As viewers of this year’s Australian Open tennis tournament and the recent Commonwealth Games can attest, sportspeople crying on camera is a common enough spectacle. Cricketers often cry when they retire. Having referred to themselves in the third person for most of their careers, it’s as if they have begun to miss themselves even as they announce their departure. One prominent case was the retirement of Kim Hughes as captain of the Australian team in November 1984. His tears were regarded by some as petulant and proof of his inadequacies as a leader, and by others as a justifiable expression of frustration.
Around the same time as the Hughes abdication, Bob Hawke’s famous televised sobs while discussing his daughter’s drug addiction made him appear more human at a crucial time: his re-election campaign was underway and just when it seemed that he might have lost his common touch he again appeared like ‘one of us’, the mythical everyman. It was so successful he repeated it: after viewing footage of the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989, at the ANZAC memorial in Nigeria alongside Margaret Thatcher in May 1990, and at the loss of the Labor Party leadership in December 1991.
The French critic Roland Barthes makes some sense of these acts of celebrity lachrymosity, arguing that, “By weeping, I want to impress someone, to bring pressure to bear on someone (‘Look what you have done to me’).” Tears can be the celebrity’s revenge.
The tears of the famous and powerful make them – for a moment – as ordinary as the viewing public, while the tears of ordinary people make them unusually televisual. Is this why the camera hovers with such insistence around the faces of the bereaved and the broken, fetishising their tears?
In the weeks following the death of Lady Diana Spencer, the tears of millions filled our screens with an immense devout grieving – imagined, hysterical perhaps, but no less real. Tabloid television is awash with weeping patriots, hysterical victims and the morally outraged. Oprah Winfrey, Jerry Springer and Ricki Lake repeatedly stage tearful acts in which the performers’ behaviour appears as a combination of a gesture of defiance, an outpouring of emotion and a performative ruse. This is Your Life, the old stand-by of Australian television, would be unthinkable, not to mention unwatchable, without the odd reliable bawler. The show’s success is fuelled by the tears of the guests: the grateful, the humble and the forgetful.
The crying game is vital to television. Tears are the lens through which we see the limits of the media most clearly. They represent the limit of credibility for the viewing public, the truth test. Tears also mark the ethical limit (always invoked) of the practice of exposing victims of trauma to public scrutiny. A camera in the face of a weeping, suffering person makes compelling viewing.
This is a practice regulated, in principle, by article nine of the Australian Journalist’s Association’s Code of Ethics, which reads, “They shall respect private grief and personal privacy and shall have the right to resist compulsion to intrude on them.” Such curious wording: the code recognises the “compulsion to intrude” and suggests that resistance of this compulsion is the “right” of the journalist, not the duty. It recognises the right of the victim to experience grief and trauma in private and the compulsion of the journalist to deny the victim’s right to privacy! This collapse of the separation of private and public is analogous to tears themselves, which are externalised traces of an interior state.
Media tears change the way we see things. Focus is drawn to one’s inner feelings, while for the victim they tend to enhance the luminosity of the face, extending the drama of the moment to their inner life. It’s sometimes difficult to watch another’s tears on television and restrain one’s own. It may even be easier for us to cry in the presence of an electronic image than in the presence of a real person. The image demands nothing of us other than this fantasy connection, this illusion of intimacy between viewer and victim that destroys both the detachment of the viewer and the privacy of the victim.
The weeping celebrities, athletes or even the victims of trauma on television do not necessarily provide a vision of ‘truth’. Their tears don’t guarantee anything. Yet for viewers at home reduced to tears, weeping provides a rare opportunity for reflection as our eyes fill and we turn the gaze within: surely a strange achievement of the supposedly shallow habit of watching the box.
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