Once upon a time, I was dating a man. And he cried. Often. I was younger and much less experienced than I am now, and when he cried, it bothered me, deep-down inside. I was kind, and compassionate, but I couldn’t shake it being a bit of a turn-off whenever his tears started. It wasn’t that he wasn’t strong – he was. It wasn’t that he wasn’t attractive – he was. It wasn’t that he wasn’t capable – he was. It wasn’t that he didn’t make me feel secure – he did. It was an issue not with him, but with me.
I eventually realized that it was simply due to years of being conditioned to believe that tears weren’t manly. “Real men don’t cry,” I’d been told throughout my life, from people around me, from TV, from books. From my stoic, tough-as-nails dad, whom I, in 35 years upon this earth, have never once seen cry. Never. Not once. It was silly and it was unfair, but there it was, a knee-jerk reaction that took a long while to root out in myself. As progressive as we are in 2015 about female stereotypes – at least, as progressive as we’re trying to be – there are many lingering male stereotypes that are still dismissed with little more than a shrug and the attitude that that’s just how things are.
“Real men don’t cry,” might be the most damaging.
And if “real” men don’t cry, then superheroes, those supernatural pillars of alpha-maledom with their impossible standards and bodies, certainly do not cry. The unspoken rule for male superhero tears in movies and TV series is that they’re only acceptable when a loved one dies, and even then, the superhero does it alone, where no one can see.
Which is why what The Flash is doing on the CW with its male characters has been quietly revolutionary: It lets them cry.
The obvious difference between Grant Gustin’s Barry Allen and your standard superhero is his build, for which Gustin has been criticized by some backward thinking and neolithic fans. As The Flash, he’s lean and wiry, not muscle-bound like we’ve come to expect from on-screen superheroes, even from Allen’s sometime-crossover buddy on The CW, Oliver Queen/Green Arrow.
But the greatest archetype-breaking gift that Barry Allen possesses is not his brain, nor his speed, nor his regenerative powers. It’s his vulnerability. In the first season and through the second of The Flash, Barry cries. Often. He cries when visiting his unfairly imprisoned dad in jail. He cries when talking to Joe West, his surrogate father, about his fears. He cries when he’s frustrated, or feels like a failure, or is simply overwhelmed.
In other words, he allows himself to be human in a way we’ve not yet seen from a male superhero, whether on the big or small screen, and The Flash is a better series for it. Rather than turning a legion of hardcore fans away by showing a strong male lead giving in to “weak” emotions, the show has gained a fervent fanbase that is comprised of both sexes who look to Barry Allen not as an impossible ideal, but as a relatable hero and one to emulate. He has something that very few male television lead characters, much less superheroes have, and that’s sensitivity.
Joe West, who acts as Barry’s confidante and shoulder to – quite literally – cry on when times get tough, reminds him of such when Barry engages in a rare moment of mercilessness in S01E22, “Rogue Air.” He attempts to emulate the kind of ruthlessness that he’s seen other superheroes – notably Green Arrow – use to effective results, but it’s not a guise that he wears well, and Joe soon reminds Barry that his real strength is not being cold-hearted, but that his heart is a huge and compassionate one: “That’s the kind of man you are and that’s what makes you different than the Arrow. So, please, no more walks on the dark side.”
In a way, it’s as much a message to the audience as it is to Barry himself. No, Barry is not Oliver Queen, stoic and emotionally closed off. He is a different kind of man, one who wears his heart on his sleeve, but is no less of a man for it.
Fittingly, the scenes between Barry and Joe are what really drive the stereotype-inverting point home. Barry is not the only male lead to shed tears; so does Joe. As a strong, black, co-lead, one in an alpha male role of veteran cop, Jesse L. Martin’s Detective Joe West isn’t afraid to show his emotions. What’s more remarkable is that there are numerous scenes where the two of them, grown men, cry openly in front of one another.
Joe also holds a position that’s not often shown on television, being a single dad to both biological daughter, Iris, and Barry, his surrogate son, and he fulfills the roles of both father and mother for them. He does not shy away from complex and difficult emotional conversations, and with him as his role model, Barry has learned that there is nothing strange about expressing his emotions, nor anything unmanly or weak about shedding tears.
The men in the show incorporate raw emotion into their lives in a way that’s refreshing. Their vulnerability is simply a part of who they are, as natural as breathing. Every time there is an emotionally-charged scene between two of the male characters – yes, tears and all – it usually leads to a breakthrough, whether it’s one of them finally getting past a mental block or hang-up, or accepting that it’s alright to need to lean on others rather than stoically going it alone. Rather than tears being a weakness, they are a source of strength. The men who save Central City time and time again do it in between moments of honesty and heartbreak. In The Flash, real men do cry, because real men know that they’re strong enough to be weak.