What movie crying tells us about gender in film

13 May 2013

This is a manifesto about crying onscreen. Because if there’s anything that makes a film lose its authenticity for me, it’s a crying scene.

Picture this: a man and a woman on the big screen, having an emotional moment together. In close-up, a single tear runs out of the corner of her eye (or his). No matter how much people at TV Tropes make fun of the Single Teardrop Trope, it appears un-ironically throughout film today.


These moments immediately take you out of the story. I immediately think, “How convenient that this tear won’t mess up the actor’s makeup!” And I imagine a makeup person standing nearby with an eyedropper, poised to put one more teardrop into the actor’s eye for the next take.

Sometimes the camera cuts back to the actor and he/she sheds another tear. Argh. It’s as if directors worldwide have collectively decided, “If I’m going to have to pay the eyedropper staffer, goddammit, I want the audience to notice that my actor’s crying!”

Here’s a recommendation: when someone needs to cry onscreen, have someone on set give them a pinch or poke them with a pin so we can get an actual tear instead of this fake stuff.


codyWhen I see the single tear, I think of the classic anti-littering commercial from the 1970s, in which an Indian watches someone hurl some trash out of their car. Prompt: single tear.

Do I need to add that the actor in that Keep America Beautiful campaign wasn’t a real Indian? He was Italian-American, from Louisiana.

Do you see the layers of fakeness, all prompted by the single tear?

Now, as someone prone to cry during sentimental commercials, documentaries, and every single viewing of Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (1995), I’m well-positioned to explain everything wrong with movie crying.

When real people cry — even a single tear — they wipe the tears away. Who the hell just lets one’s tears just sit there? No one onscreen wipes their tears away, because someone in the theater might miss the bathos. (Also: makeup smudge.)

To be sure, crying onscreen isn’t limited to the single tear method; sometimes we see tear-streaked faces (which they also don’t wipe away). Those tears look fake, too — what, do makeup artists use some kind of vaseline? Half those tears lie there like some kind of glop. No wonder no one wants to wipe it away. Fake, fake, fake!


Not to mention those scenes in which an actor sobs mercilessly, only to have not a single tear fall from their eyes.

Let’s face it: when white people cry, their eyes and noses get all red and bloated, and the whole scene gets ugly quickly. (Again, I speak from experience.) Between all the snuffling and nose-blowing and one’s mouth and chin contorting unattractively, well, it’s just … Tonya Harding.

Which, of course reveals why we don’t see a lot of realistic crying in films. The best movie crying I’ve ever seen comes from Michelle Williams — and that’s because of what she can do with her mouth, as I’ve discussed before. Otherwise it’s crap.

But it also reveals my core feminist point: we don’t show real crying because we don’t want to see actual women and men.


girl-crying_l2A single tear — or maybe two — is pretty. When used with women, it appeals to sexists’ worst natures: it aestheticizes women’s emotions, giving us pleasure in her sorrow. It places her in a position of weakness and shows it to be visually attractive.

When she fails to wipe away that genteel tear or two, it begs for a man to do it for her.

And all those dudes out there who only want one kind of woman — the Hollywood kind, whose entire raison d’être is to support a man, and who’s always hot and awesome except when she’s helpless and vulnerable — well, they can keep believing that real women with their messy ugly crying are just big failures. You can imagine how such a man responds to real crying.

Men crying onscreen are just as stylized, although the sexism isn’t so appalling. Which is why Johnny Depp in John Waters’ Cry-Baby (1990) was such a great satire: it’s the same aestheticization, except in this case it simply makes a stone-cold heartthrob more “sensitive.”


Ladies, in case you still fantasize that your dude will cry prettily like Johnny, be warned that real men cry with the same sloppy, ugly abandon that women do. What I can’t understand is how we can see male actors express the ugliest, most terrifying rage and violence onscreen, but never have I seen men crying with abandon as actual men sometimes do. And this hurts both men and women.

Thus, my manifesto: I want a new Dogme 95-style movement — or those animal rights vows taken by modern filmmakers to oppose any form of animal cruelty or pain — that opposes fake crying in film.

A small point? well, maybe. But I think it’ll move mountains.

9 Responses to “What movie crying tells us about gender in film”

  1. Flo me la Says:

    I’ve seen quite a lot of good crying scenes in movies. The ugly kind.
    I think that’s how I first learned to understand that crying can be very similar to laughing. But you’re right, there’s usually not enough tears or red noses involved.

  2. JustMeMike Says:

    Wonderful read – poignant, heartfelt, and also a bit tongue-in-cheek? A good cry may ruin one’s make up, or might be fake in the movies… and yet, when you got to a film and hear the sniffling, and nose-blowing, and audible sighs – it is a shared experience that is difficult to create anywhere else. Thanks.

  3. Servetus Says:

    I feel like real crying : movie crying :: sex : porn.

    • Didion Says:

      Yes! whereas real crying onscreen is something that cuts to your heart. There’s an amazing scene in the documentary The Return of Navajo Boy in which a woman wails, and I’ve never heard anything so powerful or affecting. Whereas a couple of tears dripping down Daisy’s cheeks in The Great Gatsby? Groan.

  4. Oh spot on! “it aestheticizes women’s emotions, giving us pleasure in her sorrow.” This got me thinking about that horrendous Enrique Iglesias song: “I don’t know why, but I love to see you cry. I don’t know why, it just makes me feel alive”

  5. Orlando Says:

    So how do you feel about Emma Thompson’s crying in S&S? In the chapel scene in Much Ado About Nothing, Thompson as Beatrice cries floods of tears, and they leave lots of streaky marks in her fake tan. I remember thinking that it showed something really interesting about choices in the editing process; obviously whoever selected the shot to use would have seen that, but they must have decided that the quality of the acting in that take was the overriding factor.
    I think the British are better with this, broadly speaking. Even though I haven’t seen it for decades, your post made me think of a scene from the end of the mini-series “Widows” when a young bloke’s sister gets shot and killed in a jewel heist that he was a part of, and the police let his mother in to see him. His face collapsed so completely you got actual snot bubbles.

  6. […] […] be warned that real men cry with the same sloppy, ugly abandon that women do. What I can’t u…. […]

  7. […] […] real men cry with the same sloppy, ugly abandon that women do. What I can’t understand is ho…. […]

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