Getting Emotional: Why John Can but Hillary Can’t

by Lois Phillips, PhD

It’s no surprise to women today that men in public life have greater choices about the way they present themselves on camera and to the press. You may recall that many leaders have been captured on camera displaying what used to be called feminine displays of emotion with no negative consequences; for example, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf cried at a Christmas Eve ceremony in front of his troops. Jon Stewart and David Letterman choked up with impunity just after 9/11. Have you noticed that, ironically, a few U.S. presidents considered to be among the best speakers– Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama- tend(ed) to get emotional in public? And now, the new Speaker of the House John Boehner (R, Ohio) tends to cry early and often during policy debates.

How do we make sense of Boehner’s emotional outbursts? A statesman is thought of as quiet, reserved, an experienced politician, especially one who is respected for making good judgments. Do statesmen (or stateswomen) cry uncontrollably when debating a policy? Notice that his Republican Sharon Angle is nowhere in sight chastising one of her own with a “Man Up!” retort as she did to Senator Harry Reid (D).

UC Professor Tom Lutz challenges myths about crying when he writes that “all the research suggests that we cry, in fact, because we don’t know what we’re feeling.”

Boehner’s tears may be confusing to the listener and/or viewer because of the inconsistency between his words and his deeds; i.e., he says he gets emotional about wanting everyone to have a piece of the American Dream, and yet he votes against the economic stimulus bill, increasing financial aid to college students, and the minimum wage and for retaining $120 billion in bonus tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. What’s a voter to think (or not)?

But Boehner can get away with uncontrollable weeping because both men and women tend to feel for a big guy who doesn’t care what people think about seeing him express his emotions. Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute explains.

“When men cry, we shrug it off or we say isn’t it nice that he’s able to show his sensitive emotional side.” When women cry, we go, oops, there go those emotions again, they can’t serve in top public office; they’re not tough enough.”

Taking the behavior at face value, which most of us do, the double standard works in men’s favor (again). So what else is new?

The classic film Adam’s Rib (1949) captured the stereotype well as when Spencer Tracy said to Katharine Hepburn, “Here we go again, the old juice. Guaranteed heart melter. A few female tears, stronger than any acid.”

Except for Professor Lutz, nobody questions the motives of men who shed a tear, but they do question women’s sincerity when they do, and even when they don’t or might have. For example, sixty years after Adams Rib, when Hillary Clinton teared up during her campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination, the media focused on whether it was sincere or merely a manipulative device to gain public sympathy. NY Times reporter Maureen Dowd wrote:

“There was poignancy about the moment, seeing Hillary crack with exhaustion from decades of yearning to be the principal rather than the plus-one. But there was a whiff of Nixonian self-pity about her choking up.”

Mindreader Dowd interpreted a tear in Hillary’s eye to mean that:

“What was moving her so deeply was her recognition that the country was failing to grasp how much it needs her. In a weirdly narcissistic way, she was crying for us. But it was grimly typical of her that what finally made her break down was the prospect of losing.”

Self-pity. Narcissism. Crack up. Breakdowns. Sore loser! Sheesh! What a nasty list of adjectives in a piece that helped to undermine the candidate and her campaign.

A young business or professional woman in today’s modern world thinks that she can have it all and be anything she wants to be, and maybe she can, until she sticks her neck out in a campaign and her ambition becomes visible. Picture a giraffe seeking the leaves at the top of the tree. The rhetorical tradition reflects women’s place in a “man’s world.” After all, Quintilian’s depiction of the ideal orator is someone who is “above all a good man” (sic) with a “consummate ability in speaking.” When women want to take power by seeking the highest levels of office, the critics of her presentation style will be harsh, particularly when women show vulnerability.

As scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson points out, “only a person whose credibility is firm can risk adopting a style traditionally considered weak.” Outgoing Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi commented: “If I cry, it’s about the personal loss of a friend or something like that,” she said. “But when it comes to politics, no, I don’t cry.” As a recipient of harsh criticisms of her speaking style, she would know about the ugly caricatures that the press and the public- with the help of the Internet and Saturday Night Live- can level at a women leader.

Everyone gets only one chance to make a first impression, but when the speaker is a woman, she must also seize public attention as an opportunity to gain credibility as ‘the voice of authority.’ As long as people are skeptical about their ability to be leaders in the first place, I would advise women speakers that crying in public is best left to those incapable of speech – namely, infants.

