The Roving Author

Big Boys Don’t Cry! – A Look at Male Vulnerability in Fiction

There is a trend – perhaps seen frequently now, perhaps still moving about “on little cat feet,” as the poet says of the fog – that praises how men are crying more in films and TV shows. It may include books as well, but if so, I have yet to see those mentioned. A great many of the references to men crying more are from recent MCU fare, which I have done my best to ignore, so I cannot comment on whether or not the new movies have male characters weeping more than previously. It would not surprise me if this were the case, though.

Intense emotions help sell movies and they tend to have a great deal of “punch” when delivered well in writing. That being said, as I have noted elsewhere, male relationships are not being handled well these days. The Tumblr post that inspired the linked article is available to be read below:

This Tumblr post can be read in a less helpful light than the one I used prior. It could easily be read as supporting the idea that “Men need/should/are crying more in modern media, and that’s a good thing!” This seems like a good thing at first glance, but it is actually the opposite. There are several reasons why this is so.

It is possible that the people advocating for men to break down and weep openly more on screen have never seen adult men break down crying in real life. I have, and let me tell you a secret: such breakdowns are absolutely terrifying.

Understand that I am not saying men should never break down and weep. Doing so in public, however, carries certain dangers with it. Chief among them the fact that men are typically big and strong…and smaller women and children will not necessarily know what to make of them when they see men openly cry. Moreover, someone who breaks down in such a manner can be dangerous; a man crying at a funeral is one thing. A man weeping and wailing in frustration or anger on a public street? That has the potential to turn bad very quickly.

We get a taste of this terror, albeit secondhand and imperfectly, in Thor: The Dark World*. Once Loki “dies,” Thor breaks down and sobs over his body. Already a naturally huge man (I defy anyone to find pictures of Hemsworth as a boy and tell me he is not enormous even as a ten-year-old), seeing him openly weeping makes even Jane Foster pull up short.

Natalie Portman is not tall nor large – certainly not on par with her co-star. In the narrative of the comics as well as the movies, Thor is somewhat larger and taller than Hemsworth, while Jane is about average height and strength for a nurse. (Her career in physics was an alteration of comic book lore for the films.) Seeing a big man break so completely in that moment makes her hesitate and hold back rather than draw closer to him.

G.K. Chesterton notes in The Ballad of the White Horse* that while the Danes mocked the Christian English as womanly for their Faith in the crucified God, they themselves wept like women whenever their hearts were moved. Marvel’s Thor, by contrast, generally adheres to American culture’s tacit understanding that breaking down in public tends to scare said public. One of the comics collected in Marvel Masterworks #2* – an adventure where the Wasp nearly dies after being shot – ends with the narrator refusing to show the male Avengers crying. “For brave men should not be seen with tears in their eyes as they lift them in a silent prayer of thanks,” the narrator says, if memory serves.

Thor: The Dark World Spoilers - Junior Novelization Contradicts Online ...

According to American and English culture, a man ought to keep himself as composed as possible in public. This is one reason why men, when they do shed tears in cinema and on the small screen, do so in a relatively subdued manner. Cracking completely will cause a stir and frighten nearby bystanders. In a crisis and/or the military, the absolute last thing anyone can afford is for those relying on the man in question to think he is breaking down and – possibly – giving up the fight or hope for victory. In those settings, open weeping is not only scary, it is counter-survival.

This is another reason why men are not prone to teary outbursts. In high-risk situations, there is no time to break down and cry. There is no room in a firefight for open weeping, wailing, and “gnashing of teeth.” The man who breaks down on the battlefield is a dead man, because while his comrades may care about him, the enemy will see an advantage and seize it with both hands. If your weeping male character is on a hunt, then he had better hope his prey is not carnivorous or that if it is, it is not close to hand. If a man cries over a dead hunting partner while the enraged, wounded boar is bearing down on him, then the story will end with both men dead.

None of this is to say a man cannot or should not cry if the situation warrants it. If the location does not warrant it or it would lead to a complete breakdown, however, there are more productive means of handling the emotions that may demand the men in question cry. One such scene comes about in Avengers: Age of Ultron* at Clint Barton’s farm. Having been hit emotionally in their weak points by the mind games of the Scarlet Witch, the team is in no position to show themselves in public or continue with the mission. They are hurting and distracted; they need a safe place to stop off, calm down, and collect themselves.

