I’ve been thinking a lot about crying lately: why we cry and how we cry and where we cry and when we cry. More specifically, I guess I’ve been thinking about crying in response to art, in digital spaces. Not the crying itself so much as the reportage of the crying. Crying as critical response. Crying as maneuver--the way an author might say a character held their breath or picked at their nails or flipped their hair over their shoulder, the set of scripted actions that we come to associate with a particular emotional state. What I’m saying, or trying to say, is that I have been thinking a lot about the performative nature of internet crying in response to media, and what is we’re trying to say when we burst into tears within the first five minutes of starting an episode of Queer Eye or when we see a cute animal performing an anthropomorphized behavior.
There’s a kind of uncanny valley effect these days when people say God, I sobbed when I watched that episode. It destroyed me. Uncanny in that it almost resembles a genuine sentiment. It almost mirrors a real world calculus of artistic exchange. Crying in response to something overwhelmingly emotional is indeed a real thing that exists in the world. But the remove of digital spaces, the absence of ability to witness the crying, forces us to construct it from, what, empathy and similar personal histories? When people say that they wept at an episode of Queer Eye, there’s a weird kind of collapsing between truth and untruth--on some level, we almost know that the person didn’t actually cry but we understand, in a way, what they mean. That the world is bad, that the world is rapidly getting worse, that we are beset by awful things at all times, that we live among people who are hard and difficult and sharp and ruthless, that it’s nice to see an example of (for reality tv standards) genuine human compassion, real decency. We cry at the recognition of what it means to be one flesh bag to another flesh bag.
But as a spectator in these digital spaces, I find myself kind of lost. It’s like when I attended church as a younger person. People whose ordinary, daily lives were shot through with pain and poverty and the difficulty of trying to exist as people in a world that actively sought their eradication would, for a couple of hours in a hot, white clapboard church, transcend circumstance and reality. They would touch something vast and cosmic, something that reflected the divinity of their nature, the validity of their humanity. Church was a crucible of transformation, and religious worship a kind of transmutation of the ordinary, the ugly, the painful, into the ecstatic, into rapture, into beauty. They wept and were overcome. They shouted. They threw themselves to the floor. They did as they were supposed to do. All the while, people in the back pews whispered and gossiped. Oh, she’s such a put-on. Look at her down there, like a puppy. There was, even in church, a sharp skepticism woven in. Maybe that’s how it is with all spectating. Maybe the voyeur is essentially a skeptic, a doubter.
When people weep on social media in response to television or movies or music, it’s not so much that I doubt the capacity of art to move a person to tears. Earlier in the spring, or maybe it was the winter, I watched At Eternity’s Gate, a biopic of the painter Vincent van Gogh, chronicling the difficult period in which he painted his most intense, luminous work and also experienced mental health crises. Willem Dafoe’s great, elastic face loomed overhead in the dark theater. His eyes were so awful and so beautiful, turning sometimes rapidly to catch the viewer off-guard. The moments in the asylum were quite difficult to watch. Vincent jogging along with the other patients, all wrapped up tight in white strait-jackets. There’s a moment when a priest, played by Mads Mikkelsen, asks Vincent why he paints the way he does, if these paintings are the paintings of a healthy or happy person. And Vincent just looks on in confusion. The part of the film that moved me to tears came toward the end, when Vincent’s beloved brother visits him during his hospitalization and embraces him tightly as they lie in bed. It wasn’t the brotherly love (though it was that, too) that moved me. It was because, in that moment, it was so clear how fiercely Vincent wanted to live. I kept repeating it to myself as I left the theater, He wanted so much to live. He wanted to live. I cried because I could relate to that sort of desperation to want to live, when it feels as though you are doing everything in your power to cling to life and yet some weight, some terrible, creeping weight persists in trying to drag you out of it. I was moved. I was very moved by this not very good movie. I cry in movies fairly often, I guess. Carol, The Seagull, Certain Women, Non-Fiction, Moonlight, and others. Any sudden swing into sentiment can catch me wrong-footed. I cry a little at certain folk songs. I cry when I listen to the spirituals of my childhood. The tears come slowly, against their will. I feel it as a little tickle in the back of my throat. Emotion overwhelms me. I have always been a bit of a crybaby.
