I’ve been busy writing features for News Corp’s new Sunday magazine, Stellar. This piece was first published 16/10/16.
Frequent readers may know I recently founded a company that works with teen boys in schools to bust the myths that we think most harm young men; Goodfellas. Ben Barber, interviewed here, is one of our presenters. I am really proud of the work we are doing in this space, and I was pleased to be able to elicit more dialogue around gender stereotyping through the platform this new publication provides.
BOYS don’t cry. That’s what TV presenter Andrew O’Keefe learnt while growing up. As a little boy, he only cried when he injured himself, and he never saw his father weep.
Yet he’s among the new generation of men who are trying to buck those harmful stereotypes – as a father himself, he tries to be open about his tears with his own kids.
“We should show our kids that it’s possible to be vulnerable or blue, and still be a sane and capable person,” he tells Stellar.
“And I think we bestow a great gift of trust and respect on the people we love when we share our grief and heartache, when we let them be the ones to console us sometimes.”
The statistics on men’s mental health show O’Keefe has got it right. An alarming 18 per cent of Australian males over the age of 16 experience mood and anxiety disorders, and struggle with substance abuse.
Men commit suicide at more than three times the rate of women.
Dr Michael Flood, an associate professor in sociology who has a special interest in gender and men’s studies, says blokes pay an obvious price for repressing the full range of human emotions.
Apart from health issues, they have “more shallow relationships or superficial friendships”.
I made such a horrible noise that they came running to see what was going on.”
He adds: “Many men only feel able to share their more vulnerable emotions with a female partner [if they are heterosexual], and if they are left by that partner? Then they are really stuck.”
Actor Ben Barber experienced that emotional repression twice over.
“Growing up in a country town in Victoria, no one spoke about tears,” he says.
“I judged others who expressed emotion in a vulnerable way, and I judged myself for that, too. I thought that, as a man, that’s just not something you do. It was weak if you did.”
Barber later joined the army, where he feels he was trained to “breathe in toughness and squash down anything that could make you vulnerable.”
At the time, he says, this may have served him, but later when he left the army and was accepted into NIDA to study acting, Barber saw that his inability to cry was going to hold him back not just personally, but professionally.
“I realised I would be limited in the roles I could play if I didn’t learn how to cry,” he says.
“I thought there’s no way I can do it at a particular point in a script in front of an audience if I don’t have access to that in my everyday life. From then on, I made a decision that if I needed to cry, I just would.”
Barber was shocked at the impact this decision had on his life.
“I was watching a documentary on the playwright Eugene O’Neill and it really moved me. I felt my emotions build up and I stomped on them.
“This was very normal for me. Then I remembered my decision and when I felt emotion again as I continued watching, I let it go. This big sob came up from the depths of my being and the tears just overflowed.
“That is what every man in Australia has got to be able to do when they need to.”
“And that was it. I could not stop crying for about 45 minutes. I hadn’t expected how good that would feel – that’s what surprised me. It was the most amazing, cathartic experience; a release of 15 years of bottled-up emotion.
“It completely changed my life. When I finally finished crying, I felt like I just wasn’t the same person anymore.”
That’s the message Gus Worland, captain of Triple M radio’s The Grill Team (“the manliest show on radio”), is also keen to promote. He’s on a mission to question stereotypes around what it means to be an Aussie bloke, and filmed an ABC documentary series, Man Up, currently airing, on that very topic.
Asked when he last cried, his answer is unexpectedly moving.
“It was last night, actually. I was having a cuppa when my dad’s partner called. My father went into the doctor’s for a routine check-up and they found five litres of fluid on his lungs. When they went in to repair the lung wall, they discovered asbestos.
“He was told he has between 30 and 50 days to live. Normally when I shout to get my kids to the dinner table, it takes about 10 yells for them to hear me. But when I heard this news, I made such a horrible noise that they came running to see what was going on.”
Like O’Keefe, Worland believes it’s important for his children to see him cry.
“That is what every man in Australia has got to be able to do when they need to,” he says. “The stoic, keep-stuff-to-yourself approach? It’s just not working for us.”
Worland also finds his tears are a useful tool for showing others he may need support: “Last night I felt better after I cried. I later cried with my brother, who rarely shows emotions, so that felt helpful.
“The most common thing I witness when I talk to teen boys about crying is relief.”
“Then it was like, ‘OK, well, that’s done – now how can we move forward?’ There’s a real release of pressure. It gives you some breathing space.
“I had another cry at the radio station [the next morning] with the boys I work with. We all had a hug, and they gave me sympathy and support. The problem gets shared a little bit.”
While sharing is invaluable, so too is the act of expression. Flood is eager to explain that crying is not about biological differences: “When you look at women’s and men’s responses to distressing situations, what is happening in their bodies is the same. This tells us that what is going on when we repress tears in men is social.”
If feelings are not expressed, then where else do they go? O’Keefe, who is a White Ribbon ambassador and campaigns against domestic violence, believes emotions come out in other ways: “As irritation, as despondency… all of which are far less attractive and useful than tears.”
Barber, who now works with teen boys in schools in busting myths around masculinity, says the next generation seems more open to letting go of the notion that men must only ever show emotional restraint.
“The most common thing I witness when I talk to teen boys about crying is relief,” he says.
“There’s scepticism, too – sure. I say to them, ‘If we really consider ourselves to live in a free country, then we have to have the freedom to feel and experience the full spectrum of human emotions. This doesn’t take away from our sense of selves as men, it adds more to it.’”
While gender roles may be slowly changing, the fact that many of us would still be more confronted by the sight of a man crying than by seeing him kick a wall in anger or frustration shows there is still an urgent need for more open conversations around what defines both strength and vulnerability, and what defines masculinity as well.
Tears don’t mean men are weak; it shows they have a heart.
O’Keefe agrees: “Ultimately, crying can only be good for us. We broaden our knowledge of life and our understanding of what it means to be human when we let ourselves experience the wounds of our own heart without shame.”