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a smartphone, on a blue and white patterned surface, with a black and white crying emoji on the screen,

Image: Markus Winkler, Unsplash

A couple of weeks ago everyone was crying, which isn’t that unusual these days, but this time it was because of a Qantas ad.

In it, a man who is possibly a farmer (and definitely has bad phone reception) calls someone to say that he’ll see them soon. A family sadly looks at old photos of Disneyland via a slide projector, which seems like an odd thing to do in 2021 (unless this ad takes place in the 1960s and I’ve missed the point entirely). A woman comes home, taking her mask off. She sits on a bed next to a fully-clothed man sleeping on top of the covers and looks sadly at a wedding invitation. All of these people have reasons to be upset and confused (Why does the farmer keep talking even though his phone reception is so bad? Why can’t the family use a laptop? Why is that man sleeping on top of the covers?) but we see that the number one reason they are upset is because they can’t travel overseas. The pandemic, remember?

Then they all get vaccinated and it’s time to go! At the airport, flight attendants hug each other because they’re so happy to be back at work—that was when I started crying. One of the flight attendants takes the wedding invitation woman’s garment bag and whispers ‘it’s gorgeous!’ which is a kind and fun thing to say, but he doesn’t actually open the garment bag. Maybe he’s been at home for so long that he’s forgotten what a dress looks like. Maybe he thinks that the garment bag is the dress. That’s sad in other ways.

Of course it wasn’t just the earnest farmer making viewers well up, nor the humiliation of realising you’re sobbing to a pared-back Tones and I song—which feels bad in a different way, though you’re not exactly sure why. A brand using a sentimental premise to move you to buy a product—or to get vaccinated so you can buy their product in the future—isn’t particularly interesting, but what was interesting was that it seemed like people were watching the Qantas ad specifically because they heard it would make them cry. If the pandemic is a relentless fog that blurs the lines of everyday life, making everything grey and leaving us to languish, then this video was a way to break the monotony, crack the clouds open and make it pour. We could take this opportunity to really wallow in it, to pause and release a jolt of active despair reminding us that feeling this sluggishly bad isn’t normal, and we’ve felt this bad for the best part of two years. ‘I’m just crying at this video!’ you would say to anyone who stumbled upon your ragged wails. Then maybe we’d feel a sense of relief, even just for 90 seconds. Run me over, Qantas ad!

A brand using a sentimental premise isn’t particularly interesting, but what was interesting was that it seemed like people were watching the Qantas ad specifically to make themselves cry.

I am not the first to suggest that crying can be cathartic. In fact, I’m probably not even the five millionth person to suggest it. Some studies have shown that crying naturally reduces stress and lowers your body’s manganese level, which is associated with anxiety. So how is a cathartic cry different from your garden variety cry (i.e. getting dumped, receiving bad news, realising you’ll never be on Real Housewives of Melbourne)? I’d say it happens when you have a feeling in your body that it might feel good to cry, but there’s a blockage preventing you from letting it out—maybe exhaustion, medication that makes weeping difficult, the strain of holding in a cry all day so you don’t sob in a Zoom meeting—so you force it to happen.

Does that sound indulgent? Maybe for smug, healthy people, forcing yourself to cry via an emotionally manipulative ad or TV show renowned for its death scenes (sorry Downton Abbey!) seems odd. But I have done it, and I know that I’m not alone. Vogue recently listed 20 movies to watch when you ‘need a good cry’, Elle counted down 38 movies that will make you cry ‘every time’, Marie-Claire really showed off and picked out 45. Vanity Fair were careful to avoid movies where people die, but they too listed ‘cathartic movies’ to stream ‘if an emotional release is what you need to combat COVID-19’. Last year, The Cut avoided playing coy and simply ran instructions on ‘How to Make Yourself Cry’. Is this just something most of us do without even thinking about it?

When I need to kickstart a cathartic cry, I turn to a very specific type of pop culture: melodrama. Tragic, often silly, sometimes schlocky, always exaggerated, expertly-calculated to the point of cynicism melodrama. Sometimes—but not always—the worse the film the better the cry. We’re talking about dying-teen movies like A Walk to Remember, The Fault in Our Stars, Five Feet Apart, various adaptations from the YA Sick Lit genre. Titanic is a no-brainer. Any Nicholas Sparks adaptation will do, with bonus points for ones involving an American war. We’re talking about Pixar movies that are designed in a lab to entertain children and make adults contemplate the fragility of life.

