New Hampshire: Hillary's tears work wonders, but devalued currency in feminist circles
London ~~ Thursday January 10 2008
For crying out loud!By Germaine Greer
Hillary Clinton claims the turning point in her presidential campaign was when she almost burst into tears. But was her emotion even genuine - and when did we start falling for such sob stories
Watching Hillary Clinton pretending to get teary-eyed is enough to make me give up shedding tears altogether. The currency, you might say, has become devalued. Lumps in the throat are henceforth to be swallowed. I shall adopt once more the obduracy of my childhood when the mother of all beatings would not elicit so much as a single drop from either eye. Grit teeth, breathe deep, and don't bloody well cry. Fat chance, when every time I catch sight on the telly of that polar bear straddling his melting ice-floe, I spout tears like a weepie-doll.
Hillary's feeble display of emotion, while answering questions from voters in a cafe in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on Monday, is supposed to have done her campaign the world of good. If it has, it's because people have wished a tear into her stony reptilian eye, not because there actually was one. What caused her to get all mooshy was her mention of her own love of her country. Patriotism has once more proved a valuable last refuge for a scoundrel. Hillary's clipped diction did not falter; all she had to do was take the steel edge off her voice and our imaginations did the rest. Hillary was human after all. Fear and loathing fled New Hampshire, Hillary scored against the run of play, and all it took was the suspicion of a tear. Or so they say. Can the moral of the story be: when you're up against it, don't fight back, just cry? As if too many women don't already use tears as a power-tool. Over the years I've had to deal with more than one manipulative student who produced tears instead of work; my standard response was to say, "Don't you dare cry. I'm the one who should be crying. It's my time and effort that's being wasted." Let's hope Hillary's crocodile effort doesn't encourage more women to use tears to get their way.
For most of the 20th century, we refused to cry. Though chins might tremble, upper lips remained stiff. In those days piping your eye was no more dignified than any other involuntary discharge of bodily fluid, be it snot, blood, seminal fluid or urine. In common with all the above, tears were expelled in secret, in the toilet, or in bed under the covers. During the second world war, nobody cried and the nation remained dry-eyed for many a year afterwards. Jack Charlton used to say that if ever he saw one of his players cry when they lost he would feel that he would never trust him again. Crying was babyish; a sniveller, girl or boy, was a weakling.
The expression "crying like a baby" may have physiological relevance; one explanation of the uniquely human propensity to weep is that it is developed in the human infant as an attention-getting mechanism, which is generally repressed in adult humans. Why tears should elicit attention is another matter. Some of our ancestors thought crocodiles wept to allure their human prey, others that deer wept when they shed their horns, and others that elephants weep, but they are all wrong. Among land animals only humans weep. Therefore, if Hillary wept, Hillary must be human. Wrong. Penguins and other sea-creatures weep.
The bizarre emotional orgy that greeted the accidental death of Diana, Princess of Wales, was the first obvious sign that the British attitude to weeping had undergone a transformation.We are now a nation of blubberers who do grief on a massive scale. A child gets mown down on a pedestrian crossing and within minutes converging processions of snivelling people arrive to lay flowers, soft toys and mawkish messages at the scene. Can they all have known the unfortunate child? Could they all have liked her? Candle-lit vigils, services of thanksgiving, a celebration of the life produce apparently limitless numbers of schoolgirls sobbing on each other's shoulders. Nowadays it is not enough to make a public appeal for help in locating a missing person, it must be an emotional appeal, with lots of gargling and choking and, if possible, tears.
To cry or not to cry can be a tricky decision. Cry too often and either nobody will respond or everyone will get angry. Cry too easily and you look as silly as Martin "Wolfie" Adams, who became so sodden with tears after beating Phil Nixon in the first round of the darts World Championship last Sunday that the BBC had to turn the cameras off. Cry too rarely and you'll split your weasand trying to gasp out the first sob.
Men are still not expected to cry anywhere near as much as women and children, and when they do the effect is very different. When Sam Taylor-Wood decided to make a work called Crying Men, she didn't prowl the streets with a camera looking for crying men, and if she had she wouldn't have found any. Instead she approached 27 actors and directed them to cry. Some found it easy, others impossible. One account of what happened in the studio says that Taylor-Wood asked each man to cry as if he had come to her funeral and was about to lay a rose on her coffin. The most impressive of the photographs show the male mask of control cracking up, like tectonic plates shifting in an earthquake. We see disintegration, but, disturbingly, it is phony, unspontaneous, stage-managed disintegration. Men here are producing tears as if they were calculating women. When Hillary got emotional, her face smoothed out; she looked prettier than usual - and she certainly sounded a lot prettier. If she had looked as hideous as Michael Gambon getting teary for Taylor-Wood she would have turned the media off instead of on.