It also has to be a place where they can spend their feelings in private, which is why Clint takes them to his home in the first place. Bruce deals with his emotions by cleaning up and reminding himself – as much as he can, given his attitude toward the Hulk – that he is a man. Not a beast or a monster. This is one reason why he refuses Natasha’s advances in the bedroom and part of the reason why he denies that any relationship between them could work. Apart from the fact that he has “a condition” and has once again been the source of a great deal of damage, he does not think he can give her what every woman dreams of having at least once: a family.

Natasha’s revelation that she cannot have children rather knocks his third argument for a loop, but it does little to answer his other points. Bruce cannot think only of his heart, as she can; he also has to think of what he can offer her beyond himself. Can he provide a roof over her head, keep the food on the table, and give her a home – particularly one he will not accidentally wreck? Is there any room for intimacy with his expressive alter ego who, while he typically appears when Bruce or someone else needs protecting, may get a little “excited” if he engages in relations with a woman?

These are things men need to think about with regard to the women they love. Even if, as we see today, the woman is the breadwinner, there may come a time when she won’t be able to bring home the bacon. The man may have to do it, and Bruce cannot live a normal life. Natasha wants normalcy, which she sees in Bruce as a person, and that is very kind (not to mention fairly true). It does not mean she is correct in thinking they can make the relationship she wistfully dreams of come to fruition.

Tony Stark & Steve Rogers Chopping Wood Scene - Avengers: Age of Ultron ...

Steve, having been reminded of what he lost, decides to burn off his feelings in a practical manner. He spends his agitation not in physically arguing with Tony Stark, crying, or raving pointlessly. Rather, he puts his anger to constructive use by chopping wood. The activity serves as a controlled, directed outlet for his feelings that will do some good for others while keeping his hands and mind busy.

It is productive and safe, not only for Steve but for everyone else around him. This is what usually is lost on audiences when women display their emotions in public. Screaming, crying, and wailing in public is less frightening when a woman does it because women are generally smaller than men. They are also less capable of dealing out physical damage to their surroundings or random bystanders and can be corralled or stopped by larger people nearby. Steve is, thanks to the serum, not only a tall man but an inordinately strong one. He cannot afford to fly off the handle because he will do far more damage than a normal man would, and that is unacceptable.

Of all the Avengers, the one with the least healthy coping mechanisms for high emotions is Tony Stark. It is outright painful to watch him in some scenes, such as the moment where Yinsen dies in Iron Man* or watching the recording of his parents’ murder in Civil War*, because he looks like he is physically drawing the tears back into his eyes. That is not a healthy or safe response to emotional stress, but Tony has very little in the way of experience with maturely handling his emotions. To some extent, he is stuck in an adolescent or teenage mindset that decides to deal with extreme anger or pain by letting it all out through violence.

In Iron Man, this is cathartic for him and the audience. Tony’s ire is delivered straight to the bad guys. The Ten Rings terrorists are undoubtedly evil, something we see not only in their treatment of Tony but in how they attack villages full of innocent people, killing the men and absconding with the women and children. Directing his anger at the terrorists may not be healthy in the strict sense, of course, but at least Tony isn’t breaking anything he should not be destroying.

In Age of Ultron and especially Civil War, this is not the case. Tony taking out his emotions on the log pile is good, but prior to that he dealt with his fear by building a homicidal AI using the computer program embedded in an alien gem (which later turns out to be an Infinity Stone – a rock literally as old as the universe). A mature man would have at least pulled Steve aside and confided in him about the vision. Maybe Steve wouldn’t have been able to talk Tony out of his fear, but perhaps he could have. At the very least, it would have been better for Tony personally to find a way to deal with his fear beyond trying to shove it on to a brand spanking new computer system.

Civil War is worse. Granted, no one should be calm after seeing the video all three men are forced to watch. Tony’s reaction is nevertheless completely out of proportion to it, very nearly leading him to kill an innocent man and one of his closest friends.

