Is it OK for strong women to cry?

In books, it’s considered something of a taboo to have a female character who cries more than once. Especially if she is the protagonist. Especially if she is to be considered a ‘strong’ female character.

This is for good reason — there’s nothing more annoying (or cliched) than a main character bursting into tears at the drop of a hat. Tears are sometimes used in fiction as a cheap and easy means to convey emotion in women. If used too liberally the characters tend to come across as shallow and weak.

But that’s in fiction. In real life, it’s permissible for strong women to cry on occasion… Right?

The reason I bring this up is because I’ve had an emotional roller-coaster of a week. Well, three weeks, actually. I finished up at work today after a company restructure, and I’ve been quite shocked at how the whole ordeal has affected me. Let’s just say I haven’t quite been in control of my emotions.

It’s made me contemplate the frailty of the human psyche, even in someone who considers herself a strong woman.

Doubt is normal. Fear is normal. Emotion is normal. Tears are normal.

Sometimes, I don’t think tears can be helped, actually. They seem to be part and parcel of certain emotions. (I know this, to my chagrin, from experience!) Perhaps some women are able to summon stoicism more readily than me, though.

I’d like to think tears — genuine tears — are not a sign of weakness. That a strong woman may still shed tears and not be diminished by them.

I’d like to think strength is demonstrated in how we act in response to the trials of life. How we pick ourselves up off the floor and keep going after the tears. (And as trials go, mine is fairly low down on the scale. I can honestly say I have friends undergoing far worse ordeals.)

In fiction, though, I daresay the non-crying rule still stands. Tears are to be used only very sparingly — and it is up to the skill of the author to make the reader truly feel the grief/frustration/despair/futility felt by the character in question.

It’s an interesting illustration of how unlike real life books truly can be — in some aspects.

It’s probably a bit weird, but this is my inspiration of the week. Anything that gets me thinking about how to channel emotions into fiction, can be considered such, in my view.

What about you? Do you get annoyed when characters weep too much in books? Have you ever completely lost control of your emotions and teared up in front of the most inappropriate people (gulp)? How do you define a strong person?


22 thoughts on “Is it OK for strong women to cry?

  1. I think here what’s important is the context. If a woman in fiction cries because *something* bad has happened, and does it every time, then that’s terrible. If, when she gets to the end of the line, she cries, that’s fine.

    I think you’ve put it perfectly; whether in fiction or real life, it’s what someone does after the tears that makes them a strong/weak person. Crying happens. Women cry more than men, but actually it’s medically considered that men need to cry more; the actual act of crying is a way of the brain getting rid of excess chemicals, which is why we feel calmer and more in control after we’ve stopped crying.

    When writer’s go ‘Well, this is a bad situation, and she’s a woman, so naturally she’d have a cry’, that’s a problem. But we also see a lot of terrible female protagonists who are completely the opposite, and just as awful, where the writer has gone ‘OK, so women are stereotyped as being emotional. So to make a really progressive main character, I should make a woman who has *no* emotions whatsoever’.

    It’s all about balance. In life, sometimes crying can’t be helped. That doesn’t make someone weak, but the idea that women shouldn’t cry because that suggests weakness is just as damaging to expected/stereotyped gender roles as saying they should cry all the time because they are women.

    And don’t doubt yourself. We each have different thresholds of how much we can take before things get on top of us. The character traits ‘strong’ and ’emotional’ aren’t mutually exclusive. I hope things get better.


    1. I couldn’t agree more. Thanks for leaving such a thoughtful and insightful comment. I hadn’t considered your point about the balance swinging the other way — to make female characters lacking in emotion in a clumsy attempt to counteract gender bias — but you’re quite right. And I particularly like your last point — that the character traits ‘strong’ and ’emotional’ aren’t mutually exclusive. Well said!


  2. This made me think of Peter Parker in the new Spiderman movie. He was such a good crier, that he spent half the movie crying. It was a little much. I cry a lot, so I have less of a problem with crying characters than others. The main character in my story cries at one point when he is overwhelmed. That is it, though. After the cry, he is okay through the rest of the story. He is not supposed to be portrayed as overly “tough”. I think if you are trying to create a strong female character, however, you have to leave out the crying.


    1. I haven’t seen the new Spiderman movie, but now I’m intrigued. One definitely doesn’t see men on film crying too much. Nor in fiction — so I’m also intrigued as to how you’ve dealt with it. Kudos to you for acknowledging that men do cry when the going gets really tough.


  3. In fiction, I think it’s OK to have a character cry once, at a black moment. There is something powerful about the way Suzanne Brockmann has her male protagonist cry.

    In Real Life, I think it takes Strength to just let yourself cry. When you can finally let go, you feel washed out and better for it.

