The Perils of Public Emotion

With the recent tearful confession of Rep. Anthony Weiner regarding his oh-so-personal tweets to women other than his wife, I was reminded, yet again, that public displays of emotion remain a treacherous path to traverse.

How many tearful, choked up, or otherwise emotional confessions of infidelity or bathroom stall foot-tapping have we seen from politicians in recent years? All, of course, from men. The tearful mea culpa of the modern male politician has become so commonplace that we, the collective viewing public, have become nearly immune. The inevitable press conference, just the next piece of chum for the gnashing sharks of the 24-hour media outlets. It’s a sign of a man kicking himself for getting caught, eating a bit of crow publicly in order to retain a fundraising base and being accepted back into the fold of the establishment.

Our feelings about the crying politician confessing his cheating ways is now running parallel with the frequent tears of Majority Leader John Boehner, a man who wears his heart on his sleeve and isn’t bashful about sharing his emotions with his public. Many applaud Boehner for his passionate candor and willingness to share his most heartfelt feelings, and many find humor and an opportunity to mock Boehner’s crying.

The question that has been rolling around in my brain lately is this: If it were Nancy Pelosi tearing up over HCR or Hillary Clinton tearfully admitting to infidelity would we feel differently? How would we respond? Would our feelings about Pelosi or Clinton’s strength and feminism change? How? Why?

The remorseful male politician “weathers” the media storm of his infidelity. Some give into to the pressures of his party and seeks “treatment” or makes a quick and immediate retirement to return to “family.” Others go on to serve for years, even decades in public service and are highly respected and lauded for their service. Take Barney Frank’s hiring of a male prostitute to work in his office and home in the late 80’s, as example. A storm weathered, a politician still serving with the respect of his constituents and his colleagues. Would this be the case for a woman?

Taking politics as just one paradigm, the larger issue here, of course, is the notion of public displays of emotion, distress or sadness and how these reactions vary between the genders, how each gender is perceived and treated because of such displays. Would a woman in power – politics, business or otherwise – be rewarded or applauded for publicly tearing up or crying? I assert the answer is staunchly, no.

It is easy to point the finger at the age-old binary of gender issues – “men vs. women” etc. Easy, but wrong. This is, in many cases, less about men pointing a mocking finger at women for being “emotional” and more about women pointing an accusatory finger at each other. In the wake of the women-in-business boom of the 1980s and the rise and prosperity of Third Wave Feminism from the late-1980s to now, many women are less accepting of displays of emotion from their own and more desiring of  a “male” character of aggressive assertiveness and tough exterior. A crying woman is a weak link. The tough, savvy, career-gal the new poster child.

Tears are a weakness, a sign of a lack of strength, a character flaw. A woman who discusses her emotions publicly, who bares herself in a moment of tumult or fear is seen as an embarrassment. Why? What’s the difference between a woman openly sharing her feelings about an issue or an event and a man? Is one reaction less “real”? Less merit worthy? Why do applaud a man for being open about how he feels but minimize and peripheralize a woman for the same behavior? More importantly, why has it become commonplace for women to be the leading the charge against each other?

This question is one I take personally, very personally in fact. I have long considered myself a feminist, a flag-waving, march-leading, loud-mouth for the modern feminist movement. As part of that I embrace every woman’s desire to select her own path – be that boardroom or homestead – to conceal or flaunt her body as she sees fit, to embrace or disavow her sexuality, etc. This is the pinnacle of feminism: the purest expression of self. It is through this that I have drawn much strength as I have aged and experienced the new, the frightening, the unfamiliar, etc. Much of my personal strength and perseverance stems from my ardent belief that my voice is meaningful, powerful, and worthy. Which is why an event at the end of April was so disturbing to me and has led me to ponder the question of emotion in public at length.

An afternoon “joke” made by a friend on Twitter hit me the wrong way. I saw it as a flippant jab, he, obviously, did not. He thought my bristling was about, of all things, cupcakes. Whereas I knew it wasn’t about cupcakes but rather his seemingly immediate dismissal of any opinion divergent from his own. The argument played out mostly off the public discussion environment of Twitter, though some of it did. Many wanted to offer advice, step in to mediate, referee and assist in any way possible. But the situation still deteriorated.

The context of the initial argument quickly became unimportant, and soon the issue between us – on Twitter and off – was about deeply hurtful and demeaning language that he used towards me. I didn’t share this with my followers. I never resorted to calling him names, to encouraging others to talk about the event publicly or privately with me on Skype as he had. I chose, after two days of thinking and reflection, to leave Twitter, to take a breath and evaluate how I had responded to the situation.

Over the course of those two days a series of conversations occurred on Twitter, among women, calling me “emotional,” “irrational,” “a dog and pony show,” “a terrible display of bad behavior,” and the final straw was when I was accused of “making everything up.” Did these women know that the man in this argument had called me (among other things): a cunt, a bitch, a pathetic worm, delusional, “one flew over the cuckoos nest,” in need of mental help?

No. Of course not.

Would it have changed their minds about me? I don’t think so. The damage had been done. I had bared a emotional side of me that was expression of myself in the heat of an argument, in the midst of a deeply upsetting few days. My emotions were out there, there was no taking them back. I had demonstrated what many had seen as “poor behavior” and I was now no longer “strong.” No longer could I wear the mantle of being a tough, strong woman. No longer was my character held in esteem. Now I was nothing more than the pathetic woman who displayed her emotions in public and needed to be unfollowed and rebuked for it.

So often women feel the need to pander to the male element in society. To deny an aspect of themselves, to minimize that which is “feminine” in order to be seen as an equal. In doing so we think this makes us tougher, better women. We think this is feminism. So much of the impetus for Third Wave Feminism was a denial of the militant women’s organizations of the Second Wave, of the 1960s. A desire to prove that women can be strong, assertive, and self-aware without hating men. So we deny our emotions, we blur the lines between “male” and “female” in order to disguise the aspects of our character and psychology that we perceive to be inferior to the men we seek not to alienate.

But are we really better for it? Can we as women say that swallowing our opinions, our emotions in order to “fit in” to be “liked” has helped us? Do I feel better because I didn’t confront the women who publicly rebuked me for talking about my emotions, um, publicly? No, I don’t. But for me at the time it wasn’t worth it to discuss it with them. To talk to them about what happened in order to change their opinion of me would be value their opinion more than my own. I couldn’t do that to myself.

Taking a risk and sharing about of your emotional side with others is hard. It often takes more courage to share than to swallow those feels and maintain calm waters. It’s time that we all, women and men, realize that the height, the greatest achievement of feminism is the equalization of the sexes. It is seeing each other, tears and all, as equals. If we can pat John Boehner on the back for tearing up when he talks about his life and passion for legislating, than we can pat a woman on the back for publicly talking about her feelings too.


1 Comment

Filed under Culture, Feminism

One response to “The Perils of Public Emotion

  1. Kim

    I missed the goings on with your twitter and emotions and other women. Crying is a momentary release making one feel better and healthier. In my opinion it has nothing to do with weakness, although the person crying feels a bit out of control for a moment. Then he or she is actually stronger, holding it in only weakens the body in the long run. So cry and then laugh cause you did!
    You seem to have a broad and varied blog, kudos!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s