Every Hint and Clue Hidden in the Captain America: Civil War Trailer

Should Iron Man have broken down crying instead? No, he really should not have. What he should have done was go after Zemo to bring him into custody for bombing the United Nations when the Sokovia Accords were signed. Given the thick glass between him, Steve, Bucky, and Zemo, he would have had ample opportunity to vent some of his feelings that way. It would have allowed him to calm enough to realize that, even though he might have issues with Steve for not revealing his parents were murdered and Bucky for being the instrument of that foul deed, trying to kill them would be far from a mature response.

Tony’s grasp of maturity for most of the MCU is fairly dismal. Marvel’s The Avengers* is perhaps where he is at his most adult, with Endgame being the next best film to show he has “grown up.” Throughout the rest of the franchise, he vacillates between clawing upward toward the idea of being an adult and behaving like a moody teenager. It makes sense in context of the MCU interpretation of his character (Tony was far more mature in previous media), which shows that his lack of connection with his father and his sympathetic tie with his mother left him wholly unprepared to be responsible for himself and his company. His actions are, frankly, annoying while still making sense for someone who hasn’t quite gotten past his adolescent hang-ups – one of which is the idea that maturity will be a lot easier to manage than it actually is.

This is what “men should cry more” skips over or ignores entirely. It also shows that the writers’ and/or the audience’s parroting of the line means they have not thought it through or have no experience with real-life stress situations. Men cannot afford to “let loose” with their emotions. That is bad enough when women do it; when men do it, it means they are broken completely. They have given up and are in such pain they are willing to die to make it stop.

Lack of control such as Tony demonstrates in Civil War is more actively dangerous and deadly, but that does not mean he was wrong not to cry in that situation. Showing weakness or vulnerability in front of an enemy is perilous. Natasha gets away with it in The Avengers when dealing with Loki because she is outside his prison and actively using her own weakness to her advantage. There could be no advantage in Tony, Steve, and Bucky breaking down and crying in front of Zemo in the Siberia base. It would have given him what he wanted.

Natasha & Clint | Ego! Ego! Ego!

But as Natasha and Clint showed in The Avengers, directing one’s pain and aggression at a proper target can not only prevent a potentially lethal breakdown, it can help bring some measure of peace and begin the healing process. After being freed of Loki’s mind control, Clint is understandably horrified and shaken. He is on the verge of collapsing in tears at having been used to murder his colleagues and help the god of mischief set up an invasion that will kill millions if it is not stopped. If Clint had not been upset by that, it would have been far more concerning than the guilt, terror, and horror he did display.

That being said, Natasha knows he can neither be allowed to break nor to attack indiscriminately. Given Hawkeye’s maturity in the MCU (he began his career in the comics as young hothead, something that carries over in most adaptations besides this one), he does not lash out at everything around him. However, that does not mean he may not direct his emotions at himself in a destructive manner, and this is what Natasha seeks to prevent. Whether he is more likely to curl up in a ball and break down crying or slit his wrists is a matter for debate, but what is not up for debate is that she cannot allow him do either.

So Natasha does three things to help him stabilize. First, she stays with him as a trusted person with whom he can safely be vulnerable in this moment of mental and emotional weakness. She lets him break a little, describing how Loki took control of him and made him something he is not and would never actively choose to become. Then she prevents him from drowning in a depressive cycle of self-reproach for actions he could not prevent, did not will, and which were ultimately not his fault by reminding him this situation is something neither of them trained to face. After that, she directs his attention to stopping the man who hurt him and put everything they both love under threat.

This scene offers the final reason why “men need to cry more” is a bad idea: male or female, showing weakness publicly is a blanket invitation or cry for intimacy to all present. That is extremely dangerous because not only does it mean the person breaking down wants closeness with the nearest warm body or bodies without the give-and-take of a personal relationship, it opens the door for anyone to take advantage of the person who is “emotionally compromised.” Breaking down in combat or in front of an enemy means showing vulnerability in a lethal situation. Breaking down among strangers could turn lethal in a few moments flat, or it could lead to years of pain.