It takes a lot of self-discipline to be able to remain attractive while weeping. When you learned to weep as a baby, you began by screwing your eyes up tight, opening your mouth wide and bawling like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall strangling his umpteenth crippled pullet on his new TV show this week. After the first minute or so a ribbon of snot would have begun to descend from your baby nostril. As you grew up you learned to moderate these expressions of grief or rage, especially if you were hoping for a favourable response, so you canned the racket, and learned the trembling-chin, suffusing-eye routine. Depend upon it: adepts who can produce a succession of pearly tears to course down the cheeks with neither a grimace nor accompanying mucus have practised the art of attractive weeping. Even they cannot prevent eyes, nose and lips from becoming swollen and red. Remaining pale and composed while producing floods of tears requires high art. Hillary's slight mistiness was entirely artful but far less accomplished.
Weeping can be, and sometimes should be, performance. To go to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem on the Day of Atonement, for example, and not to mourn the destruction of the Temple would be disgraceful. Whether you really feel grief at your sins or not, you have got to work yourself up for a bit of garment-rending when that is what is expected. At funerals the idea used to be that to fail to produce evidence of grief was to disrespect the deceased, and so in all kinds of societies throughout human history professional mourners, wailers or keeners, have been paid to produce hireling tears. Because tears are as contagious as yawns, professional mourners, like a lugubrious version of cheerleaders, were there to whip up the crowd to ever more extravagant expressions of grief. Like cheerleaders they were often dancers and acrobats. Other ritual expressions of grief ensure the presence of real tears by inflicting pain. In some Australian Aboriginal communities bereaved womenfolk are expected to gash their heads with stone axes and knives, which presumably provokes a goodly watering of eyes as well as copious shedding of blood.
Contrariwise, crying can be unpardonable self-indulgence. An adult should not cry in front of children, because the sight and sound fill them with dread. We don't cry in front of people who are labile, people who are old and ill, for example, because they will start crying too. Good manners preclude crying in front of people who need every ounce of their psychic strength if they are to survive. In Bati famine shelter in 1984, as I looked on while dignified Ethiopians washed the wasted bodies of their dead children and prepared them for burial, I had to dig my nails into my palms until the blood came, if I was not to shatter their composure with my howls of grief and rage. By the time I got through that terrible day my throat muscles were so stiff from the effort of not crying that I couldn't speak above a whisper.
When Paul Gascoigne burst into tears after England lost to Germany in the semi-final of the World Cup in 1990 we all wanted to hug him and kiss him better. When he did it again in 1998 after Glen Hoddle left him out of the squad, we were just annoyed. David Beckham brushing away a tear as he takes Brooklyn to school for his first day is, as usual, adorable. Anyone would forgive Ronaldo for weeping after Portugal was knocked out in 2004 because he was just a baby and a cute one at that. Cry if you must, as long as the tears don't come from self-pity or grievance. When a red-eyed Margaret Thatcher left Downing Street in 1990, her tears were justified by shock at her treatment. When Cherie Blair snivelled about her hard, hard life as a working mum, that is to say, rapacious opportunist and self-publicist, the nation's heart, already flinty towards her, hardened to diamond. We, the public, were the ones who should have been crying with disgust and disappointment at the utter shabbiness of New Labour and the deep embarrassingess of the prime minister's moll.
Shedding tears is good for you. What distinguishes the tears of emotion from normal eye-wetting and -watering is the presence in them of certain proteins that are by-products of stress, principally prolactin. Ideally, tears come as a consequence of the stress-inducing situation only when the immediate crisis is past. Because tears blur vision, it is best not to be crying when you're involved in stressful activity, for example, driving. Women have bigger tear ducts than men, produce much more prolactin than men, and cry more than men. They are also quite likely to cry when they are driving away from the stressful situation, from visiting their old mum, or a sick child in hospital or a recalcitrant lover. Crying while driving is far more dangerous than using your mobile phone but there is no law against it.
You can overdo it. The sight of one's own tears can be as effective in producing more tears as the sight of somebody else's. You can end up drunk with your own tears and go on weeping because you can't stop. After so many years of barely weeping at all, the British have become absurdly and irrationally maudlin. So emotionally unstable are we now you'd think we were all suffering from senile dementia. There are some tough challenges ahead and we'll need our wits about us if we're to address them. Soppiness will get us, and Hillary Clinton, nowhere.