The president teared up two times this week and got away with it—but only because he's already proven himself to be powerful.
President Obama cried twice, in public! First on Monday night in front of supporters in Iowa and then on Thursday, in a speech to his staff that's gotten over a million and a half YouTube views:
The response—from Obama's supporters, anyway—has been quite positive. Salon ran a piece with the headline "For crying out loud, we love you, Obama!" Mashable wrote, " It's a pretty incredible moment to see from a president and...humanizes him in a way no number of viral Twitter pictures ever could."
The Associated Press attributes people's warm reception of Obama's tears to the fact that public acceptance of male crying has increased over the past several decades: "Attitudes seem to have changed since the early 1970s," wrote Gregory Katz, "when an alleged crying incident during the presidential primary season went a long way toward derailing the candidacy of a Maine senator."
The senator he's talking about is Ed Muskie, whose name always comes up in discussions of politican's displays of emotion. While running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972, Muskie teared up in public—a display that is widely understood to be reason he lost the nomination. The fact that Obama can get teary without diminishing his appeal appears to be a sign that Americans are now more comfortable with seeing men in leadership cry that they were in the '70s.
But the Muskie and Obama incidents are different for one crucial reason: Muskie was crying in a moment of weakness, while Obama cried in a moment of triumph. Muskie's tears came while he was defending his wife from attacks that a newspaper made on her. His emotion seemed desperate, pathetic, and by extension unmanly. On the other hand, Obama's weeping episodes happened first when he was reflecting on his remarkable rise from junior Illinois senator to president of the United States, and then when he was celebrating winning his second term. His tears, then, seemed to be a positive display of humanity and humility in the face of success, rather then an admission of weakness.
The idea that male crying is acceptable in a time of strength but repellent in a moment of weakness holds for men besides Obama and in realms other than the political. Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner cries frequently without political penalty. As I wrote two years ago when he was voted speaker:
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.
Sports stars also adhere to this rule. Male athletes often cry after winning championships, without hurting their macho images. But weeping after a loss is another story. Jake Simpson once wrote about "the unspoken rule about male athletes and crying: If you win and shed a few tears, it's heart-warming. But if you lose, it's stomach-turning and side-splitting."
So, Obama's well-received tears don't really say much about changing perceptions of masculinity. Men are still expected to be composed and stoic while under duress. When men can cry out of sadness or frustration and still be considered powerful and appealing—like Hillary Clinton did back in 2008—that will be a sign of change.