Image: Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS/Getty
One of the things that struck me most about President Obama’s farewell speech the other night was his emotion while thanking and praising his wife, Michelle, and daughters Malia and Sasha. As someone who is interested in masculinity and the ways in which society punish men who openly share any emotion other than anger, the fact that President Obama cried – and not just glossy eyes, but needed-a-hankie cried – is a huge symbol.
There is much I will personally miss about President Obama. I didn’t always agree with his policies but I considered him to be a leader with a lot of integrity, and one who thought carefully about the consequences of his actions as President of the United States.
President Obama was willing to be vulnerable, to show his emotion and love and tenderness for his family, to the world. In this moment, he taught everyone that it is okay for a man to express tenderness as well as strength. Unfortunately there are men and women alike who consider a man’s tears as evidence of weakness; I think about all of the males who were told, “boys don’t cry.” We see the results of that every day – violence, suicide, addiction – suppressing tears does not eliminate feelings. And those feelings don’t just disappear, they get channeled into actions that are usually self-destructive or enacted on to others. Although men and women both work to suppress any hints of vulnerability, men are particularly prone to this because our society has told them that men are not supposed to show any weakness, and tears have become synonymous with weakness.
In the Diversity and Social Justice course I teach, I have students watch the film, The Mask You Live In. This is an important film for everyone to see and this film does such a good job of showing how shaming men who express emotions has dire consequences for everyone.
In a short time, President Obama will leave office. But among his many accomplishments achieved during his presidency, I will count the moment he allowed himself to cry during his farewell speech as one of his best. In those few minutes, he provided us all with an example of what it means to be human, and to be connected to one another.