June 3, 2021

I can count on one hand the number of times since childhood that I’ve wept at a stranger to get my own way. The guiltiest one, though, took place at a small Guatemalan border post, while I was backpacking with two male friends. I forget the exact problem, but it was resolved with remarkable speed as soon as I turned on the waterworks.

I was genuinely exhausted after a long day, but remember feeling slightly ashamed at the possibility that I’d weaponised the guards’ machismo in the interests of my own convenience. I suppose, though, that it was a textbook example of the now oft-condemned “white women’s tears”.

This supposedly potent weapon is, we’re told, usually directed at less privileged classes of women, typically to avoid being “called out” for some moral infraction or other. This debate-ending power to weep on demand is supposedly predicated on the special, celestial status of white middle-class women as fragile entities whose emotional well-being must not be disturbed — even if that means warping all of politics and culture to accommodate their emotional comfort.

“Our sanctioned victim status shields privileged white women from accountability in interpersonal interactions and in the political sphere”, argues feminist Alison Phipps. But is it really just white women, like my younger self on the Guatemalan border, who get listened to when we weep? The debate reignited yesterday, after Keir Starmer’s tearful appearance on Piers Morgan’s Life Stories on Tuesday evening.

The Labour leader recounted a number of painful personal events, including the loss of his mother, the devastating effect this had on his father and a house fire that killed the family dog. Morgan is the master of extracting a visceral confession, and it was affecting to see the usually very controlled Starmer in the grip of deep emotion.

Morgan described the interview as “searingly honest and intensely emotional”; it was an exchange that “shows the real him”. From this perspective, there’s something more real about tears than self-restraint: a stripping-away of artifice to reveal the person that’s really inside.

Britain, long notorious for emotional restraint, started to embrace this emotional openness more than two decades ago with the 1997 death of Princess Diana. Crowds piled bouquets in front of the Palace; people who’d never met Diana wept openly. The Royal Family initially remained in Scotland, only returning to London after public outrage at their reticence. Almost overnight, it didn’t just become acceptable to emote in public; failing to do so demonstrated crippling emotional inadequacy.

Tony Blair, a natural for the emerging aesthetic of public emotional display, declared that Diana had been the “People’s Princess”. She had been, as she hoped (and in a phrase reportedly borrowed from a novel by her step-grandmother, the romance writer Barbara Cartland) a “queen of people’s hearts”.

How times change. Diana was pursued by humans with cameras; but today the intrusive reach of the cameras is something we do to ourselves, via social media. As in the age of Diana, intense emotion remains a currency: weeping selfies garner a powerful reaction. But with so much more coin in circulation, the market is growing jaded.

The generation that came of age when Diana was still alive may treat tears as an “authentic” manifestation of the “real you”. But now we are all encouraged to be both a tearful Instagram Diana and also the paparazzi swarm. And the question of whose tears garner sympathy, and whose trigger cynicism, is itself becoming a battleground.

One individual regularly lionised as authentic for her weeping (despite being a white woman) is New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Widely celebrated for her emotionally engaged political style and willingness to talk about wellness, compassion and empathy, Ardern herself argues: “you can be strong, and you can be kind”.

Perhaps that’s why Ardern regularly weeps in public: in 2017, for example, she wept while apologising to the family of murdered backpacker Grace Millane; she did the same two years later while commemorating the Christchurch mosque massacre. Again, last year, she openly cried at a service remembering the White Island volcano eruption. Crucially, her tears invariably make the headlines: evidence of her compassion and authenticity.

Elsewhere, the press luxuriates in stories about whether Kate Middleton made Meghan Markle cry before the royal wedding, or of Markle weeping into her pillow the night before the couple’s notorious Oprah interview. But even our royal emoter-in-chief, Prince Harry, has spoken of how surreal it was to follow his mother’s coffin as thousands who’d never met her lined the streets, sobbing.

