Growing up a conservative Christian kid in America, I used to view Tammy Faye on the tube regularly. In my house come Sundays, TBN was the station of the hour, every hour. Tammy Faye always seemed ecstatic. As a little girl, although I was bored out of my mind having to watch TBN, I liked Tammy Faye because she seemed incredibly loving and kind.
Of course, too, she often had her signature black rivers of happy-sad tears running down her face. I remember in my child’s mind thinking that smeared mascara, in general, looked cool and pretty. Be it Tammy Faye, my mom, or whomever, that look on any woman intrigued me. Smeared mascara was life-hit mascara — its presence meant you had just been through something, and I’ve always been a sucker for a story, big or small.
In one way or another, these women with black rivers running down their cheeks had just felt, released, expressed — lived. And now the whole world would have to see.
Black mascara-turned-war paint regularly adorned the faces of the women I grew up with in the church of my early years (not to be confused with the church of my teen years where women did not wear makeup, and cried a lot less too). At services, at potlucks, baby and wedding showers, Bible studies and prayer meetings, the tears would flow. So many women, so many tears, so much smeared mascara.
People who cried freely and publicly were fascinating to me. My aunts, Debi and Heidi, cried close to every time I saw them, often just out of happiness to see their neices and nephews. They were, and are, hard working and successful, intelligent and complex women. They were, and are, also women given to tears.
They would, and still do, cry when a baby is born, someone dies, is hurt or damaged, or does something kind or thoughtful. Tears seem to always shine in the corners of their eyes.
There was another woman in my childhood whose tears made an impression on me. A friend of my mom’s, Mary, would burst into tears on the hour it seemed.
She was an insightful, passionate, brilliant woman who was interested in me and my brothers and what we thought about the world. She had seven Siamese cats, collected stones and feathers and studied natural medicines and the like.
She had survived a childhood of hatred and neglect, rape by a patient at an institution she worked in, a pregnancy and abortion as a result, abusive partners and the death of her 16- year-old beloved son — her only child, curly-headed, motorcycle riding, tender-hearted David – to Russian Roulette.
My little brother, Jesse David, was named in honor of Mary’s son, and her eyes would fill with tears as she would address him, always by both names, “Jesse David” followed with a longing, heartbroken laugh. I loved Mary, and I loved the fact that she cried half the time.
In my immediate family, stoicism was the valued trait, and tears were little appreciated or tolerated; therefore, I saw tears as something raw and true, made even more so by my near-inability to produce them.
In a conservative religious household, emotion is a dangerous thing. Perhaps Tammy Faye’s watery heart, and proclivity to tears were what made her the first televangelist to promote compassion towards, and acceptance of, HIV and AIDS victims during the ’80s, when paranoia and harsh judgement of gay people were the rule, not exception. I am not a fan of televangelism. I do believe that religion is usually an opiate of the masses. However, as an outsider I can choose to judge Tammy Faye mercifully or harshly, and I choose to leave off the harshness and trust my instincts about her.
Her simplicity was her biggest strength and her biggest weakness, it seems to me. But she had chutzpah, she was incredibly positive and incredibly grateful, and she didn’t let anybody, not anybody, get her down for long. All that takes heart, and a lot of it.
Women have for the most part been given the green light when it comes to weeping in public. For their tears women have been seen as both soft-hearted and soft-touches, and both these claims about us might be founded.
Like all marginalized classes, women have most often taken up the reins of whatever power they could wield with least resistance. Weeping women are not normally considered a force to be reckoned with, although maybe they should be. The activist group Women in Black is one feminist collective that has chosen to use the sorrow of women as the backbone of its demand for justice for people who are oppressed, persecuted and devalued worldwide.
Many women in patriarchal religions have perfected the power of an emotional, bleeding-heart love. Although we women have a long way to go in giving ourselves permission, and gaining social permission, to take power of other kinds, still and all, our loving tears are powerful.
Tammy Faye Bakker Messner was born March 7, 1942 and died July 20, 2007. She was neither feminist nor radical, but she was was an influential and inspiring encourager to many, one who reminded her conservative Christian base that the gospel of Christ is steeped in acceptance and agape love, not hate-mongering or homophobia.
I’ve written these words with a respectful nod toward Tammy Faye Bakker Messner and to all women who are given to tears, who weep openly, and to the black war paint they wear to prove it.
Behind every tear exists a rage–behind every rage exists a tear.
–Jennifer Wildflower is a feminist, child advocate, writer and musician and lives in Reseda California where she works at a no-kill cat sanctuary. She is currently working on a music project centering around the story of Goldilocks which explores gender and racial identity, rites of passage, mother/daughter love and betrayal and various female archetypes.
Another feminist perspective on the passing of Tammy Faye Bakker Messner and feminist writer Letty Russell here.