One of the first things Yuri Katsuki does onscreen is cry. His establishing character moment is him weeping uncontrollably in a bathroom, the picture of vulnerability and hopelessness, after doing badly at the Grand Prix. And he doesn’t stop crying, either—his tears, and his anxiety, return time and again over the series, and while he eventually learns to handle this anxiety as his confidence is nurtured, the narrative never really presents this emotion and his expression of it as a bad thing or a weakness. Yuri is a highly expressive, emotional young man, and the show he’s in lets him be that. And that’s quite a rare thing to see in fiction, let alone from the protagonist of a sports anime—surely one of the most manly genres out there, given that they’re all about feats of physical prowess!
It seems paradoxical to have the protagonist of something in the action genre—be it sports or superheroes—cry, because crying is, well, such a non-masculine and non-heroic trait. Journalist Ben Blatt recently released the findings of a study on word use in books, which found that, among other things, women were commonly described as “sobbing” but men almost never were, especially when the novel in question was written by a man. The study suggests that “Male authors seem, consciously or not, to hold that if ‘real men don’t cry,’ then ‘fictional men don’t sob’.”
And yet there’s Yuri, sobbing—and not the only man to do so in that show either. Granted, a lot of Yuri!!! on Ice plays with and strays from what we would consider “manly” (dancing, themes of love, throwing away strict conventions of gender presentation with Viktor’s long hair and flower crowns, etc.), but this departure from gendered expectations is still worth noting. Usually, the perception is that boys don’t cry. Crying is a sissy thing to do, an unmanly thing to do, a girly thing to do, and society says the accepted and desirable alternative is to bottle up your feelings or project them outwards onto other people. This is one of the neatest examples of toxic masculinity you can find: being emotional is somehow feminine, and, of course, that that makes it bad.
Content warning for discussion of suicide after the jump.
There are plenty of fictional men out there with deep-seated emotional issues, and some narratives do attempt to explore these. The portrayal of how these men deal with and express these issues is the key thing here: generally, most fictional men express emotional anguish not through visible sadness but through anger, stoicism, or self-destructive tendencies. Tragic backstories abound for these characters, but their reactions to and handling of these tragedies are often written to come across in ways more coded as “masculine”.
This gives us such tropes as the brooding “I work alone” hero who has cut himself off from human connection as a response to emotional trauma or tragedy (see the quintessential film noir detective or Christopher Nolan’s Batman), the violent abuser whose rage and controlling behavior is justified when it’s presented as the way he’s working through his emotional issues (see Christian Grey and what this reviewer calls his “moldy cheese dreams”: flashbacks to his tormented childhood that are meant to explain his abusiveness and make the reader feel sympathy for him), and the hero who turns to self-destructive behavior as a way to channel or cope with his lack of self-worth (see Hopper from Stranger Things, who retreats into bad habits after his family falls apart; or for a more fantastical example, Shirou from Fate/Stay Night, who throws himself into battle with little sense of self-preservation as a response to his survivor’s guilt).
That’s not to say that there’s no merit to these tropes… if they’re explored beyond surface level and acknowledged to not be the best way to deal with things (except Christian Grey. There is nothing to be gained there). Iron Man 3 stands out as an odd case in that it has Tony Stark embody both the “I work alone” ego and the self-destructive behavior tropes, but instead of leaving it at that, the movie takes the time to address its protagonist’s—a man and a literal superhero—mental health and emotional expression. In the wake of the traumatic events in The Avengers, Tony suffers from panic attacks, exhibits obsessive behavior in building the suits, and has an arc over the course of the movie that enables him to deal with his traumatic stress in a more positive way (i.e. by communicating with the people around him and drawing support from that, rather than making hundreds of robots). Ideally we’d have a movie like this for every superhero, because goodness knows they’ve gone through a lot of stress and trauma and probably need some time to process it, but all too often the narrative doesn’t give this the time it requires. Which is a whole other issue—when these masculine heroes don’t react at all to trauma or emotional scenarios, painting them as invulnerable. It’s an unrealistic, harmful image for young men to try to model themselves on.
It’s important to look at this on both the meta level and the in-universe level: vulnerable as he can be, Tony Stark is still a revered and adored superhero in the fictional world of the movie, and we the audience can see he’s also not any less deserving of being the main character of an action franchise. Iron Man 3 is not a picture perfect example since it drops the ball with that in-universe portrayal, with scenes like the after-the-credits one where it’s revealed that Bruce Banner fell asleep while Tony was trying to vent to him and help improve his mental health, and others where the kid who helps Tony in Tennessee pesters him about New York and deliberately induces an anxiety attack. These are both meant to be funny, which is a pretty big step backwards in terms of seriously portraying trauma recovery. Rhodey also tells Tony that having a panic attack in public is “not a good look”, and there’s a throwaway line where the kid starts venting to Tony about how his dad left, and Tony’s immediate response is “Dads leave all the time, don’t be a pussy about it”. While it’s possible that the other characters don’t know or understand how serious Tony’s PTSD is at the time, and it’s arguably entirely in-character for Tony to gloss over his own issues, this doesn’t exactly set a positive standard for men and boys validating and supporting each other through their perfectly real emotions.