Harry may be keen to make a career rejecting his repressed upbringing in favour of emotional authenticity as a route to mental health. But even he has, it seems, some concerns about that era-defining moment of emotion. No surprise, then, to find that our culture more generally is by no means unambiguously in favour of tears.

If the tears are low-status and male, for example, you can buy a t-shirt that celebrates bathing in them, as modelled by feminist Jessica Valenti. Even those tears emitted by Britain’s (male) Secretary of State for Health, on hearing of the first Covid jabs, were mocked as “pretending to cry”.

And despite what Phipps asserts, being a white woman is no guarantee that your tears will reach a sympathetic audience. Theresa May, long panned as the “Maybot” for her lack of warmth, was panned for breaking with her usual buttoned-up form as she announced her resignation. And when the classicist Mary Beard was rounded on for defending the sexually predatory behaviour of Oxfam workers in Haiti, the weeping face she posted in response triggered not sympathy but further condemnation.

It’s sometimes claimed that greater political participation by women will result in moral improvements to politics in general, thanks to women’s superior capacity for empathy and aversion to conflict. And perhaps it’s no coincidence that as more women have entered public life — Parliament is now 35% female, an all-time high — so too our embrace of emotional display in public life has grown alongside it. But while it’s true that women are statistically less violent than men, it’s less certain that this means we’re nicer human beings.

When I was at school in the Nineties, I often watched the Popular Girls amuse themselves by baiting less popular classmates with carefully calibrated and plausibly deniable barbs. When the victim retaliated, usually with less subtlety, the Popular Girl would respond by ostentatiously crying — a move that usually resulted in an outpouring of sympathy for the girl who had in fact been the aggressor.

Since then, along with the rest of social life, much of our political discourse has transferred to social media. And here, actual violence is off the table — it’s all words on a screen — but verbal cruelty and social ostracism are easy to mobilise if you’re popular. It’s the perfect hunting ground, in other words, for Popular Girl-style covert aggression.

I was reminded of this recently by one of the most noted weepers in American public life: the politician Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. After the Capitol riots, Ocasio-Cortez was mocked by conservatives for over-dramatising her own experience, after convincing herself that an officer who’d come to find and protect her was actually about to kill her. In response to her critics, she grew tearful and talked about being a sexual assault survivor.

The Hispanic Ocasio-Cortez, at least, challenges the idea that it’s the tears only of white women that reign supreme — at least contrasted with Mary Beard and Theresa May. The politics of the breaking voice and artfully dabbed eye are indisputably more female than male; its power-users are always women. But these examples suggest the effectiveness of this method is less about race, than something more like Popular Girls schoolyard ranking.

If you’re ugly, old or badly-dressed, don’t expect crying to work; if you’re male, it’s a gamble; and if you’re not in the in-group, you can forget it. But if your face fits (and you don’t ugly-cry) then you can do what you like. And as long as you sob in public now and then, you’ll be considered a paragon of compassion.

The policies Jacinda Ardern actually implements are, after all, often considerably less cuddly than her sometimes-weepy public persona. She may shed a tear to mark a terrorist attack or natural disaster, but she also intervened to water down public condemnation of the use of enslaved or forcibly sterilised workers in China’s Xinjiang region. Evidently, New Zealand’s compassionate Prime Minister prefers the pragmatic realpolitik of balancing export priorities to compassion for the plight of China’s Muslim minorities.

Yet watching Sir Keir, I had no sense that he was playing a game of tactical tears. A politician who came of age before the sobbing selfie, his emotion — rarely seen in political life — seemed unforced. But I also wondered how much longer we’ll see that kind of authenticity, as pre-internet politicians grow fewer, replaced by millennials steeped in the Mean Girls politics of social media.

There’s much to be said for a more emotionally open, less aggressive and more empathic style of politics — more feminine, in a word. But we should be under no illusions: embracing this will also bring a rise in the public use of emotion, Popular Girl style, as a weapon. And that, in turn, will breed cynicism — even of those tears, like Keir’s, that seem to come from the heart.