shattered his reputation as a logical man. Counter-punching by claiming that the “tears” were actually melted snowflakes, didn’t restore his acceptable manly image and became fodder for his enemies.
This is because the dominant masculine code about expressions of feelings, which keeps men from being put down as less than manly, is strictly defined. Most men thereby know that they’re not supposed to cry in public.
They monitor themselves in fear of showing their deficiencies in mastering the code no matter how hurt they really feel. They don’t want to be seen as somehow emotionally out of control in the way women are supposed to be.
Real men also aren’t supposed to talk about this code or spend much time analyzing it. They’re just supposed to internalize it, walk its narrow line, and enforce it on others, fearing the consequences of slipping.
The code does allow men to cry when they have proven they have power over other men as determined by the dominant cultural system. Beat other men first; cry later.
Notice that in some sports there’s a similar permission for a man to smack another on the butt. It’s appropriate because that man has shown his superiority over another — such as after a great play or slam-dunk.
Winning, according to this conditioned code, means defeating another man. Teamwork means a group of men bonding together by beating, defeating, or killing another group of men. So these butt-smackers have recently proven they’re real men.
It’s also appropriate for men to cry when they’ve shown their superiority by winning. But crying when they’ve lost is unmanly.
Thus, Boehner can pull off his crying as long as he comes across as a winner, as long as he shows that he is powerful over others. Effective criticism of his emotions will stick only as he looks like a loser when compared to other men.
And here we see implications of the code for President Obama — who knows this. As in control of his emotions in public as any President and even criticized for it, he’s aware of how deviations by an African-American from such rational calmness will be taken.
There’s a “catch-22” here. A Black male with presidential powers already threatens the power rules of racism. His story of living “the American Dream” is a similar threat to the powers that be, whereas Boehner’s story affirms them.
Obama has little leeway to show emotions since that threatens the dominance that whiteness is supposed to have. And even coolness in the midst of crisis gets interpreted as being uppity, the accusation that resulted in lynchings of African-American males in America for over a hundred years.
Forget a show of anger, because that raises white fears of angry Black men. And Republicans knew how to play on those fears during the last presidential campaign by replaying over and over a snippet of a sermon reflecting standard liberation theology by Jeremiah Wright that said little different than many white fundamentalist preachers about God’s judgment of American morality.
But a man of color crying is only acceptable if it comes out of an appropriate lack of power in the system or from the entertainment industry. Emotional people of color along with flamboyant males have long provided entertainment for white folks after all.
This all fits the American manhood code that ought to be abandoned for the sake of men’s health. Boehner is a straight, upper-class, able-bodied white male with political power.
He fits all the historical demographics for dominance in America. He can cry as long as he symbolizes all the classist, sexist, racist, and heterosexist attributes that allow a man to show emotion and he uses his privilege to convince voters that he remembers what it was like to be one of the poor, unfortunate, pitiful majority with little power.
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas where he taught for 33 years and was department chair for six years, Robert N. Minor (he/him), M.A., Ph.D is the author of 8 books as well as numerous articles and contributions to edited volumes. He is an historian of religion with specialties in Biblical studies, Asian religions, religion and gender and religion and sexuality. His writing has been published in Whosoever since 2005 and he continues to speak and lead workshops around the country. In 1999 GLAAD awarded him its Leadership Award for Education, in 2012 the University of Kansas named him one of the University’s Men of Merit, in 2015 the American Men’s Studies Association gave him the Lifetime Membership Award, and in 2018 Missouri Jobs with Justice presented him with the Worker’s Rights Board Leadership Award. He resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is founder of The Fairness Project.