    Hang in there. This too shall pass. Cry as much as you want.


    1. I’d like to think you’re right about the strength required to cry, but I’m not convinced — not in my case anyway. I think I cry far too easily. Imagine trying to farewell colleagues in a professional and dignified manner, but the eyes are red and watery and the throat is thick and the face is threatening to crumple. So embarrassing! I would have given anything for the strength NOT to cry right then. I wasn’t even particularly sad — just inexplicably emotional. Crying in private is another thing entirely — although I think that’s usually pulled by deeper emotion. It’s those times, perhaps, when strength is required to completely let go and let the grief engulf one.


  4. Crying in fiction is okay, as long as it’s extremely limited. It simply doesn’t translate well on paper, IMHO. We see tears more than once and we think, “Oh, geez, pull yourself together already.” I totally agree with you that it comes across as a cheap-out by the author when characters turn on the waterworks every time they can’t get a grip.

    Real life is a whole other chapter. Despite my every effort (as in serious ongoing effort) I am a crier. And yet I know I am a strong woman. It’s extremely frustrating since I find that non-criers freak out a little in the presence of a crier. They don’t know where to look, how to act, or what to say. (Nothing is best.) They quickly come to the conclusion that they’re in the company of a wimpy, emotional lightweight and that is far from the truth.

    The fact that I know some seriously kick-ass strong woman who are not ashamed or embarrassed to cry does help me not to feel like such a ninny. Added bonus, I’ve heard from several sources that people who allow the tears to flow are generally healthier. It’s enough to make me cry 😀


    1. I hear you, Barbara! I fear I am a crier too. There are times when I’m not embarrassed about it, but sometimes I feel it’s inappropriate (such as in front of work colleagues). But I guess that doesn’t happen so often…

      But yes, it doesn’t translate well onto paper. Which is what I’m finding fascinating. It’s so common for us to mine our emotional reactions for fictional purposes — yet this is something that’s taboo, so we have to find other ways.


  5. As someone who has spent the better part of the last two years riding an emotional roller coaster while personally keeping the American tissue companies in business, I wholeheartedly say strong women can cry and should cry whenever they need to. (As for fiction, I agree with you and the others who have commented here – limit the crying, give us other descriptors/reactions/dialogue to show how the character is processing something.)

    I prefer to do my tissue shredding sobs in private, but I have shed some tears at the most inopportune of times. Sometimes it can’t be helped. We feel what we feel when we feel it. Those who continuously stifle it and bury it become a bit emotionally stunted in my opinion.

    I agree with what you said about strength being what we do when we pick ourselves up afterwards. Sorry you’re going through such a rough and stressful time. Sending good vibes to you for a smooth, gentle transition into whatever comes next.


    1. I’m so sorry about your emotional roller-coaster, Tami… And it sounds like you and I are definitely not the only ones who should invest in tissue companies 🙂 I’m so glad to hear I’m not the only one who loses control sometimes. I’m sending good vibes to you as well.


  6. Crying can be such a release. What’s worse is when you’re feeling awful and *can’t* cry. There’s this lump of emotion stuck in your throat and an ache in your chest, and they just sit there, like weights. Getting it out through crying *does* help you feel better so you can pick yourself up and move on.

    I think crying, like a lot of other things (including, but not limited to, nervous tics like twirling hair, kissing scenes, arguments, battles, etc.) should be employed with care and in moderation in fiction. If crying becomes a fallback emotional response, a *safe* way to show character emotion, then I think the author has not done his/her job to dig deep and bring characters to life.


    1. You raise a good point regarding the other elements of fiction that should be limited in addition to crying. As you suggest, everything should be deployed in moderation.

      The pressure of ‘not’ crying is most often associated with deep grief, I think. In my experience, the deeper the grief, the harder it can be to cry. Although not always. 🙂


  7. This is a really interesting post Ellen. I tend to think that the “strong woman” ideal can be just as harmful as the weak woman stereotype. I’m not really interested in reading about idealised characters, male or female. I want characters with flaws and weaknesses.

    I think the problem with the “woman who cries” stereotype in fiction is not actually about the fact that she cries. It’s about the fact that often the writers use tears as a short-cut, a lazy way of avoiding genuine characterisation. “Oh I will make her cry to show this situation is upsetting”. To my mind, if the crying rings as false, then it’s because the author hasn’t done the groundwork to make it believable. Not because crying is bad and shouldn’t be portrayed.

    So I think authors who believe that the answer to that is to make women characters strong and free of doubt or sadness miss the point.

    I have serious problems with the idea that crying, in males or females, is a sign of weakness that should be looked down upon, but that’s a whole other post.

