Since Men Don't Cry, they can't very well be seen with Ocular Gushers or, worse, Inelegant Blubbering. So the macho tragic hero will often only shed a single, sparkling tear, to accent his pain while making sure he keeps his awesome machismo. Used particularly in fantasy fiction, during a flashback to the tragic past.
In film and TV, the equivalent is the usually stoic hero's eyes getting watery, upon which the more emotional supporting cast will express their surprise to see a show of general empathy. The reply? "It's nothing, I've just got a little sand in my eyes."
Attempts to comfort may provoke Don't You Dare Pity Me!.
Something of a Discredited Trope - nowadays it's just as likely to be used to evoke pity for the character's inability to express his emotions honestly as it is to portray them as strong and stoic. That's assuming it's not being outright mocked.
Contrast: Manly Tears, which is admitted; Bad Dreams, where the hero really can keep it buttoned up ... while awake; Tender Tears of exquisite sensibility; and Water Works, where the tears really are a sign of weakness (though Water Works may be invoked by contemptible characters even when it really is Sand in My Eyes), Single Tear, Inelegant Blubbering. Compare Trying Not to Cry, Onion Tears, which may also be used as an excuse. The literal case of this trope is often preceded by A Handful for an Eye.
Not related at all to a certain Charles Atlas advertisement.
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Anime and Manga
In Episode 25/Chapter 16 of Fullmetal Alchemist, Roy Mustang stands over Maes Hughes' grave, looks up at a clear blue sky and wonders aloud when the rain will stop.
Hawkeye: Are you alright, Colonel? Mustang: Yes, I'm fine *puts on a hat* Except... it's a terrible day for rain. Hawkeye: What do you mean? It's not raining. Mustang: *looks up with the hat obscuring his eyes, tears falls down his cheek* Yes... it is. * beat* Hawkeye: So it is.
In Yu-Gi-Oh!, as Joey is about to be disqualified from the Duelist Kingdom semifinals for not having a Glory of the King's Hand card, he is on the ground crying in despair over not being able to save his sister's eyesight. Mai approaches him, telling him to stop crying, and he claims to have a nosebleed. She then gives him her Glory of the King's Hand card, wrapped in a tissue, which Joey notices is damp—implying she cried after losing to Yugi, despite seeming composed as she walked out.
After Yue of Mahou Sensei Negima! admits her feelings for Negi and has a minor Heroic BSOD, she uses this excuse to keep Negi from paying too much attention. He's only ten, so he falls for it.
Also, after Kotarou speaks about his rather tragic past, Konoka says that there's some dust in her eyes while clearly bawling.
One aversion worthy of mention is Mihoko Fukuji from Saki, who has her right eye always shut, but when she cries, tears come out from both eyes.
In Bunny Drop, when Rin hits her caretaker Daikichi with the proclamation "I like you just being my Daikichi.", Daikichi is moved to tears, but insists it's only sweat. Also an Ironic Echo, as sweat was Rin's excuse when she wet the bed.
One Piece's Franky easily cries the most of the crew, getting emotional at just about any touching story he hears (which is how he ended up helping the strawhats, who used to be enemies in the first place). He NEVER admits it though, saying anything from "THERE'S DUST IN MY EYE!" to "I'M NOT CRYING YOU BASTARDS, I KNEW YOU'D SURVIVE!" there's no single manly tear either, try geysers. Perhaps the most original version was after the crowning moment of funny where Robin attempted to convince him to join the crew with a laser guided groin attack. Franky pretends that she is continuing with her ball-crushing grip long after she's actually let up, so that he can cry without shame about leaving his hometown, brother-figure, and nakama.
When Nami is captured at Weatheria and put in jail for trying to steal meteorological equipment, she reads about Ace's death in the newspaper and breaks down crying, causing her captors to freak out and release her. She quickly reveals that it was just an act, and she makes off with the equipment she stole, along with one of the meteorologists, who notes that she still hasn't stopped crying.
Ranma ½: Ranma Saotome once used a variation of this excuse after Akane implied that he was crying over her getting hurt.
Ranma: Uh, th- that's just sweat or somethin'. Hmph.
