It’s no surprise to women today that men in public life have greater choices about the way they present themselves on camera and to the media.
You may recall that many leaders have been captured on camera displaying what used to be called feminine displays of emotion with no negative consequences. For example, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf cried at a Christmas Eve ceremony in front of his troops. Jon Stewart and David Letterman choked up with impunity just after 9/11. Have you noticed that, ironically, a few U.S. presidents considered to be among the best speakers — Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — tend(ed) to get emotional in public? And now, the new House speaker-elect, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, tends to cry early and often during policy debates.
How do we make sense of Boehner’s emotional outbursts? A statesman is thought of as quiet, reserved, an experienced politician, especially one who is respected for making good judgments. Do statesmen (or stateswomen) cry uncontrollably when debating a policy? Notice that unsuccessful Nevada Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle is nowhere in sight chastising one of her own with a “Man Up!” retort as she did to outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
UC Riverside professor Tom Lutz challenges myths about crying when he writes that “all the research suggests that we cry, in fact, because we don’t know what we’re feeling.”
Boehner’s tears may be confusing to the listener and/or viewer because of the inconsistency between his words and his deeds; i.e., he says he gets emotional about wanting everyone to have a piece of the American Dream, and yet he votes against the economic stimulus bill, increasing financial aid to college students and the minimum wage, and for retaining $120 billion in bonus tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. What’s a voter to think (or not)?
But Boehner can get away with uncontrollable weeping because both men and women tend to feel for a big guy who doesn’t care what people think about seeing him express his emotions. Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute explains:
“When men cry, we shrug it off or we say isn’t it nice that he’s able to show his sensitive emotional side,” he said. “When women cry, we go, oops, there go those emotions again, they can’t serve in top public office; they’re not tough enough.”
Taking the behavior at face value, which most of us do, the double standard works in men’s favor (again). So what else is new?
The classic film Adam’s Rib (1949) captured the stereotype well as when Spencer Tracy said to Katharine Hepburn, “Here we go again, the old juice. Guaranteed heart melter. A few female tears, stronger than any acid.”
Except for Lutz, nobody questions the motives of men who shed a tear, but they do question women’s sincerity when they do, and even when they don’t or might have. For example, 60 years after Adam’s Rib, when Hillary Clinton teared up during her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, the media focused on whether it was sincere or merely a manipulative device to gain public sympathy. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote:
“There was poignancy about the moment, seeing Hillary crack with exhaustion from decades of yearning to be the principal rather than the plus-one. But there was a whiff of Nixonian self-pity about her choking up.”
Mindreader Dowd interpreted a tear in Hillary’s eye to mean that:
“What was moving her so deeply was her recognition that the country was failing to grasp how much it needs her. In a weirdly narcissistic way, she was crying for us. But it was grimly typical of her that what finally made her break down was the prospect of losing.”
Self-pity. Narcissism. Crack up. Breakdowns. Sore loser! Sheesh! What a nasty list of adjectives in a piece that helped to undermine the candidate and her campaign.
A young business or professional woman in today’s modern world thinks she can have it all and be anything she wants to be, and maybe she can, until she sticks her neck out in a campaign and her ambition becomes visible. Picture a giraffe seeking the leaves at the top of the tree. The rhetorical tradition reflects women’s place in a “man’s world.” After all, Quintilian’s depiction of the ideal orator is someone who is “above all a good man” (sic) with a “consummate ability in speaking.” When women want to take power by seeking the highest levels of office, the critics of her presentation style will be harsh, particularly when women show vulnerability.
As scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson points out, “only a person whose credibility is firm can risk adopting a style traditionally considered weak.” Outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., commented: “If I cry, it’s about the personal loss of a friend or something like that,” she said. “But when it comes to politics, no, I don’t cry.” As a recipient of harsh criticisms of her speaking style, she would know about the ugly caricatures that the media and the public — with the help of the Internet and Saturday Night Live — can level at a women leader.
Everyone gets only one chance to make a first impression, but when the speaker is a woman, she must also seize public attention as an opportunity to gain credibility as “the voice of authority.” As long as people are skeptical about their ability to be leaders in the first place, I would advise women speakers that crying in public is best left to those incapable of speech — namely, infants.