We need to stop obsessing over women’s tears and what they might mean

The clamour around Theresa May’s resignation is subsiding, with the new Conservative leadership election well under way. But Twitter continues, rather sadistically, to pore over that haggard image of Theresa May crying outside No.10. Whether you think ‘sympathy’ for this crying woman is justified, or the sobs were legit, is totally irrelevant. By even analysing her ‘self-indulgent’ tears – and more specifically, her lack of them at times ‘when it mattered’ – we perpetuate damaging stereotypes about ‘expected’ female behaviours and personality traits. She cried at this juncture because she felt like it. The other times she didn’t. Let’s just leave it at that.

It is claimed that crying ‘humanises’ a politician, but this is stupid, because emotions are subjective and personal, and the ‘humanising’ process is only really open to young or liberal individuals. Successful criers and sympathisers are typically affectionate, liberal men (and the occasional liberal woman, such as Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s current Prime Minister, seen hugging victims and crying in a motherly manner after the Christchurch terror attacks, or Hilary Clinton, who broke down during her 2008 Presidential Campaign and swept up the female vote). Male examples include Gordon Brown, when speaking about the death of his daughter on Piers Morgan’s Life Stories; Obama, when he cried during a speech against gun violence and the death of his grandmother; and Justin Trudeau, publicly crying as he met a Syrian refugee.

Unsuccessful or ‘heartless’ displays of emotion, meanwhile, have emanated from older, Conservative women: Margaret Thatcher as she was extricated from office; Angela Merkel when she ‘welled up’ after Obama’s scathing criticisms in a Eurozone Crisis meeting in 2011 but failed to be moved by the plea of a young Palestinian refugee; Theresa May’s most recent public address. A double-standard is in operation, and you can recognise it without agreeing with their politics: while the public go mad over chivalrous outpourings of emotion by stoic political men and the occasional down-to-earth liberal heroine, older, more reserved women are unfairly attacked for failing to be consistently vulnerable, or false when they are. They become ‘head-mistressy’, ‘robotic’ or ‘witch-like.’ 

The way the media has responded to May’s speech exposes the dichotomous patriarchal constructions that dictate female roles in a male political world, of which even Liberal women are not exempt. On the one hand, women who cry are irrational and unfit for leadership. On the other, women who don’t are typically seen as inhumane and frigid, forfeiting their femininity. They can’t win. The new mural of Theresa May’s face on Digbeth Street in Birmingham encapsulates this paradox. Beneath a drawing of her crying sobs is written ‘STRONG AND STABLE’ in mocking terms. While the words point to the strong-willed political vision she attempted to offer the nation, her tears are weaponised as symbols of its inevitable failure: pathetic manifestations of her female weaknesses.

But at the same time, many other individuals were praising Theresa May for her tears, frustrated that she hadn’t cried sooner. Heidi Allen questioned why Theresa May ‘hadn’t shown that emotion more? Things could have been so different…’. An Independent columnist, likewise, argued that Theresa May’s resignation speech ‘finally did something good for women’, because her cries showed that ‘she’s just another human being’ who actually ‘really cared.’ These comments suggest that as a woman, you must cry to show you care, and you’ll be supported if you do. That seems to be as equally sexist as the presumed link between female tears and fragile irrationality.

In fact, demanding tactical tears for every occurring tragedy or political manoeuvre is absurd: it’s a standard we wouldn’t hold men to. Mrs May’s policy record is poor – there’s no denying it. Her decision to continue depriving Universal Credit of necessary investment has disproportionately affected low-income single mothers, while her ‘hostile environment’ policy criminalised refugees. But having said this, it is still hypocritical to expect May – and other female leaders – to cry at such daily injustices. While many of us feel desperately for the plight of those suffering in society today, we might not necessarily cry for them. Those calling out false equivalences between May’s ‘selfish’ job-loss tears and the dry-eyed face she presented to Grenfell Tower and Windrush victims probably don’t cry about such scandals either. If they do, well good for them. Showing your emotion isn’t an objective science: just because we don’t cry it doesn’t mean we don’t feel.  

By expecting female politicians to be pure, affectionate, and conveniently-emotional (lest they otherwise be portrayed as cold-hearted, power-hungry, spinster-like iron ladies), we make the office even less attractive for female political hopefuls both left and right-wing. In craving emotional displays, we simply demonstrate a weird fetishisation of watching people suffer. Better to just not talk about the crying at all, because then we can’t set up impossible emotional conditions for female leaders to meet.  Crying says nothing about a person’s humanity. It’s just a topic loaded with sexism and ageism.