In the last two weeks, we’ve seen Good Morning America‘s host Lara Spencer ridicule Prince George for his especial love of ballet among the other subjects he’s pursuing outside of school. We’ve seen the public criticize ISRO Chairperson Kailasavadivoo Sivan for crying when Chandrayaan’s Vikram Lander failed to touch down on the Moon’s surface.
Among all of this highly visible public discourse, I’m wondering what message we are sending to young men about what is and is not acceptable, and whether it’s the message we want to be sending as we strive towards a more gender-equitable country. Biologically speaking, baby boys and baby girls are “programmed” to cry equally. They cry the same amount at birth. They cry the same amount for the first five years of their life. So why do we see so many fewer representations of men crying in movies and the media? According to Tony Porter, “around age five, boys get the message that anger is acceptable but that they’re not supposed to show other feelings, like vulnerability.”
In other words, this expectation is 100% constructed by society. And it’s not helped when esteemed political analysts like Gaurav Pandhi perpetuate this norm vocally and visibly. When you’ve put your blood, sweat, and tears into something that’s been in the works since 2007 — or you see your lander spacecraft lose communication with ground stations just 2.1 kilometers before touching down on the Moon’s surface—crying is a really natural human response. I’m wondering: what would we have wanted to see? Would we have been more comfortable if Mr Sivan had responded to the failed landing with a gruff handshake and brief statement? Space exploration is resource-intensive, time-intensive, and passion-intensive. Probing the edges of the known universe is about as earth-shattering as it gets. You don’t enter the field if you’re not passionate about the galaxy’s possibilities. So to have the world look on as a mission you are in charge of does not culminate in the outcome you were hoping for must be a lot of pressure, at the least — and more likely, heartbreaking.
The rough exteriors we’ve encouraged our boys to cultivate cover up a depth of pain that can go along with growing up as a boy. While society speaks openly about the obstacles that accompany girls’ success in school, family, and the workplace, we’re nearly silent about the burdens that are borne by boys and men. And through conversations on topics like whether it is “okay” for men to cry, we give young men major signaling as they’re growing up that they should remain silent about their pain.
This isn’t discussed enough, but 53% of the sexual abuse incidents in India each year are crimes against boys. Boys are less likely to tell a family member about their experiences with abuse. Boys are 89% less likely than girls to reach out for psychiatric support after they have been victims of sexual violence. When the country is engaging in discourse debating whether a man’s reaction of genuine grief and disappointment was “okay”, it is unsurprising that many boys don’t reach out for help.
Instead, they might rely on outlets like misbehaving in school or exaggerated visibility — what is actually in many cases a desperate cry for support. Boys who have been hurt rely, in some cases, on violence as a way to express their pain. When we remove outlets like open expression of emotion from the toolkit that boys have to process their pain, we are seriously stunting their ability to live happy, fulfilled lives. The next time we choose to pass comments about men showing their emotions in the public sphere, I hope that we can think about the very real consequences of suppressing emotions for adolescents growing up in this country.