Seldom have so many words been spilled about the spilling of tears as in the past week, as the media has covered the phenomenon of (mostly) teenage (and mostly) girls streaming into the megaplexes, forearmed with boxes of tissues and ready to “ugly cry” their way through The Fault in Our Stars, based on John Green’s best-selling young-adult novel. #TFIOSfeels testimonies and streaked-face selfies mount daily on Twitter and Tumblr.
The dusty showbiz term “weepie” has been hauled back into circulation, along with ratings by numbers of “hankies,” for this tale of teen love that is not only star-crossed but oxygen-tube-assisted, tumor-ridden, and Grim Reaper-pursued—an attempt at rescuing from cliché the cancer-romance plotline that’s haunted Hollywood since 1970’s Love Story.
Yet there’s a mixed tone to a lot of TFIOS talk: Even critics who like it feel compelled to joke about the tears. It’s the same skeptical edge that’s embedded in the word “tearjerker” itself, which reflects our collective ambivalence about movies and other art that seems to aim deliberately to make people cry. Often TFIOS reviews have titles along the lines of “A tearjerker that achieves genuine emotion,” as if the two traits were inherently at odds.
We don’t have this attitude about movies that openly try to make us laugh, another external, physiological, otolaryngological response. There’s no such thing as comedy too excellent to laugh at, yet artful tragedy is asked to seek, in Wordsworth’s famous phrase, “thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” Artists who do traffic in wet eyes and cheeks are often called cheap: melodramatic, manipulative, sentimental, Spielberg.
Likewise, most of us have noticed that we’re more likely to laugh aloud at a movie when we’re in company, whether at home with friends or in the dark of cinema with strangers. But for crying to be equally contagious is more shameful than sweet.
This is not a permanent and universal condition: Enlightened 18th-century French and English gentlemen of fine sensibilities as well as passionate 19th-century Romantics felt a regular show of tears in apt company was de rigueur. But we cool 21st-century customers prefer to suppress public sniffles, unless you’re a celebrity or politician in need of career redemption. At the movies we’ll allow a few brief tears, but only with embarrassment do we indulge in the kinds of gulping sobs over doomed dogs and estranged toy cowboys that we might permit ourselves in private.
As a rare exception, TFIOS’s ugly-cry-fest intrigues me, because in the past couple of months—noticing that as I get older I’m becoming a softer touch for pop-culture pathos—I’ve begun a larger project of investigating what transpires when people cry over art, and what meaning we can take away from those tears: From where do we inherit our protocols and hierarchies of emotion, and how well are they serving us?
I’ve done surveys of friends and acquaintances asking them what art makes them cry and why, and started reading into the question’s long philosophical history and more recent neurological and social-science research. For instance, communications scholars at Ohio State University in 2012 studied people’s perspectives before and after watching the gloomy epic Atonement, and found that the benefit of the ordeal was not in cathartic emotional purging nor even schadenfreude: It was that the narrative spurred them to reflect back on their own relationships, like a kind of mindfulness booster shot.
Still, that seems too limited a cause for the ancient, global, and reputedly uniquely human practice of shedding tears, not only over our own sadness but over made-up stories, pictures, and songs. In particular with TFIOS, that inner-reflection explanation doesn’t seem like it would apply as much to teenagers (aren’t they incessantly obsessing over their social relationships anyway?), nor does it show why people would make a communal event of it, heading excitedly out in packs to TFIOS’s super-bawl. What might we imagine the teens are seeking, and why with this movie in particular, and how if at all do we factor its power as a tear-delivery system into its value as an artwork?
People congregate to weep collectively in many cultures and circumstances—sometimes in religious rituals of self-flagellation, or with designated keeners and wailers at funerals, usually women, whose role is to intensify group mourning by setting off chain reactions. In various cities around the world today there are “misery clubs” with names like Loss, where people who feel their daily lives don’t offer enough emotional release can join up with the like-hearted for a good blubber, often fueled by a mopey movie.
Likewise, lachrymose expectations greet any concert by sorrow specialists such as Portuguese fado singers, their pop-chart equivalents like Céline Dion or (in the irony-enhanced division) Morrissey, emo bands like Dashboard Confessional, or even the solo-piano segment of an otherwise upbeat Taylor Swift show.
That said, the adolescent sob flick seems to occupy its own category. Each generation has at least one, whether The Notebook or that foundational screen-teen text, Rebel Without a Cause. Deirdre Dolan in the New York Observer in 1998 reported on “Streetwise Adolescents Drowning in Their Titanic Tears,” describing a very TFIOS-like scene of groups of teens attending the James Cameron blockbuster over and over with the express intention of breaking down. She quotes one 16-year-old boy who spontaneously reconceives the Aristotelian model of catharsis: “Like, say you have a lot of little things building up, you can just wash them all away. The first time I saw it, I started crying when she jumped off the lifeboat, and the second time, I started in the opening credits.”
One thing you can usually rely on in the teen-teardrops field—unlike in adult melodramas, which can as easily be about marriage, family, interpersonal conflict, etc.—is that somebody will get sick and/or die. In fact, narratives of illness and death go back to the historical wellspring of teendom, as U.K. rock critic Jon Savage shows in his essential Teenage: The Prehistory of Youth Culture. In Goethe’s 1774 The Sorrows of Young Werther, the elder brother of all YA lit, the lead character’s passionately tormented, foppish, lovelorn delicacy culminates in suicide, inspiring fashionable young imitators (some of them all too literally) across Europe, like an 18th-century version of Bauhaus or Joy Division.
But Savage also describes the 1875 journals of French 17-year-old Marie Bashkirtseff—an eloquent girl who is as fixated upon 24-year-old Emile Audriffet as TFIOS’s clever and articulate Hazel Grace Lancaster becomes with Augustus Waters, and likewise suffers from life-threatening illness, the symptoms of undiagnosed tuberculosis.
She roils with adolescent heat to “burn everything, to be in exasperation, to suffer everything and live, and live!” And yet she also laments that “death for me is a close relative,” and fears that if her journals are read after her passing, people would not perceive in them the first “photograph … of a woman’s existence,” but tut, “Poor child, she was in love with Audriffet, and all her despair comes from that.”
Bashkirtseff’s journals were published in 1887, after her death from TB, and became a TFIOS-like international hit. They were discussed in popular magazines in Europe and America as an unprecedented insight into female adolescence, and even praised by the British prime minister of the day, William Gladstone, as revealing “a true genius, one of those abnormal beings who … seem to be born into the world once or twice in a generation.” Or, if you’re a YA novelist or filmmaker, once or twice a season.
From there the pattern was set: The ultimate teen is a dead teen. TFIOS makes a point of linking its heroine to Anne Frank (controversially, in the screen version), and then there are all the icons (often in their 20s, but still avatars of adolescence) from Rimbaud and Keats to James Dean and the teen death songs of his era, to River Phoenix, Kurt Cobain, and Aaliyah, and back to the O.G. star-crossed duo, Romeo and Juliet. Not to mention the latest YA pop-culture sensations before TFIOS, the already-dead teen vampires of Twilight, and the mortally imperiled underage warriors of The Hunger Games.