Female Tears in Fine Art and Pop Culture

April is both the month of rain and the birth month of one of the greatest criers in pop culture history, Shannen Doherty.

Beverly Hills 90210, a groundbreaking and enduring stalwart of early teen-focused television spanned the entirety of the 90’s. The tears of Brenda Walsh, played by Doherty, dripped from television screens around the world and into the hearts of millions. The female teenage experience wasn’t just validated, but celebrated. For me, as for many others, the tears of Brenda Walsh were the best part of Beverly Hills 90210. Not only did Brenda’s tears give young women the right to cry, but also, they validated our emotions and point of view.

From then on teen television was here to stay, and so was our cultural desire for the young, crying female. Claire Danes as Angela Chase in My So Called Life debuted her signature tears with a further twist on her predecessors by giving us our first substantial serving of the ‘ugly cry.’ Decades later, her puffy-eyed, snotty, mushy melange of emotional cries continue to mark her career.

It was Danes who paved the way for our current reigning ugly cry queen: Mrs. Kim Kardashian. Kardashian has not only embraced the ugly cry face, but turned it into a language tool and merchandising opportunity. The Kim Crying ‘Kimoji’ is plastered anywhere from texts on your iPhone, to backpacks, t-shirts, and rolling papers. You may never have watched a single episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, but you sure do know how “ugly” Kim looks when she cries.

Pop culture is always reflective of the cultural landscape it’s created within, and culturally female tears have been with us for a long while. Ancient Greece was dominated by the lamenting woman. Women crying and tearing at their hair, seemingly unable to handle their grief — yet their pain and performance was entirely necessary for the rest of society to process their own grief and sorrow. This tradition continues in funerary steles, tombs and stones from Greece, the Victorians, and the present.

The weeping woman is emblematic of symbolic and physical expressions of grief, pain, and loss.

In the 20th century, modern and pop art addressed the crying/weeping woman through the works of Pablo Picasso and Roy Lichtenstein. Picasso used his “Weeping Woman” series as a continuation of the themes depicted in his infamous painting on war, “Guernica.” Instead of painting the devastation of war, Picasso instead uses a lone woman crying as the symbol for universal suffering. The woman’s tears appear solid as if made of glass, referencing the glass tears of the Baroque sculptures of the weeping Virgin Mary in traditional Spanish art.

The female tears return later in the century through the pop art of the 1960’s. Roy Lichtenstein’s lithographs focus on the crying female through an exploration of tropes in the contemporary mass media of comic books. With these lithographs, simply titled with names like: “Crying Girl,” “Hopeless,” and “Drowning Girl,” Lichtenstein carves out another niche for the crying female in galleries and museums across the world.

In contemporary art, American photographer and video artist Laurel Nakadate gave us an entire year of tears. In 2010 Laurel documented a year-long performance where she made herself cry once every day as a juxtaposition to the performed happiness we continuously see on social media. Nakadate’s work continued to examine the relationship of female vulnerability with her most recent exhibition, The Kingdom,” a haunting and human diary of a daughter mourning the death of her mother. Amidst our unprecedented saturation of mass media and performed happiness for the sake of our technological devices, Nakadate reminds us of the power of vulnerability and emotional honesty.

Female tears abound in art and popular culture. In art, they have fallen for millennia; from the eyes of mourning women on funerary monuments to the steles of Ancient Greece, putting in stone the powerful image of the female lament — stories to be told thousands of years later.

Today we are in the midst of women’s marches, the #MeToo movement, and a long-awaited heightened awareness of the female point of view. Art and history have proven women’s strength through outwardly sharing our vulnerability. Embracing our most uncomfortable feelings shows that we are unafraid of what’s within ourselves, and are able to handle whatever happens in the world around us.

Perhaps one day we will find the tears of men portrayed on television and in museums. But until then, there’s really no need to dry your eyes if you don’t want to. Go ahead — feel the feels, and cry those tears.

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