Over the past few years there has been an interesting trend in news headlines: reports of people in power showing a small sliver of emotion. What’s unique about these headlines is that the showing of emotion is the entire headline. It IS the news.
John Boehner Cries. Again. A Lot.
Hillary Clinton Tears Up in Benghazi Testimony
President Obama weeps over Connecticut school massacre
Commander in handker-chief: teary Obama thanks his campaign staff
Dustin Hoffman fights tears, gets emotional remembering “Tootsie”
The sentiments here are that anyone in these circumstances shouldn’t be showing these emotions. It seems an inhuman expectation–anyone would be affected emotionally in uncountable ways if faced with similar situations. But sentiments like these can be made with little criticism because they are connected with larger systems of patriarchy and power. Here’s how.
In the US, we’re taught patriarchy at an early age, even if not intentionally. Part of our early learning teaches us that people who deal with their lives by themselves, push through adversity, and don’t complain are strong, and therefore masculine. These qualities are put in binary opposition to femininity, which we’re taught are bad qualities held by people who are weak.
The resulting gender stereotypes leave little room to be anything else and there is no spectrum in between. The message we get is to be powerful by conforming to patriarchy, or be dominated.
These gender stereotypes teach us that people with power act in specific, masculine ways. When people of non-male genders gain power, they’re held to the an extreme of the same expectations of behavior as their male counterparts, and with much more scrutiny. By conforming, they’re seen as credible to hold such power, and at the same time they’re judged as inhuman for not conforming to the stereotypes. When this type of news is about them, it’s often a mix of ‘see, they’re still human’ and ‘they’re too weak to lead.’
Don’t show those emotion
As a big part of learning patriarchy, we’re taught that there are two genders that are limited in the emotions that are acceptable for each to show. In some communities it’s deemed appropriate for men to only show anger, lust and excitement. While for women, it’s only safe to show fear, anxiety and affection. Anything outside of these rigid boundaries become signs weakness, brings to question our gender and, by extension, our sexual orientation. The weak man is called ‘pussy,’ ‘gay’ and ‘faggot.’ The strong woman is called ‘bossy,’ ‘bitch’ and ‘dyke.’ Trans and gender non-conforming people are targeted from both sides of it.
There’s a huge range of emotions that we’re capable of expressing as human beings, at varying intensities. All genders are expected to keep our feelings locked up to a certain degree, and men in particular are only allowed the smallest of possibilities in expressing our feelings.
We are rarely encouraged healthier emotional habits, particularly among boys, to ask for help, know our limits, care for ourselves and to show our hardships in healthy ways. As human beings, showing the full range of our emotions in healthy ways is vital. It connects us with others in deep, meaningful ways, heals us from the ways we’ve been hurt in our lives, and allows us to think more clearly. Being robbed of the ability to truly show ourselves is harmful to our very being.
We’re taught to fear loss of respect if we dare to show our true feelings. This could mean lots of things from losing important relationships to being seen as weak and losing power. We’re taught to fear being made victims of violence, and for some the consequences of showing emotions can be life-threatening, like in communities where gang violence and police brutality are present. Essentially, we’re systematically threatened to not be our full, human selves. If these systems can be used to control us at the very core of our being, there’s no limit to the level of domination we’ll be targeted with.
On the headlines
The headlines above are part of a system of oppression that is used to control and dominate us. As the range of emotions we’re allowed to express gets smaller and smaller, so does our ability to heal, reclaim our selves, make sense of our world and fight against injustice.
I’m discouraged by these type of headlines, which act to limit the ways and the extents we are allowed to express ourselves. I am hopeful, however, that we’re living in a time when the President of the U.S. along with others in the most powerful country and military in the world have the courage to show a little bit of their vulnerability. To show that it’s okay for a person in power to emotionally feel, even if just a tiny bit, the devastation that’s happening in our world. There’s power in these moments, in them making the range of emotion we’re are allowed to express a little bit bigger.