In Lucky Star, the manga, Kuroi-sensei and Sakuraba-sensei get Something In Their Eyes after that year's students have graduated and had that final time in class afterward. (Kuroi's was likely exacerbated by Miyuki's little speech at the end.) The strip is called "warning of flying dust".
In Rurouni Kenshin, after Soujiro kills his abusive relatives, he deliberately tilts his head into the rain so that raindrops hide his tears. Realizing this triggers a Villainous Breakdown.
Akira from Ai Ore! Love Me! uses the "flower pollen" excuse when his girlfriend catches him crying, after he thinks she's cheating on him with another girl.
In chapter 1 of the Kotoura-san manga, Haruka cried after Manabe mentioned "people who want to leave are going to leave." When Manabe asked, she denied crying and claimed of Onion Tears. Manabe of course lampshaded about how fake it is. The eyecatch that follows have Haruka mentioned she actually keeps onions at home to make up excuses like this!
In the Donald Duck story "W.H.A.D.A.L.O.T.T.A.J.A.R.G.O.N", written by Don Rosa, Donald saves his nephews in a plywood mill, and they later give him an award. He tears up, and claims he still got sawdust in his eyes from the mill. One of his nephews points out that it was months before.
Tigra: Jarv, you sexy, old hound dog, are you crying?
Jarvis: A good butler never cries while on duty, madame! -sniff- It must be my allergy to felines making my eyes tear!"
Turnabout Storm has Rainbow breaking in tears after Fluttershy's speech on why she helped her even after all the horrible things Rainbow had told her in the morning.
Fluttershy: There, there; it's okay Rainbow Dash. There's no need to cry. Rainbow: I'm not crying! I-It's just my... *Sob* alergieeees!
Hal Holbrook's Oscar-nominated supporting role in Into the Wild culminates in one of these.
A New Zealand short film played with this trope. Three men who lost a common friend use this excuse (as well as similar and increasingly sillier ones) to hide that they are crying. In the end, one of the men finally breaks down and runs off sobbing. An uncomfortable silence occurs before the other two convince themselves that it was just his allergies acting up.
Brother Bear 2: Tuke manages to win the hearts of two female moose named Anda and Kata, leaving Rutt heartbroken. At the part with Tuke and the female moose watching the auroras, this exchange occurs:
Anda: Are you crying? Rutt: No, I mean, well, yeah, so what, eh? The light's so beautiful, eh?
Played with in Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs. After Peaches is born Diego is pushing away a tear, when called on it, he first invokes the trope "No, it's just... one of those dino's scratched my eye and..." and then subverts it ".. oh what the hell, I'm not made of stone after all." Later, Crash and Eddie repeat the trope.
Eden from Doomsday is normally stoic, almost to the point of Dull Surprise, but when she cries, it's only from one eye. Justified in that her right eye was damaged when she was a child (possibly damaging the tear duct) and she got a new one.
Terminator 2. John Conner is talking to the Terminator about his mother Sarah Conner and his father Kyle Reese.
John: Mom and him were only together for one night. She still loves him, I guess. I see her crying sometimes. She denies it totally, of course, like she got something stuck in her eye.
When The Passion of the Christ was going around, The Guardian ran a humor article with useful phrases for the movie (in Aramaic, of course!). One of them was "I'm not crying; I've just got a mote in my eye."
Played for Laughs in the 1994 remake of Angels in the Outfield. One of the ball players pokes fun at Coach Knox for shedding a tear during the playing of the "Star Spangled Banner" before a game, but Knox shrugs it off as sunscreen getting in his eye.
In The Lion King 1˝, cinema!Timon says a variation of this after watching the scene where movie!Timon and movie!Pumbaa stare at each other in a Tear Jerker (perhaps) scene. It was obvious that cinema!Timon was bursting into tears.
In Atlantis: The Lost Empire, after Kida takes Milo to a high place to overlook the whole of Atlantis, Milo sheds a few tears of joy and when Kida asked what's wrong, he just said he had something in his eye.
In Life, when the story of Ray and Claude's life and death is finished, one of the young inmates notices the other is crying. He replies that he must be allergic to something.
In the film adaptation of The Babysitters Club, Kristy protests to her mother that she's not crying - she's got allergies.
Murder on the Orient Express. Hercule Poirot leads a certain character onto a certain line of conversation; the character in question suddenly complains that something outside the window is dazzling his eyes. His reaction proves to be a clue.
