Owen Gleiberman wrote an interesting piece in Entertainment Weekly entitled "Message to Men: It's Okay to cry at Toy Story 3". While I think he's only touched on parts of the reasons why the movie could hit men hard, he has a point: Real men do cry.
I have a confession to make: while watching TS3, I did try to force my tears to stay put but I failed; I did try to hide the fact that I was shedding a few tears behind those 3D glasses; and I did feel embarrassed until I heard the sobs coming from all around me at the theater. Then I realized: yup, real men do cry.
We just don't cry at every single thing, or little things, or "girly things" like "awww, they live happily ever after!" or "I got a 60% discount on these pants!" Gee, no, we're no sissies!
But real men also are courageous enough to admit that they, too, have emotions and are totally capable of expressing them. Show me a man who didn't cry (or at least have teary eyes) at his wife's funeral, when sending his children off to college, or right after 9/11... and I will tell you he's either too damned sissy to show his emotions, or he's a sociopath.
So, I think it's tremendous that men openly admit that they cry at Toy Story 3 -- an animated MOVIE, no less. That shows us the power of the story, characters and themes. In my own review, I talked about the themes and the layers of meanings and emotions conveyed, especially during the last reel, in the movie, and why it hits us hard. And here's the thing: the universal themes and emotions.
Regardless of gender, race, age or cultural backgrounds, we've all been children. We've all gone through the process of growing up (and some of us are still going through it). We've all have toys (even just a box and a stick). We've all had to "let go" of our childhood and transitioned to adulthood. I think that's why the ending of Toy Story 3 is so poignant and relevant, because it touches all of us (unless we've had some kind of weird, broken childhood that we never experienced any joy). Nostalgia is a bitch, and TS3 finds that nugget of truth and pounds on it. And yet, the ending is quiet and bittersweet that it doesn't feel manipulative -- because it is so true. No embellishment is needed to drive the point home and make us feel.
In fact, that's always been my goal when I write my fiction. I want to reveal the universal truth and emotions without over-exaggerating them. I want to stir something deep inside each of us. Yes, I want to entertain, too. But I also want the entertainment to mean something. And Pixar has been an inspiration for me since Toy Story 1 -- how they've succeeded in blending humor, action, excitement, entertainment, heart and real emotions in ALL of their films is beyond miraculous. And I want to achieve that, too, with my fiction.
I want to make grown men cry.
My novels, with their strong emotional cores, have built-in female audiences. Not that I think women are weepy, sentimental easy-targets. It's just that I do think, in our cultures, women are raised to be more in tune with emotions and relationships, while men are conditioned to hide these emotions, because it's not "macho." We'd be called gay, sissy, EMO, "a girl," etc. etc. as if being "womanly" is a detriment -- that in itself is an insult to women, after all. But alas! That's the reality for many men. As for me, I am very in tune with my emotions -- my parents never discouraged me for showing emotions -- but still, my cultural conditioning tells me I should be "embarrassed" if I cry, or that it's not "manly" to talk about feelings and relationships. We men are encouraged, by our peers and societies, to keep our mouths shut and drink some more beer and scream at a football match. If you want to fit in, as one of the guys, you need to keep your emotions under wrap. That's true even for those women who are "one of the guys." The minute they start talking about feelings and relationships, they're out of the group.
With novels though, I hope to create an environment that encourages men to feel, to get in touch with their feelings, and to be able to let go and express those feelings without public embarrassment. Isn't it kind of a contradiction? I mean, what's the point of expressing our emotions in the comfort of our private space? Baby steps. Baby steps. I think most men need an outlet to let go and be themselves, and that includes bawling like a baby without the scrutiny of someone else. As in touch with my own feelings as I am, I often find myself unable to cry or express my emotions in public places such as a theater. I often find myself having to hold back my tears, or brush the feelings aside, or think of something else so I don't feel it anymore. That's enough to cause major constipation. Thus, I think novels are the better outlets for men -- the reading space is very private, and we men would have the opportunities to let go and let loose.
It's better for a man to express their feelings through crying than through violence. Talk about pent up frustration.
Thus, my stories tend to have strong male themes that men could identify with, without feeling embarrassed. One of the common themes is father-son relationships. I think for me, that's as universal as beer and sports. Another potent theme is men's places in the world: our legacies, our friendships, our families. Some men may try to deny it, but these are all very important to us.
Even the love stories -- men want to be loved as well, but in a different ways than most women do, I suppose. And thus, in my stories, I try to present both sides. Obviously, not all men or women are like that, and there are gray areas in everything. Still, if the Toy Story franchise has taught us anything, it's that we can put heart and emotions in something that boys and men could easily identify with and not feel embarrassed to engage in. Pixar knows that (most of their directors and creators are men!) If you can make the men want to take their spouses and children to see those films, you've done it. You've made something as universal as it can be.
That's why I have problems with some of the "guys' movies" or novels out there. They seem to perpetuate the myth that men should control their emotions. It's okay to show excitement and pump our fists in the air (YEAH, blow that up! YEAH, we win! YEAH, we are heroes and we kick ass! YEAH!) and cheer when the hero gets the girl. Or else the "guys" are mostly overgrown boys who will never grow up (Adam Sandler, I'm looking at YOU!) What a sad thing, to continue to encourage boys and men to shut up and keep our emotions in tow, to discourage us to reveal our inner selves, our true fears and needs and emotions, and above all, love. Men sneer at anything "romantic" as if that's the death of our masculinity, and yet men want to be loved just as much. We just don't want to talk about it. You -- women -- are supposed to just know that! How sad. In many ways, the fear of showing our real emotions and talk about them lacks the courage that makes us real men.