Big men don’t cry: what sportsmen tell us about modern masculinity

25 Jul 2019 @ 9.48 am
| Business

The days of the stiff upper lip are long behind us. When Helen Maria Williams, a British novelist, poet, and essayist, commented on British men’s emotional reserve in 1972, she noted that men believed it was “unmanly to weep”. Even if they were “half choaked with emotion” [sic], British men loathed “to be overcome” by their feelings. Back then, emotion was something to be fought; men were expected to “gain the victory over [their] feelings”, and “throw” apathy onto their faces to mask their true sentiments.

But when Joel Embiid, an NBA basketball player for the Philadelphia 76ers, broke down in tears after losing a crucial semi-final game to the Toronto Raptors in May, the world was confronted with something extraordinary: the emotional modern man.

The modern man is unlike his forefathers. Recently, increased public awareness of the dangers of emotional repression in men has opened the doors to a new conception of masculinity. This modern masculine ideal directly opposes the emotionally restrictive “stiff upper lip” mode of manliness, and instead encourages a type of masculinity that permits a greater range of emotional expression.

Part of the heightened awareness around men’s emotional health has come from the proliferation of a popular, often politically-charged concept: toxic masculinity. Essentially, toxic masculinity is “the cultural ideal of manliness, where strength is everything while emotions are a weakness”. Emotional vulnerability is seen as distinctly “feminine”, and if publicly displayed, may deprive one of their status as a “man”.

One startup tackling the influence of toxic masculinity is men’s wellness brand Numan. Their understanding-yet-authoritative approach to men’s health takes men’s feelings into consideration, and their knowledge base (known as “Numankind”) is dedicated to educating men about overcoming the various emotional and physical stresses that are associated with modern manhood.

However, despite society’s best efforts, toxic masculinity and the emotional repression associated with it is still deeply embedded in Western culture. But a new kind of masculinity – and a new level of tolerance for this “updated manliness” – is emerging. This is evident not only in Joel Embiid’s public display of emotion, but also in the media’s reaction to it. After the game, NBC Sports Philadelphia tweeted “Give us a guy who cares this much. Give us a guy who pours his heart out after a heartbreaking loss”. Likewise, the BBC affectionately tweeted three heart emojis in support of Joel.

But the traditional, deeply ingrained conception of masculinity is not simply expunged by a few tweets. As to be expected, some viewers were considerably less sympathetic. The headline of an article covering the story on one sports news website simply reads “Joel Embiid is a big crying 7 foot baby”.

Joel is not the only sportsman to have famously shed tears in the public eye. Michael Jordan, one of the most iconic basketball players to have ever lived, openly wept on television as he clutched the championship trophy after winning the NBA finals in 1991. Twenty-time Grand Slam winner Roger Federer cried in an interview with CNN when he recalled his late trainer Peter Carter. Tiger Woods, winner of 81 PGA Tours, sobbed in front of the world after winning the British Open in 2006.

These are strong men. To get to the top of their respective games, they needed more than physical strength. They needed blood, sweat, and tears. Of course, being top athletes, they possess a great deal of physical strength. But anyone familiar with the old adage “you are only as strong as your mind” will know that physical strength can only get you so far. To cry in front of millions of people; to make yourself emotionally vulnerable in front of the world; to lay bare your feelings to the public, knowing it will make you the target of derision, scorn, and prejudice, takes an exceptional degree of mental fortitude. So men, go ye therefore and cry. It doesn’t make you weak. It makes you a champion.