6) Women Performing “Woman”: Character Construction in Nineteenth-Century Women’s Texts, Ann N. Amicucci (Posted Online)
7) Ibid
8)Theme excerpted from “Women Seen and Heard: Lessons Learned from Successful Speakers” by Lois Phillips and Anita Perez Ferguson
(Luz Publications)


7 responses to “Getting Emotional: Why John Can but Hillary Can’t

  1. Nicely written. Seems to me that it’s a lose-lose situation for women in politics; if you cry you’re seen as overly emotional and weak, and if you don’t cry someone somewhere will find a way to label you as too tough and terrifying, ie. not “the ideal” woman. Sarah Palin seems to have come closest to balancing on this tightrope, but I think her success so far has come from her looks far more than anything else.

  2. I agree with you Lois! I was particularly frustrated at the sentitment directed at Hillary that her natural emotions could be an act. She can’t win for losing, pardon the pun. When she got emotional, it was plastered on every station and website and the pundits went to town. As for Boehner’s frequent crying jags, nobody talks about it, so I’m glad to see you write about it. I prefer to believe that this discrepancy is due to the fact that people are much more interested in Hillary than they are in John Boehner–and that at least is progress 🙂

  3. Great entry. Outside the public realm and into the office is where this issue probably affects most women. Until our business culture and perceptions change, unfortunately, if you are a woman, the only time it’s probably okay to cry in a professional setting is if someone has died. For anything else, if you cry it is perceived as a weakness or emotional instability. Until our business culture changes, women need to learn how to hold back tears in the office. I have been driven to tears on more than one occasion at the office, but instead of crying I think, “I am tougher than this!” and wait until I am alone to let the tears flow. Most of the time that works. Or, if you really are going to lose control, excuse yourself briefly to gain composure.

  4. In sharp contrast to the preceding comments, it seems that despite the topic of the article, the comments focus on political affiliation versus the gender differences on crying in public. Despite the Huffington Post influence, for communication strategists, this is a compelling discussion.
    The acceptance, regardless of gender, is based on the coherent explanation (communication) of the emotion teamed with the audience’s barometer of the person’s display. Ultimately evaluating the authenticity and sincerity of the message. Was this a genuine display? If not, the audience is confused, put off and uncomfortable.
    I would challenge for most, the emotional display (crying) is because they do know what they are feeling. Their feelings have pulled rank, unable to take a back seat to the polished ”public ready” version of their statement.
    If the individual displays emotion while coherently communicating why they are ‘moved’, they have not lost ground nor do they appear weak, regardless of gender. To the contrary, they have gained trust and support. They demonstrate the feelings shared by their audiences, connecting with them, evoking emotion in the audience. That is a powerful, inspirational tool for a friend, parent, sibling, spouse, teacher, preacher, and politician.
    Rhetoric can invite comparisons and criticism, just as strongly as it can evoke inspiration. Unexplained emotions may be misinterpreted as unstable (Howard Dean).

  5. Quoting Maureen Dowd weakens the piece and undmines your point. Dowd writes in a provocative, highly charged style no matter the subject. She points her sarcastic pen at everyone in power. I stopped reading her long ago because I want reasoned commentary and analysis and am finished with snarkiness that doesn’t advance the public good.

  6. Wow – wonderful article. It’s a double standard I had never actually noticed or acknowledged in politics, but one I was definitely aware of on a more personal level. I do remember that the assumptions Dowd made in her post seemed unfounded and disloyal in a way.
    A well written and informative piece. Thanks.
    Susan (from your Mesa Writer’s group)
    PS: your blog reminds me of another blog that I read that I really like and that you might appreciate. It’s informative, intelligent, straightforward and I always learn something new:

  7. Hi Lo,
    I think they tried hard to make Hilary into a “hard b–chy woman.”
    and I often felt her strength was harder for them to take then her tears. They couldn’t pick on her strength. How do you do that without exposing you own ineptness. They found the tears as a way to negate the powerful, wizened woman she is.

    I am glad you are addressing this issue. There are so many subtle and not so subtle ways women are demeaned and sadly often by their own gender.
    Great blogging.

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