The recent series of The Great British Bake Off has stirred up a lot of online debate and astoundingly none of it has been about buns, baps or crusty cobs. It has instead been about crying. About tears. About the expression of emotion.
I’ve read a number of blogs recently that have given Ruby, this year’s youngest Bake Off contestant, a hard time. She has come under fire for crying too much, for crying at the slightest little thing, for ‘crying to gain sympathy’. In short she has been accused of utilizing her tears as some kind of Machiavellian tactic to gain advantage over the other contestants.
Now, aside from the fact that she has gained no advantage at all and indeed I fail to see what actual advantage there is to gain, I find the accusations deeply disturbing, repugnant and unfair. Some of the comments I have seen directed Ruby’s way included the old gem, “oh she’s just putting it on; I knew girls like her at school – very pretty and they turn on the tears just to get their own way; they know exactly what they are doing.”
It took me a while to work out why that statement angered me so much – because there are a number of reasons.
The first (and major) is that the initial gut reaction of both my wife and I when we first saw Ruby was along the lines of: this person has had something happen to her which has left her a little bit damaged. We didn’t see someone who was deliberately manipulative or turning on the tears just for effect; we saw someone who was plainly fragile, had major self-esteem problems despite her looks (because, let’s acknowledge something here: just because you’re perceived as good looking by other people doesn’t mean you believe it yourself) and was severely lacking in confidence and a sense of self-worth.
I’m sure it will be argued that I am merely transferring my own experiences and (mis)conceptions onto Ruby. I would argue that people accusing her of being manipulative are doing the same. To dismiss her with the phrase “I have known girls like her…” is offensive, lazy, callous and reductive. Have you really known girls like Ruby? Isn’t everyone an individual? How can you judge someone who appears on a highly edited TV programme – someone you have never seen before – and decide you know them well enough to critique their entire personality? And as for these girls that you “knew”… how well did you really know them? Enough to judge their behaviour and condemn them for it out of hand? What if there were issues at home? What if there were traumas? Or did you really know everything about them to be able to say they had no reason at all for their behaviour except an inherent and apparently unjustifiable nastiness?
The other thing that bugged me was the implication that other people’s tears and ‘confidence wobbles’ on the show were genuine while Ruby’s were not. How the hell can anybody make a judgement call like that? As far as I could discern this judgement was based solely on Ruby’s looks. Ruby is very attractive therefore she must be supremely confident, must have an easy life with no trauma ever taking place and is not allowed to be attributed with any nervousness, lack of confidence or feelings of self-doubt and emotional negativity. People who are more plain looking, however, well when they cry and go through a confidence crisis that must be genuine because everyone knows that attractiveness = manipulativeness while plainness = honesty and integrity.
What simplistic, reductive rot.
You cannot allow that one person is genuinely upset and not another. There is a basic human right issue here that has nothing to do with looks, gut instinct or whether or not you find someone’s personality appealing or not. Human emotional responses are impossibly complex. Nobody can read them well enough to say exactly what someone is feeling let alone instantly dismiss them as being OTT or inappropriate. For Christ’s sake, if you feel something you feel it. It is not for others to deny you the rights to your own emotions or charge you with fraudulent behaviour. Imagine how crippling that is: you feel something strongly enough to make you cry but those around you shrug and say, “Nah, you’re faking it.” How do you feel now?
The last thing that piqued a response from me was the debate about whether there were too many crying people on TV per se. Whether there was an emerging crying culture generally that was, if not fake, then at least over-done and distasteful to those of us who battle on with stiff upper lips. Is all this free-wheeling emotion a good thing or a bad thing? Part of the argument again was based on the idea that people use tears as a means to an end; a moral gambit to win (or even just avoid) an argument.
I’m not sure what the answer is here except that I would rather a world where people were open and honest about their feelings than a world where people bottled things up, battled on until they either popped and took out half the street in a killing spree or popped internally and fell to the big C or heart disease. Surely the real issue here lies with how people deal with the tears and upset of other people? Isn’t a sighing, dismissive, disgruntled response (“Oh God, they’re not crying, are they?”) also an emotional response that is just as open to criticism?
Surely there is an analogy here to dealing with crying children? Certainly you don’t want to give in and give them whatever it is they want just to stop / avoid the tears… but you do need to talk to them because there is plainly an issue. They might not get what they want but, in the words of Mick Jagger, they might get what they need. At the end of the day we are all emotional beings to one degree or another – our place on the spectrum isn’t the benchmark. I don’t believe there is a norm and I don’t think a norm should be proscribed.
But we do all need to be better about how we deal with our emotions and how we deal with the emotions of other people.
Dismissing, castigating, denigrating and vilifying someone just because of how they express their feelings is not the way forward.
And that is something I feel most sincerely.