    I think if your characters are real and three-dimensional, and if you their tears feel natural and are “shown”, not “told” then it is fine (as you say, the author needs to make the reader care/feel that sorrow).

    Anyway, in real life, I think it’s absolutely fine to cry. Remember that people are all wired differently, and just because you are more prone to tears than somebody who seems stoic and calm does not mean that you are weaker. It’s just how you are. Some people feel things more strongly than other people; that’s scientifically proven. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s part of what makes *you* an interesting and three-dimensional character 🙂


    1. Thanks for commenting, Ben! Yes, I agree with everything you’ve said. Any stereotype is bad. This post was in part inspired by my emotional state in the context of the frequent call for “strong female characters” in fiction — which I guess has been an attempt to rectify the traditional gender imbalance of girls and women being rescued all the time. But as you and others have said, this should be interpreted to mean lacking in emotion or hard as nails. All characters should have flaws and weaknesses — where “strong” can mean a variety of things.

      It’s been heartening to read everyone’s comments on the subject of crying in real life. Makes me feel like less of a ninny. 🙂


  8. I can see how, in fiction writing, a strong female character crying all the time would get pretty old. It may work if that’s one of her flaws though ~ like she cries when she has any strong emotion, but it pisses her off or something.

    In reality, strong women cry. I don’t believe crying makes you weak ~ I think it takes bravery to show emotion and I don’t think you can always stop yourself from crying. Nor should you. It’s a way of releasing something that could bottle up and harm you in other ways.

    ..and yes, I’ve cried at all kinds of inappropriate times in front of inappropriate people. One time I remember specifically was when I was at work. It was during an evaluation of my performance ~ I felt that I had jumped through all of the corporate hoops like a trained seal and it didn’t matter ~ it all came down to where they wanted to mark me. I had no recourse. I was so frustrated/sad/angry that I just lost it.

    It was a dark day in downtown Baltimore…

    I hope your emotions steady soon, Ellen ~ that roller coaster feeling is no fun. 🙂


    1. Thanks for sharing, Kim. Crying at work has got to be the hardest to deal with — which is what inspired this post for me. I totally get where you’re coming from. Any form of confrontation at work, whether civilised or otherwise, is hard enough without losing control of the emotions! ack


  9. Yes, it’s totally okay for strong women to cry, both in fiction and in real life. It’s okay for men too. Crying is a good way to get some emotion out so it doesn’t eat us up inside. Sometimes all we need is a quick blast and we’re good to go 🙂

    Of course, that doesn’t mean I want to see crying all over the place in a piece of fiction, regardless of the character’s gender. It quickly gets to the point where it’s like, “Okay, I know the demon ate your fambly and stole your pickup truck and all, but maybe it’s time to start thinking about kicking the demon’s butt?”

    And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with some tears when saying goodbye to respected colleagues after getting laid off. When we had the first round of involuntary sabbaticals at my old job, I myself was visibly upset. When more layoffs came a year later and took my job with them…it was one of the hardest days I’ve ever had.

    Anyway, I don’t think a public display of tears shows that a person is weak. It just shows they’re human.


    1. I appreciate how so many of you guys who have commented (in fact, all of you, I believe) have acknowledged that men cry as well. I hadn’t really considered it, although I have seen strong men cry.

      You sum up the whole discussion really well too: “I don’t think a public display of tears shows that a person is weak. It just shows they’re human.”

      Exactly! I feel so much better now.


  10. I cried when I got retrenched. (I’ve also cried four or five times at work over the years when anger or frustration has overwhelmed me.) Even when you know a retrenchment is coming, there’s a weird bunch of emotions that are bundled up in it, so I’m not surprised you cried.

    The thing I hate about crying in front of colleagues – which goes to your comments on fictional females crying – is when there are men around of the type who think crying is a female condition. I hate confirming people’s prejudices.

    My pet hate in fiction re: crying is where the author wants to avoid the female protag crying and so they resort to the ‘too upset for tears’ line as though she isn’t pefectly capable of punching a wall, getting drunk, screaming etc – i.e. any sort of alternative emotional release. Because that’s still seeing tears as the default postion for a female.

    Hope the job hunting goes well!


    1. Yeah, it was a weird bunch of emotions. And I also would much rather not have helped confirm any prejudices. But the comments from men here have been reassuring.

      With regard to tears being the default position for women’s emotions… I guess that’s where I was starting from with this post. As writers, we try to avoid tears being the default position, and so express emotion in different ways; but in the end maybe tears are the default position in real life (along with a lot of other things as well — like ripping people’s heads off if they say the wrong thing :-P). It’s what got me thinking about the difference between the acceptability of tears in real life versus fiction.


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