There’s an image that comes to mind when we think about death.
A woman in black, a mother, wife, daughter, lover. Her shoulders bowed, her trembling hands cradling tissues at her chest. She’s weeping. Beside her, a man in a suit, a father, husband, brother, lover. His chin is tilted upwards, his eyes may be glassy, but he’s otherwise stoic, his broad shoulders a picture of immovable strength.
Grief, much like death, is a part of life. We experience it during high and low times, unexpectedly and sometimes tragically expectedly. It can sneak up on us, lie in wait, smile at us from up ahead. It can dominate our minds and our bodies for minutes, days, months and years. It can, and often does, become a part of us.
The weeping woman is part of an accepted, gendered narrative of grief, and the weeping man is not
But if grief is a beast that becomes a part of us, the way we battle it is ultimately, strangely, policed. The weeping woman is part of an accepted, gendered narrative of grief, and the weeping man is not. But that might be changing.
The FXX sitcom You’re the Worst follows the peeks and pitfalls of Jimmy and Gretchen’s tumultuous relationship, and has established a compelling precedent for tackling complex, taboo topics, from veteran PTSD to clinical depression. In its third season, the show turns its attention to the disconnection of male grief when Jimmy is faced with the death of his distant father.
In an ideal world (although probably a boring show), Jimmy would be able to talk about his loss. He’d be able to sit down and process the blender of emotions that come with unresolved, disjointed relationships that are ended suddenly, finitely and without our consent. In this ideal world, Jimmy would sit down with loved ones, with a qualified therapist, and talk through his relationship with his father, the regrets of it and the things never said. He would be allowed, and would allow himself, to grieve.
You’re the Worst doesn’t exist in an ideal world, though, and sadly neither do we. In the world we and Jimmy live in, we gender emotion. Sadness, joy, jealousy, fear and love are considered feminine, while anger, courage, pride and rationality typically code male.
The idea that you get assigned emotions at birth the same way you inherit eye colour and sex organs is not only ridiculous, but is also harmful to men and women alike. More than that, recent studies have disproved it. Men grieve, particularly in the case of losing children and spouses. As of a 2010 study from the College of New Jersey, we know that they can be as affected by a miscarriage as their partner. Thanks to Beyond Blue, we also know that in Australia, one in eight men will suffer from depression in his life, one in five anxiety, and that of the 2,500 suicides in Australia each year, 75% are men, making it six men in Australia who take their own lives every day.
Being able to understand the trappings of emotion and the way that we as people interpret them is integral to understanding the way society operates, and the ways in which it motivates individuals to act. In You’re the Worst, Jimmy spends the bulk of the season avoiding dealing with his father’s death, only to have his dad’s ashes show up in a parcel on his doorstep, literally confronting him with his own grief.
We don’t know what to do with male vulnerability, and, when confronted with it, are inclined to turn away
Encouraged by his girlfriend and his sisters to hold a memorial, Jimmy is alternately dismissive, surly, angry and, finally, incredibly sad. His relationship with his dad was never really resolved, and his father, who wrote his own eulogy before he passed away, has re-written his relationship with Jimmy in a way that essentially blames Jimmy for its failure.
The episode, and the story arc, ends with Jimmy drunkenly throwing his father’s ashes where his father requested, onto the lawn of the actor Tony Shalhoub’s house. Only, like everything, it doesn’t exactly go to plan. Between wind and gravity, Jimmy ends up covered in ashes, sobbing alone out the front of a stranger’s house. It’s an affecting, emotionally raw scene in what is otherwise a very funny episode of television, and it highlights the fact that Jimmy’s grief was, and will continue to be, something unmanageable and uncomfortable.
Jimmy is, of course, fictional, but as a character he reflects (albeit sometimes exaggeratedly) a broader cultural problem. That we don’t know what to do with male vulnerability, and, when confronted with it, are inclined to turn away. This suppression and stigmatisation feeds into sexist narratives about the weakness of feminine-coded emotions, and that men are somehow above it.
Grief is not a feeling men or women revel in, but it’s necessary when it comes to processing loss and trauma. Ignoring it—or shoving it into a drawer, as Jimmy does at the start of the season—only ensures feelings of grief will bubble up in unexpected and unhealthy ways. Jimmy became angry, aggressive and drank copiously, trapped in a sort of emotional standoff within himself, as many men so often are in reality. Not only is this unhealthy, it also reinforces and feeds into sexist patterns of behaviour, which in turn create broader social problems.
Combating gender-coded messaging and patterns of behaviour is, of course, tricky, but if society is to start anywhere, it could do worse than showing the destructiveness of wilful ignorance and stoicism, and making the image of a grieving man more familiar. You’re the Worst does just that, sympathetically showing Jimmy’s bad behaviour for what it is—unprocessed, and unfelt, grief.