Abusers, psychopaths, narcissists, et al will seize any opening to hurt others with both hands. They are predators who are always on the hunt, and the moment they sense weakness, they will pursue their chosen prey wherever they safely can. Extricating oneself from such people can be far more costly than the break down that allowed them in in the first place. This is particularly true if these predators prefer to take their pleasure with a victim over the course of a few hours, discarding the person’s body in a ditch some time before dawn. Should such hunters want to keep their prey in their grasp for years instead, then escape becomes far more complex, difficult, and ultimately more painful.

People who seek familiarity with just anyone could very well be psychopaths, narcissists, or abusers in disguise. A public display of emotion could be genuine, or it could be a lure, like the deer or turkey calls hunters use to attract these animals within optimal shooting range. Even if the display is genuine, someone who is desperate enough for connection to break down in public in an attempt to find intimacy with at least one other person has serious control issues. This may make any kind of relationship dangerous to the people breaking down as well as to reciprocating or potentially reciprocating parties. Self-control is a necessary self-preservative requirement for any adult, and adults who lack it are possible threats even if they don’t want to be dangerous in any way, shape, or form.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a Marvel Masterpiece that ties ...

Anthony Mackie once said, in relation to Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson’s friendship in The Winter Soldier*, that sometimes a person “needs to bleed on a stranger.” He is not wrong in the strict sense, but he did neglect to mention the circumstances under which one can safely show some kind of vulnerability to someone they do not know well. Steve does not lean emotionally on Sam as strongly in their early meetings as he does when he and Natasha have to retreat to Wilson’s house to avoid the people trying to kill them.

The earlier meetings Steve had with Sam qualify as “sounding board” moments, where he “feels the other man out,” as it were. He lets his guard down a little with the stranger, sensing a kindred spirit in him, but recognizing that to trust him blindly without testing him a bit first will only lead to trouble for them both. Sam responds in kind by (a) not taking advantage of Steve in those small, quiet moments of vulnerability, (b) offering solid advice that actually helps, and (c) not treating Steve as a living saint or someone to whom he can suck up and use for his personal benefit.

He treats Steve as a person. Not a symbol or a paragon, not a god to be worshiped, but a fellow soldier and individual. He passes the tests Steve offers well enough that Steve believes he is safe escaping to his house with Natasha to avoid SHIELD/HYDRA and plan how to take it down. That is not something he would do with someone who did not pass the trials he set, or with a random stranger off the street. If he had not met Sam Wilson or the Falcon had failed the exams Steve used to feel him out, Captain America would have found a different way to lay low, clean up, and plan how to stop HYDRA with Natasha Romanoff.

But Sam did pass the tests. He proved he was trustworthy in little things and, thus, trustworthy in more important matters. That is, ultimately, how true intimacy is achieved: “To whom much is given, much is expected.” While the Almighty can easily drop a great matter in someone’s lap and know that person will rise to the occasion (or fall, in which case He summons someone else to fill the void somehow), humans do not have that option. We have to “trust, but verify.” We have to “test all things, hold fast to that which is good.” We cannot trust blindly or have complete faith in utter strangers on the spot. That way lies disaster.

In short, if we want to be intimate with anyone, we have to test them and they have to test us. If we want to see men cry in media, we have to remember that real men will not show weakness to just anyone because they instinctively know it is counter-survival. Why should fictional heroes do anything so unbelievable as break down and weep like women in public?

The answer, of course, is that they shouldn’t. If you need your hero to actually break down and sob, future authors, make sure he either does it in private or with those he trusts completely. Doing anything else will be considered by mature audiences to be utterly unbelievable. Real men cry where they know no one will take advantage of them and your heroes ought to do the same. Anything less is asking for trouble.

*These are Amazon affiliate links. When you purchase something through them, this author receives a commission from Amazon at no extra charge to you, the buyer.

If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth, while her poetry appeared in Organic Ink, Vol. 2. She has also had stories published in Planetary Anthologies Luna, Uranus, and Sol. Another story was released in Cirsova Magazine’s Summer Issue in 2020, and she recently had a story published in Storyhack Magazine’s 7th Issue and Cirsova Magazine’s 2021 Summer Issue. Order them today!

