Illustration by Dave van Patten

Why the Internet is Obsessed With Watching Dads Cry

A safe space for dads to cry—as long as they’re tears of joy

The most popular post in the history of the r/happycryingdads subreddit is a video of man learning he’s going to be a grandfather. The man, who has a mustache and wears a Chicago Cubs bullpen jacket, opens a box to find a pacifier. Tied to the pacifier is a note from his daughter saying she’s expecting. He reads it, gasps, clutches the note against his chest, then wipes the tears welling in his eyes.

Men finding out they’re going to be grandfathers is the most popular subgenre on r/happycryingdads, an online community dedicated to dads crying tears of joy, but there are other familiar tropes: dads reuniting with estranged children, stepchildren presenting their stepdads with adoption papers, children gifting their fathers houses or cars.

There’s the dad who cries when his son gives him a ’57 Chevy for this 57th birthday; One look in the garage and the old man instantly starts blubbering. A grandfather chokes up on Christmas morning when he’s given glasses that let him see color for the time. A man weeps when his family gives him tickets to see the Mexican national soccer team for the first time. And a dad is brought to tears by an Apollo 11 VR simulation, an rough approximation of childhood dream never realized. “I’ll never get to do this but here,” he says. “I wanted to be an astronaut, son.”

With just more than 10,000 subscribers, r/happycryingdads is relatively small by reddit standards, but its emotional value is incalculable.

“Since discovering this sub an hour ago, I’ve barely been able to stop crying, it feels great. [sic],” reads a post with nearly 200 upvotes. “The past few months have been pretty shitty for me, but coming here, and watching these videos, has made me very happy, and made everything seem a little bit better.” Commenters say the videos help them deal with breakups or feel closer to their own fathers. One poster says the thread is so tearjerking that it should labeled NSFW. And there are many jokes about chopping onions.

Some of the videos listed have garnered tens of millions of views. Their popularity is a testament to the novelty of seeing a grown man cry, and the catharsis we feel when witnessing irrepressible displays of emotion. The comments sections celebrate the men for crying, and are surprisingly devoid of trolls. “It’s cleansing,” as one commenter writes, and it’s a testament to how novel and powerful it is to see grown men cry.

The month before he died of cancer, North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano gave what is widely-believed to be one of the greatest speeches ever delivered. The 11-minute speech is best remembered by two parts: toward the end, when a dying Valvano urges the crowd, “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up,” and the beginning, when Valvano says crying is integral to a full life.

“There are three things we should do every day,” Valvano says. “Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. And number three, is you should have your emotions move [you] to tears.

Valvano’s speech is equal parts funny, thoughtful and heart-wrenching, but it’s the last part that’s the most surprising. That a man as traditionally masculine as Valvano — a legendary, national championship-winning sports coach — used his last public moment to tell people about the importance of crying left an indelible impression on the culture. ESPN, which first aired the speech, plays the 11-minute speech in its entirety each year during the Jimmy V tournament, and it’s racked up millions of views on YouTube.

Crying helps us process, to get by, Valvano said — an idea alive and well in r/happycryingdads.

The fascination with r/happycryingdads is rooted in our neurology, specifically mirror neurons, ”cells in our brain that fire in identical ways whether we are observing or performing an action,” according to Lisa Wade, professor of sociology at Occidental College. Watching someone experience extreme joy has the same effect on our brains as being happy ourselves.

But there’s a social component, as well. Happy crying dad videos would not be as widely-shared were it normal to see grown men emoting.

“What if it were women crying out of happiness? Would it be as impactful?” Wade asks. “I guess it wouldn’t, all things being equal, because we expect women to be weepy. Because we don’t expect men to be emotional, it must be an especially strong emotion that brought them to tears. And that’s what the viewers are looking for — they’re looking for that cathartic emotion themselves.”

The subreddit was created two years ago, when the video of the dad receiving the ’57 Chevy first made the rounds on reddit. One of the commenters suggested a subreddit solely focused on dad crying tears of joy, and reddit user NetTrap quickly obliged.

For a man who moderates a subreddit devoted to men publicly emoting, NetTrap is decidedly restrained. Asked to explain what drew him to r/happycryingdads video, he says: “They are a very niche type of video and it’s enjoyable to moderate an emotional subreddit.” But he refused to deconstruct their underlying gender dynamics: “I don’t think about these videos that way. It’s just a place for people to feel some happy (or sad) emotions.” He does acknowledge the allure is partially because people are unaccustomed to seeing men cry, but he says the site is not intended to destigmatize the practice. There is no agenda to r/happycryingdads.

That the creator of the r/happycryingdads can’t elaborate on the topic indicates just how uncomfortable it is for many men to discuss their emotions, Wade says. “We don’t have a lot of ways to talk about men’s emotions. Maybe he just doesn’t know how to explain why he’s so attracted to them.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S-yCgHGLrSQ

That disconnect — between feeling and articulating emotion — might explain why so many men only cry when consuming some kind of tear-jerking media, such as the “It’s your not fault scene” in Good WIll Hunting, a Belle & Sebastian EP, or n the case of r/happycryingdads, a dad crying after his son’s Major League Baseball debut. Men often repress their emotions, Wade says, only to have them triggered by some external stimuli. “We have this very phenomenon of men having emotions we’re not allowed to acknowledge. So when there’s an opportunity to see that humanity [in someone else], we have a visceral reaction.

“Maybe one of the only ways to talk about male emotions is to not talk about them at all, but to cathartically consume them.”

But the stigma attached to male crying is evident in r/happycryingdads, too. All the videos of are of dads experiencing tear of joy, not sadness. Not that people want to see videos of depressed crying dads, but their absence is telling. And the videos are all celebrations of traditionally masculine achievements: fatherhood, cars, touching the Stanley Cup, watching your children win a competition — moments of pride, not frailty.

R/happyrcryingdads might make male crying more visible, but it does so within a very limited range of emotion, and may reinforce the adage that real men don’t experience weakness.

“They’re not crying because that bouquet of flowers is so beautiful they can’t stand it or some other feminized thing, such as the ballet,” Wade says. “It’s not like we’re breaking open the floodgates of male crying.”