I am a crier. I cry easily, and not always from sadness. I can cry from anger, frustration, tiredness, and, of course, happiness, though those tears always seem to have a different quality, being lighter and more fleeting. It is annoying to me, the frequency with which I cry. Not because I am ashamed or because I see it as a weakness, but because it is inconvenient. Often it’s a release, nothing more. I am not sentimental about my propensity for sentimentality.
Perhaps that is why I was unmoved by former PM spokesperson Allegra Stratton’s tearful apology outside her house on Wednesday, regarding the footage that emerged of her and other No 10 colleagues joking about the Christmas party they held while the rest of the country was legally forbidden from seeing their relatives, some of whom were dying of coronavirus. Tears do not, for me, confer special treatment. Every woman knows that they can constitute a “get out of jail free” card, especially in the eyes of some men, especially upper class ones. “Now that’s an apology,” people said, satisfied that a public display of emotion was a sufficient level of remorse. “You’ve got to feel sorry for her, haven’t you?” said others.
Well, no. There is a historic tendency, remarkable in Victorian novels and their adaptations, for a women’s tears to shut down the objections of all those around her. The tears are a kind of coda. A line is drawn: fin. Whether because they make some men uncomfortable (“For God’s sake, someone stop that woman from crying”) or provoke a protective instinct (“Fetch a handkerchief and some smelling salts!”) these ideas are predicated on the notion of women being the more delicate, vulnerable sex, and they don’t really belong in this century. Her tears don’t wash, in other words.
People cry for all kinds of reasons, some of them strategic. I doubt there is a woman on this planet who isn’t aware of the effect that tears have on some members of the opposite sex, who seem to either panic or become characters in a costume drama, proffering a chaise longue. That is not to say that Stratton’s sobs were calculated – she seemed genuinely upset, though who can really tell? – so much as she will have known, as we all know, that tears inevitably change the tone. They always do.
Much has been said of the weaponisation of “white women’s tears” in the context of being accused of racist behaviour. As Heather Christie writes in The Crying Book, a meditation on tears and their cultural meaning, “the tears of a white woman can shift a room’s gravity. They set others falling to help her, to correct and punish those who would dare make her weep.” The greater crime becomes not the harm that has been done to the victim, but the tears of the victimiser.
It seemed to me that Stratton was crying more from self-pity, from the damage done to her career and reputation by the footage and its subsequent fallout. In a similar way, Theresa May’s resignation tears seemed to be more for herself and her legacy; Thatcher’s, too. Stratton will regret what happened, she said, for “the rest of her days”. She is already thinking in terms of history, and living as we are through a historical moment, she must surely know that now forevermore her name will be associated with this scandal, that in a moment that required kindness, empathy and tact, she was filmed joking. She knows it is a bad look, to be seen laughing when others were dying. Are tears sufficient to undercut that? Some would say so.
I believe not. They stood in stark contrast to so much private pain and grief, most of which has taken place behind closed doors. There has been no public outpouring for the coronavirus victims, though people cry at the many hearts on the memorial wall. Still, there has been a curious lack of affect. Occasionally we hear the bereaved on the radio, and the sound of the pain in their voices is the closest we get to really understanding what they have been through. “It is such a secret place, the land of tears,” wrote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in The Little Prince. En masse, public tears can be a threat to those in power.
There is also a very British distaste when it comes to public displays of emotion. When Diana, Princess of Wales died, the public outpouring was mocked as hysterical. Such criticism at times felt gendered, not to mention homophobic. Many women, especially those in unhappy marriages, empathised with her pain; gay men appreciated her dedication to patients with HIV and AIDS at a time when most of the world turned the other way.
I still remember the sexist scorn that was heaped on Gwyneth Paltrow in the tabloids when she tearfully accepted her Oscar in 1999. The Duchess of Sussex’s tears when being interviewed about her mental health weren’t trusted either. Both actresses, perhaps they are doomed to being always seen as performative and theatrical in the eyes of the public. Judy Garland, the biggest and best crier of them all, “could wring tears out of hearts of rock”, and was beautiful doing it. On the other side of the coin, Meg Ryan is a brilliantly comedic “ugly crier”.
I’m an ugly crier myself, and feel genuine horror at the idea of doing it publicly, in front of television cameras. This is probably as far as my sympathy for Stratton stretches. I’ll be interested to see how the outburst comes to be seen through the lens of history. Perhaps it will be acknowledged that the public needed some form of display of contrition from someone, anyone in power. And it has to be said that, naturally, that role has been allocated to a woman. We are unlikely to see tears from any of the men whose negligence has cost many lives. Tears suit a woman so well, after all.