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23 thoughts on “Big Boys Don’t Cry! – A Look at Male Vulnerability in Fiction”

  1. You touched on something else when you mentioned Thor “breaking down”.

    Showing great anger in public can also be a problem for men especially when the onlookers don’t realize what touched off the anger.

    A man’s anger could be building inside for some time and then something apparently little can cause the anger to explode.

    Even if it is “just” verbal, it can be scary to onlookers. 😦

    Liked by 4 people

      1. If I remember correctly, they didn’t make a spectacle out of openly weeping over Faramir, either. It’s one thing to see them standing by with tears rolling down their cheeks, quite another for them to wail and scream. *That*….would not have gone over well.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. The African Queen sums it up rather well in Katherine Hepburn’s character: Readers and viewers do not need our storied role-model men to show their emotions more. The culture needs women to exercise self-control and show them less.

    The whys, whens, and wherefores of a culture-wide exaltation of female emotional incontinence, are a whole ‘nother can of worms. Mr. Niemeier at Kairos blog pins the change at 1997 or so.

    In any case, what the first commenter said.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Solid analysis, IMO. Also most interesting. For my two cents, I would suggest that there also is probably a strong correlation between those who demand that men be seen crying in public more, and those who believe in the “masculinity is toxic” fiction. Just a guess, mind you. I haven’t the time or the inclination to attempt proof. 😁

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Exhibit A: a favorite moment from one of my shows I’ve timestamped for convenience. Though you are welcome to watch the whole episode if you wish.

    Being a weekly show, the friend in the scene is one that our protagonist has just met that episode, but as you can see they do establish a fast bond and rapport.

    This is another reason why men are not prone to teary outbursts. In high-risk situations, there is no time to break down and cry. There is no room in a firefight for open weeping, wailing, and “gnashing of teeth.” The man who breaks down on the battlefield is a dead man, because while his comrades may care about him, the enemy will see an advantage and seize it with both hands. If your weeping male character is on a hunt, then he had better hope his prey is not carnivorous or that if it is, it is not close to hand. If a man cries over a dead hunting partner while the enraged, wounded boar is bearing down on him, then the story will end with both men dead.

    I call it “The Bear Test.” (see if adding a bear affects anything) Is a bear attacking? Obviously not the time to cry as you don’t need your vision obscured during that moment. Kill the bear – cry afterwards. Once you understand this principle, you’ll understand a lot about men.

    And I think there’s a big issue nowadays that a lot of “safe spaces” for men to let their guard down and weep have been taken away.

    That is bad enough when women do it; when men do it, it means they are broken completely. They have given up and are in such pain they are willing to die to make it stop.

    (or sell their souls…)

    Bonus SPN video.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Men being expected to not openly weep, mourn, or break down in literature is a relatively recent thing. Just like the color pink (the color of blood and fresh meat!) and long hair (beards, braids and ponytails, the mark of a true warrior!) men showing emotion on the page used to be a sign of masculinity for most of history in that energetic and virile manly men had the energy for high emotion. It was women who were expected to keep their emotions in check because it was bad for the birthing organs. See also: old timey arguments against women riding horses, trains and bicycles.
    This isn’t to say that being wary of men breaking down in public isn’t valid in the modern world, of course. I think emotional expectations in society follow emotional expectations in literature which is why the latter is worth examining.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. For a man, the ability to master his emotions rather than be mastered by them is an indicator of self-control and maturity, and thus strength. As you observe, men are expected to be able to face and confront predators, especially the two-legged variety, and predators are always looking for weakness. There are even those who are normally innocuous but will turn predator on seeking weakness. Children aren’t expected to have that control and can be as emotional as you wish. If they are excessively controlled, it’s frightening and usually an indicator of trauma of some kind. Women aren’t expected so much to take on the male role as guardians, but if they do, they need to show that same masculine control.

    But there are also times when mastery means being able to let go and let the tears flow, if the situation and setting call for it. Shared grief is an example, and being so inhibited as to be unable to cry when it is safe to do so is a different kind of fragility.

    Liked by 1 person

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