From John Boehner to Matt Damon, When It's OK for Men to Cry

When John Boehner teared up in a 60 Minutes interview this Sunday, America learned what Washington, D.C. has known for years: the incoming Speaker of the House is a crybaby. In the days since the 60 Minutes spot aired, countless articles have been written about Boehner's past crying jags, which have taken place on election night, at school openings, and during retirement speeches.

To those who ask how Boehner has managed to amass so much political power despite his seemingly unmasculine tendency to tear up, the following answer has been offered: it's OK for men to cry ... if they're conservatives. In other words, we're comfortable with seeing men cry if they've proven themselves to be masculine in other ways. Boehner may cry on the House floor, but he was also a member of the tough-guy Gang of Seven, devoted to rooting out corruption in Congress.

To movie fans, this revelation shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. Men cry all the time onscreen—as Jezebel said this summer, it's a sure-fire way to get an Oscar nomination—and when they do, they follow the same rules as Boehner: they prove themselves to be masculine before they start crying. So when the tears begin to flow, they're a sign of sensitivity rather than weakness.

Take the examples from this montage of men crying in movies:

Of the seven characters represented here, three of them are the ultimate in American masculinity: cowboys (Matt Damon in All the Pretty Horses and Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain). Another (James Caviezel in Angel Eyes) is a police officer. Sure, Keanu Reeves has an arguably wimpy profession by comparison in The Lake House (architect), but he's earned his dude bona fides by starring in movies like Speed and The Matrix.

Other examples of men crying on screen follow a similar pattern: Tom Cruise breaks down in Magnolia—but only after he's spent the earlier part of the movie teaching men how to "seduce and destroy" women:

Matt Damon cries at the end of Good Will Hunting—but only after he's established himself as an emotionally distant, hidden genius janitor, and only because Robin Williams drags the tears out of him:

And when Robert DeNiro cries in Analyze This, it's almost a meta joke: here's an actor who's made his career playing tough guys, weeping openly in front of a shrink, played by ultimate sensitive beta male Billy Crystal.

But just as there are certain politicians we cannot accept as criers (see Ed Muskie), there are certain actors in certain roles who can't pull off tears. As Politics Daily points out, there was no crying in James Stewart's films Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It's a Wonderful Life: adding tears to these already emotional movies would have nudged them into a syrupy sentimental no-man's land. Similarly, though Leonardo DiCaprio cries in several movies, his eyes remain dry in his most emotionally over-wrought film to date: Titanic.

So for now, Boehner can rest easy that his "Weeper of the House" nickname won't hurt him politically—if Matt Damon can cry and still be Sexiest Man Alive, Boehner can probably weep and remain in the Republican leadership. But if the political tides ever do turn against him, he can always pursue a career in acting—the Academy loves criers.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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