For the most part, though, the actual depiction of Tony’s PTSD and resulting anxiety was realistic and handled with appropriate seriousness. But then it’s almost like the movie pulls some sort of emotional version of “no homo”, throwing up its hands and leaping backward from treating the issue of emotionally vulnerable men with total respect. I know that this movie was so important to so many people because it showed a superhero, a cool and idolized action star and fan favorite, dealing with PTSD and anxiety when such things are usually breezed over in media. Even if the positive message is muddied in the played-for-laughs scenes, it was still immensely powerful, at the time, to see a literal superhero dealing with panic attacks in a blockbuster movie. It said “this can even happen to Iron Man—he’s human, he’s flawed, and this is something to seek healing from rather than bottling it up and letting it hurt you”. Imagine how far this movie could have gone to raise awareness and deliver emotional validation for people with similar issues if it had gone that extra mile and not had the other characters in the movie treat Tony’s feelings as an uncomfortable joke.
While the anime Fate/Zero is is far from being a feminist masterpiece (as anyone who follows my other blog will know), there is one aspect of that series that stuck out to me as a particularly interesting subversion of this attitude to men’s emotions. One of the series’ main protagonists, Kiritsugu, is presented as every bit the stoic, cigarette-puffing, gun-slinging anti-hero; a badass with a cool coat standing at the center of this dark and gritty fantasy story and clearly meant to be looked up to by the viewer… but he cries. Several times! He breaks down wailing in grief in a poignant and important scene in his backstory episodes, gets teary when the pressure of the magical war he’s in becomes too much, and is openly weeping in one of the final, pivotal scenes that lead directly into the sequel. It doesn’t sound like much, a few scenes where a man with a tragic life takes a moment to cry about said tragedy, but given how archetypally badass Kiritsugu is, I didn’t expect it at all. Which tells you something, hey? The perception is that you cannot be a badass and cry, so when badass Kiritsugu cries, the impact of such a scene is immediate.
As a bonus, he’s allowed to emote like this—not only in-universe but metatextually as well, Kiritsugu crying is not presented as a bad thing. As with Iron Man, the audience can see he’s still perfectly capable of being a cool protagonist even if he cries sometimes (and, though it’s not addressed or made a plot point in the same way Tony’s PTSD is, can easily be read as suffering from clinical depression), and other characters in the fictional world support him when he’s upset and acknowledge his pain, without tutting that he should just man up and get it together. His assistant tells him that he should hold back his tears for later, but that’s more her urging him to keep going through a bad moment, rather than shaming him for shedding tears at all. Without spoiling too much, at the end of the series Kiritsugu rescues Shirou, who will grow up to become the protagonist of the sequel series. This is a really important moment that Shirou carries in his heart and that is called back to numerous times in said sequel… and in it, Kiritsugu is crying. Shirou’s idolized image of what a hero is features tears streaming down that hero’s face. And why shouldn’t that be the case? Why should a badass action hero not be allowed to emote, and have it not only be part of his story but have it be accepted by the characters in his story?
FemHype recently suggested that perhaps the reason the protagonists in horror films are more often women than men is because women are perceived as more likely to emote in a horror scenario—they are allowed to scream, to flee, to cry, whereas it would be strange for a man to act this way because these reactions aren’t typically “manly”. Media scholar Aaron Kipnis writes in his paper “Men, Movies & Monsters: Heroic Masculinity as a Crucible for Male Violence” that this archetype of the action hero who doesn’t emote damages men fundamentally: after all, “Heroes can’t ask for help when they need it. Men caught in the heroic archetype often suffer greatly and die early deaths. They’ve been trained to believe that they don’t need anyone but themselves. Just as over-identification with the Victim/Princess cuts women off from their power, over-identification with the Hero cuts men off from their feelings and their capacity to provide sustained care for themselves and others.”
As Kipnis writes, this idea that’s expressed so much in fiction leads to real life consequences: men are less likely to report domestic or sexual abuse when it happens to them, the biggest cause of death for men under forty is suicide, and cycles of abuse and violence are perpetuated because young men are told that the best way to handle their negative emotions is through violence or self-destruction rather than just crying or talking about it. There was a whole suicide prevention campaign in Australia specifically targeted at this, which declared that “it takes balls to cry” and encouraged men to express rather than bottle up their emotions.
As always, media does not exist in a vacuum, and if we want to plant the message in society that it’s not “girly” and thus “bad” to feel and express the feelings that all humans have, a good place to start is fiction. Especially where blockbusters like Iron Man are concerned, because superheroes are in many ways the paradigm of masculine awesomeness: if you show that superheroes are allowed to cry without it being a bad thing (again, it’s important to make this clear both in how the other characters react to it and how the story itself is written) that will have massive positive impact since these characters resonate with so many people.
You can be a Grand Prix finalist and still cry, it doesn’t make you any less deserving. You can be a gun-wielding edgy power fantasy and still cry; it doesn’t devalue your cool factor at all, and both real and fictional people will still idolize you. You can be a superhero and cry; it just means you’re human. Men can cry, it doesn’t make them “any less of a man” or devalue their other strengths. Obviously this is a deeply-ingrained perception and will take more than a few movies and TV shows to change, but every little positive portrayal helps this notion shift towards something better.
Read more from Alex at her blog, The Afictionado!