When Prince Harry fought back tears at the WellChild awards on Tuesday night, it must have been a cynically joyful moment for serial contrarian Piers Morgan. He, of course, has loved nothing more than watching the Duke of Sussex and his wife Meghan Markle struggle as they have been taunted on social media and beyond. Piers used to be friends with Meghan once, he says, but she moved on. Shame.
While delivering his speech as patron of the children’s charity, Harry revealed that the preceding year he and Meghan had clasped each other’s hands tightly in anxious anticipation as they kept the secret of their early pregnancy.
He had to pause, mid-speech, to stop himself from crying as he spoke about how fatherhood had shifted his view of the world and made the work of the charity resonate on a deep and personal level. “As parents, being here and speaking to all of you pulls at my heartstrings in a way I could have never understood until I had a child of my own,” he said.
But while Morgan and the loathsome Katie Hopkins chastised the duke for what they described as his “embarrassing” and “weird behaviour”, many onlookers were moved to see a man in his position cry.
Harry’s involuntary display of emotion was more than just a front page splash but a symbol of how far discussions surrounding masculinity have come in the 22 years since his mother’s funeral, which saw he and his brother walk solemnly behind their mother’s coffin, not a single tear wetting either of their cheeks.
That moment is seared into the memory: the brutal unfairness that the two young boys whose mother had been torn from them, in such a public manner, should face the long walk behind her casket in front of millions was recently described by Elton John as “inhuman”. It appeared as though they had been instructed to contain their grief and be strong, to “be men”.
The dangers of what is known as “toxic masculinity” have become a popular talking point. Our sexist society not only sidelines women, it demands that men conform to old ideas of masculinity: that they retain a stiff upper lip, take blows on the chin and live by a “boys don’t cry” mentality. That repression of male sadness and anger has been connected to the harrowing statistics around male suicide – the biggest killer for under-45s, with men three times as likely to die by suicide than women.
But saying that it’s “OK to cry” and that talking about feelings helps, is one thing – seeing a prince of the realm do so in front of an international audience is quite another.
Pop culture would have us believe that disenfranchised men who lack support become killers – as in the recent Joker film where a problematic pivot around mental illness was used to explain away male violence.
Prince Harry is ostensibly the picture of the macho model of masculinity. He served in the armed forces, waltzed about carelessly as a teenager in a Nazi uniform and has been papped, bum out, fag in hand. He’s been portrayed as a boy’s boy, a Jack the Lad just out for a good time; privileged and with no apparent responsibility.
And that’s exactly what made it so powerful to watch him fight back tears. We’ve watched him U-turn from someone who, at one point, appeared as though he might become just another Bullingdon Club-type bore, to instead become a champion of mental health, compassion and openness.
The speech came at the end of Baby Loss Awareness Week during which the focus has largely – and understandably – been on women. But the state’s lack of support for fathers going through these things has been highlighted and must be addressed: parents of stillborn babies are offered counselling together, or the mother is alone, but fathers rarely are.
Studies have shown men are more likely to listen to other men than they are women; perhaps this time that sad fact will actually do them some good. Hopefully it won’t be headline-worthy news one day when a man shows emotion – but at the moment, while it still is, it’s worth celebrating.
If you are experiencing feelings of distress and isolation, or are struggling to cope, The Samaritans offers support; you can speak to someone for free over the phone, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and Ireland), email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch
For services local to you, the national mental health database – hubofhope.co.uk – allows you to enter your postcode to search for organisations and charities who offer mental health advice and support in your area