You’ll find this release in movies about time-travelling husbands (not as fun as you’d expect, apparently), movies where Will Smith is either very poor or has to give all of his organs away. Maybe you don’t have time to watch a whole movie? No problem—we live in the digital age, baby. It’s easy to find snackable pockets of misery to unclog your tear ducts! Think deliberately looking up videos of ‘saddest moments in Grey’s Anatomy’, the end montage of Six Feet Under, that bit in Fresh Prince of Bel Air when Will’s dad leaves and he asks Uncle Phil ‘how come he don’t want me, man?’, when [redacted] and [redacted] are reunited on Game of Thrones and the now-notorious first five minutes of Up. (I still haven’t seen all of Up—I don’t think I could handle the dehydration.)

It’s a very strange situation, when you think about it. As children, many of us are told that crying is something that should be avoided, because it’s overly dramatic or embarrassing; in any case, crying indicates a problem that can be identified and then solved. But when it feels like we need to cry, that doing so will release some sort of pressure valve in the tubes in our body (No masturbation jokes, please! Though I wonder if that’s why they call them ‘tear-jerkers’), then sometimes we have to force ourselves into a headspace in which crying is unavoidable.

As children, many of us are told that crying should be avoided—but when it feels like doing so will release some sort of pressure valve in our body,  sometimes we have to force ourselves.

As with similarly emotionally spicy concepts like democracy, we can look to the Ancient Greeks to explain this phenomenon. ‘Catarthisis’ was a term originally used by Aristotle in Poetics to describe ‘the effects of true tragedy on the spectator’—by watching a tragedy, the spectator is able to purge themselves of similar emotions like terror and pity. Tragedy can act like a blueprint of what not to do, and can connect us to our humanity.

For me, good Cathartic Cry Content usually involves heartbreak (The Notebook, Call Me By Your Name, The Way We Were, Carol, Good Will Hunting) and/or tragic death (Steel Magnolias, The Lion King, My Girl, Beaches, Terms of Endearment, Moulin Rouge). They’re movies that are rewatchable and reliable in their ability to inspire waterworks. But it’s not just tragedy that can provide the stimulant—frequently, watching people achieve greatness can move you to cry. I know a lot of people found the Olympics to be great cry fuel, and I cannot watch Aretha Franklin singing ‘You Make Me Feel (Natural Woman)’ live at The Kennedy Centre, nor Beyoncé’s 2018 Coachella concert film Homecoming without bawling.

It’s not a one-cry-fits-all sort of thing. Your mileage may vary on films and TV shows that depict real-life events, be it real-world tragedies or specific bad things that have happened to you. I avoided watching the comedy series Shrill when I gleaned (no spoilers) that the main character’s dad is unwell, because I had similar issues in my own family and I just didn’t want to think about it. Watching Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon in Stepmom or Awkwafina in The Farewell might be metaphorical emotional prune juice for some, but it’s not the wave I’m riding right now.

It should be noted that not everyone believes that crying can be cathartic. In fact, some think you’re a plain old sicko for doing it—or at least, there’s a debate about whether it actually works. ABC Everyday has said that crying can be great for tension release, but advises that talking to people about crying is more cathartic than the act itself. Scientific American has cited studies where people who cried at sad stimuli felt ‘worse’ than those who didn’t cry while watching the same stimuli. In 2009, The New York Times reported that ‘some researchers say that the common psychological wisdom about crying—crying as a healthy catharsis—is incomplete and misleading’. (Then again, that was before the pandemic—by 2020 they were running pieces called ‘In Defence of a Good Cry, and Other Options for Losing It’.)

For some people, resilience means letting ourselves be cartoonishly miserable for the length of a film or an ad—and then getting on with it.

I’m not a psychologist—which I know is hard to believe—so I can’t definitively say if the cathartic cry is scientifically proven or not. But I do think it’s curious that it’s something that I do basically without thinking. Maybe you do too. For some it may be a way to vent your terrifyingly bad feelings for a couple of minutes, so you can get back to your workday. For others, having that physical reaction to stress or misery doesn’t leave your body quite as easily. And look: right now there’s plenty to cry about! Maybe your grandpa would say ‘Every generation has had something to cry about, we still got on with it,’ and I’m sure at least half of that imagined argument is true. But for some people, resilience means letting ourselves be cartoonishly miserable for the length of an episode or a film or an ad—and then getting on with it.

I’m sure I’ll watch that Qantas ad again, and cry when thinking about being reunited with my family and people being able to return to work. I can’t wait for a flight attendant to say my garment bag is gorgeous.