The Commodification of Sadness

tissue boxI went to see “The Fault in Our Stars” last night with my eleven year old daughter and her best friend. We’d all read the book and agreed that the movie is an excellent interpretation of the wonderful “young adult” novel by John Green.  It was the second time for my daughter Grace, who had already seen it with her father, and I was particularly interested to go after hearing them report that the audience’s reactions made as much of an impression on them as the movie.

Apparently when Grace went with Dave there was a group of teenage girls seated behind them who cried loudly throughout the film. They said one girl kept bawling all the way through the credits. Dave’s theory was that kids today don’t get many opportunities to feel powerful emotions because they live over-protected, over-mediated lives. My theory, upon hearing their account, was that perhaps the girl who couldn’t stop crying was studying to be an actress, or had a personal experience that made her especially sensitive. Grace’s theory was that the girls were competing to see who could cry the hardest.

“Get your tissues out!” The usher announced as we sat down and the movie was about to start. It was as if we were getting on a ride at an amusement park and he was warning us we might get wet. It was strange because everybody laughed when he said it. I often cry in movies, but I am accustomed to that show of emotion being private as I sit in the dark theater and I’m certainly not used to being warned about it. I felt almost violated by the assumption that we would all cry and it actually made me determined not to! (I would show him.)

There is no denying the movie is a tear jerker, but it’s also a great story about two teenagers who both have cancer. I liked it because it’s all about my favorite topics, love and death, and it handles them well. It’s not sappy and it lacks a triumphant Hollywood ending, which is always refreshing. I wanted to scream out at the usher and his warnings, “This is not just about feeling sad! It’s about living life!”

Of course I did cry and so did many of the young women around us. Grace and her friend did not. Maybe they’re just a little too young to have emotions around heart break yet, or maybe they were too embarrassed to cry in public or in front of each other. But they were fascinated by all the older girls crying around us and I was too. I thought Grace’s assessment was correct. It was a sort of emotional competition. In the hallway outside the theater a cluster of mothers and teenage daughters stood comparing notes.

“I cried the whole time!”

“I only cried at the end.”

“Marissa cried so hard she got my sleeve wet!”

They were laughing, still wiping their eyes and running to the bathroom to fix their makeup. It made me wonder if this is a trend. Does the popularity of The Fault in Our Stars mean we are in for a slew of sad stories spilling out from Hollywood? Is it a reflection of the collective fear we have around cancer, with an outlet (all the crying) attached?

In any case I’d say that’s good. It’s good for sad to be cool for a change. And it’s good to have open conversations about cancer and young people dying. We have so much shame in our culture about cancer, crying and death and maybe this means we are ready to change that. We are ready to cry in front of others and be proud. On the other I wonder if it is just a show. If those girls were trying to prove to each other that they are real or deep or something like that. I wonder if the movie makers are trying to prove they can deal with serious subjects and still make money. Either way, I’m all for it.


  1. My daughter saw it yesterday! Now, after hearing how much she loved it and reading your story, I need to see it asap. Thank you!

  2. love this Annie!
    as always, so well written and so interesting.
    such great observations and feelings expressed.
    i can’t wait to see it!

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