But this feels distinct in some way from the crying we do on social media, like that crying is for the benefit of others. As though our tears were a substantial critical response to a text. Saying that something made you cry is only saying that something made you cry. After all, your tears are particular to you, to the matrix of your life, the sequence of your circumstances, as indelible and inscrutable as your genetic code. What makes you cry might not make someone else cry. And so it seems a bit wild that the prevailing endorsement of media these days--in the quick, digital exchanges that govern much of what we consume and when we consume it--is whether or not something has the capacity to move us to tears. Why do we cry? Why?
It feels to me that the crying is about something else entirely. It feels to me that the reason we cry is more to do with the mire of our moment. Of course we cry at Queer Eye when the Earth is dying, when our government is putting children in cages and destroying families, when our country has always been in the business of putting people in cages and destroying families, when the tide of human decency feels to have forever turned away from us. We cry because we feel that we have been deceived into thinking that history has nothing to do with us, and it has returned so forcefully, so brutally to show us what a lie that was. We cry because it’s easier to engage with television, with novels, with films, with music that offers us a swift release into emotion. Saying that we cry on social media because gruff men expressed an emotion is a way of saying I am alive. I am in this moment. I can hear the world screaming and I don’t want to look away. Please count me among the knowing. Please acknowledge my awareness.
I understand it. I think people should cry all the time. I think people should cry and wail and pound their fists on the table. Get mad. Get angry. Get sad. But it also feels that we are making use of a symbol, a shortcut. We’re expressing proxy emotions. Partly because we need to in order to survive the mass shootings, the horrible and unjust deportations, the assaults on our liberties, on our humanity, everything challenged and deconstructed, leaving us vulnerable and afraid. But also we are doing it because it’s how we accrue currency in the algorithm. It’s the modern-day parlance. God, this will make you bawl. God, this will fucking end you. I got five pages in and wept. Tears are the new lingua franca despite being highly localized and particular to one person in one moment.
I think I might be cynical. I think I might be a skeptic. It’s very possible. But some part of me just believes that when people say they weep at Queer Eye, a part of them is just engaging in a discourse. Not in a way that’s callow or exploitative or craven, necessarily. We all speak the language of the moment. I get it. I too traffic in tears. LOL I AM SCREAMING SOBBING ON THE FLOOR HELP! But instead, it suggests a kind of corruption of the meaning of tears. No, that’s a quality judgement, and I don’t want to make it that, to imply that crying is corruption. No. I think that instead, what’s happening is some definition creep. And we exist in a liminal moment between actual human emotion and its digital equivalent, some flickering avatar of real sentiment. The conversion of meaning, when crying is neither one thing or another, but both, simultaneously. Inside of every crying person, there’s a camera recording, I guess, calmly as can be.
My grandma used to say that she hated funerals because everyone always got to whooping and hollering. She considered it a way of putting on a show. Not for the departed, but for those who remained, a way of saying Look how much I fucking care. Look how pained I am. Look how much this matters to me. When I see people say that they cry in response to television and then five minutes later Tweet that they’re crying about a video of a child being cute and then five minutes after that Tweet that they’re crying about a film trailer--I wonder a little bit who are they crying for, and when will they stop.
I don’t really have any answers. I think for me crying doesn’t really constitute a robust critical response to an encounter with art. It’s a sign that something has transpired. But I also think that sometimes it’s enough to simply document that an encounter has happened. Sometimes, all you have time or energy for is a quick cry. A flare shot out into the dark mouth of the universe, a way of saying I am here. I count. And that’s okay too.