The first sign of Ebenezer Scrooge's impending Heel-Face Turn in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is a Single Tear on his cheek as he sees a vision of his childhood. When the Ghost of Christmas Past calls him on it, he claims it is a pimple - a moment that manages to be funny and poignant at the same time.
Mrs. Cratchit also has a moment, during the alternate future that The Ghost of Christmas Future shows to Scrooge. In it, Mrs. Cratchit, busy with some sewing, heard her older son reading the line, “And he took a child, and set him in the midst of them.” It caused her to think of Tiny Tim and she began to cry, in front of her children. She's able to stop herself and tells them that she wasn't crying, claiming; "The colour [of the fabric] hurts my eyes."
Lewis Carroll in Sylvie and Bruno: "I felt very happy too, but of course I didn't cry: 'big things' never do, you know, we leave all that to the Fairies. Only I think it must have been raining a little just then, for I found a drop or two on my cheeks."
Dangerous Liaisons: The "It's beyond my control" scene when the Viscount dumps his woman, so the Marquise can't get to her.
After Porthos's death in the final chapters of The Vicomte De Bragelonne, Aramis spends the night leaning against the bulwarks of the ship he's on. The next morning, his servant comments that it must have been a humid night since the wood he's been leaning his head on is damp. "What epitaph would have been worth that?"
In Dan Abnett's Gaunt's Ghosts story "In Remembrance", Larkin cries as they go through a war-torn city and believe their commander may be dying; Feygor jeers at him for his weakness, and he says, "It's... it's something in my eye." (That does not put off Feygor, but the other troopers with them support Larkin.)
Also from that series, Only In Death: Hark writes that he thought he saw Rawne tear up when he learned Gaunt was alive. Hark attributed it to the dust.
Straight Silver: after a conversation with Kolea in which Criid briefly thinks that his comments show that he has some memory after his head injury, and then learns that she had misinterpreted something he said, another Ghost asks if she's all right. She tells him, "Grit in my eyes."
In His Last Command, after a futile attempt to blow up a Chaos warp gate, Brostin insists on carrying the "wounded" Feygor back. Gaunt succeeds in persuading him that Feygor is dead.
Brostin gently laid Feygor's body on the wet grass. Rain streamed off his beard like tears.
Dumbledore now became very interested in a bird out on the window-sill, which gave Harry time to dry his eyes on the sheet.
Then, in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, when Harry told Dumbledore about Scrimgeour's saying he was "Dumbledore's man through and through" and that he said it was true, Harry looked away until Dumbledore had controlled himself. Though it's Harry and not Dumbledore who's embarrassed by the tears.
Apparently Songbreeze from Redwall has such a touching, pure voice that it makes her battle-ready father cry. And he blames it on a gnat.
Star Wars: When Talon Kardde learns fellow smuggler captain Shada D'ukal wasn't, in fact, on her ship when it self-destructed to disable a hostile capital ship.
In Lloyd Alexander's The High King, when Fflewdur Flam sacrifices his harp for firewood, he complains of how it smokes, though it burns with very little smoke.
droplets trickled like tears down his reflection's cheek
Both applying to this and Live Action TV, the titular character of The Story Of Tracy Beaker usually passes off any instance of her crying as "hay fever".
A slight variant appears in one of the Sharpe novels, in which the RSM dies of a stomach wound, telling Sharpe (who is holding his hand): "I'll not cry, sir. They'll not say they saw me cry." He's weeping with pain as he speaks.
"Ana," he said, almost choking on the words. "You... you think that I... How could you think that I would...?" He turned his face away. It couldn't have been a tear. Not from Morgan. He wouldn't shed tears if he had to execute his own mother. But for a fraction of a second, something shone on one of his cheeks.
Small Favor: when Charity insists that he stay with them at the hospital until they have news of Michael, Harry's vision blurs.
In David Drake's Patriots, the Woodsrunners go to punish a magistrate appointed by their enemies. When the Woodsrunners start a fire, meaning to burn the fellow's home and all his possessions, he insists that the tears on his face are from the smoke. After a minute or two, their leader puts out the fire, giving the magistrate a reprieve, and explains later that "There ain't so many brave men that I want to chase one off Greenwood unless I have to."
In the children's book Harry Cat's Pet Puppy, once Harry and Tucker finally find a home for Huppy and he moves out of the drainpipe, Tucker confesses to wiping "a little leftover rain" from his eye. Harry comments that "We've been home an hour."
Flowers for Algernon combines this with Innocent Inaccurate; the mentally disabled Charlie, who's being used as an experimental subject, writes in one of his progress reports about going out drinking with some "friends" of his from the factory where he works. It's very clear to Miss Kinnian, his teacher, that these "friends" are actually just taking him with them so that they can make fun of him, and when he tells her that they've never been anything but good to him, "she got something in her eye and she had to run out to the ladys room."
Live Action TV
Parodied to hell and back in the Flight of the Conchords song "I'm Not Crying" - "I'm not upset because you've left me this way, my eyes are just a little sweaty today", "It's just raining / on my face", "I've just been cutting onions / I'm making a lasagna / for one"...
[tearing up] I'm fine. I have something in my eye, that's all. [sobs] ...I have something in my other eye. [sobbing] I have something in my heart...
Also used (in a more adlib fashion) during the infamous Filliam H. Muffman clip, when Colbert couldn't stop laughing.
And Stephen was not crying during the 2009 inauguration special. It was just allergies. Really.
On the Hercules: the Legendary Journeys episode "The Other Side", Hercules goes to the Elysian Fields and reunites with his lost family. His daughter asks him if he's crying. He tells her that Daddy isn't crying, the wind just blew something in his eye and then hugs her like he'll never let her go.
A rare female example, from Star Trek: Voyager: when it is pointed out that Seven is crying after most of the Borg children leave, she claims that her ocular implant is malfunctioning. Subverted when the Doctor finds that it really was a malfunction. Inverted at the end when Icheb informs her that her implant is malfunctioning again, and the Doctor point out that it's working perfectly.
In the That '70s Show episode "Jackie Moves On", Kelso denies that he cried after Jackie broke up with him:
Kelso: I did not cry! I had something in my eye. Hyde: For a week? Kelso: I have allergies, allright? (beat) Is it so wrong to feel?!
In one episode of The Red Green Show, “School Demo”, the gang demolishes their old school. Initially they are thrilled, but when Harold causes them to reminisce about their past, the men become emotional and many spend the rest of the episode crying uncontrollably. At the end of the episode, Red tries to explain away their crying by saying the dust from the demolition made them all teary-eyed. The rest of the men immediately agree.
After a poignant scene in Castle between him and his daughter, who he just dropped off for the first day of college:
Martha: Darling, are you crying?
Castle: No, it's allergies... I've... pollen count is high.
Martha: Pollen count's gotten me too.
They hug each other, and are both obviously crying.
At the ending of an episode of "The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams", Adams, upon seeing his friend Mad Jack tearing up after they'd said an emotional goodbye to someone they helped throughout the episode, has the following exchange:
Adams: Got something in your eyes?
Mad Jack: Oh, it's nothing. Just some smoke from the campfire.
On the first ECW "One Night Stand", Paul Heyman standing in the ring as the fans chant "Thank You Paul". He insisted that his eyes were red and watery because he'd been sharing a blunt with Rob Van Dam, not because he was crying. Yes, wrestling is scripted, but not everything is. This was not.
Inverted in a Garfield strip, when Garfield and Jon watch the sunset together:
Jon: You have something in your eye? Garfield: Yes, a little speck of sentiment.
In Adventures in Odyssey, Eugene's later conversion was foreshadowed when he begins to cry at a Nativity scene shown to him in the Imagination Station. However, when Connie asks him if he's crying, he responds that he has hay fever and the stable "aggravated [his] sinuses".
In the Old Harry's Game episode "A Four Letter Word", Satan arranges for a Casablanca remake to be screened for the demons, with the intent that their reaction will humiliate the screenwriter. To his horror, they start to find it moving.
Satan: Right, that's it. I can hear a demon blubbing. Is it you? Demon: No, no, I've just got dust in me eyes.
In the Cabin Pressure episode "Boston", the asshole passenger Mr. Leeman makes Martin cry when he calls him a "flying cabbie" (as opposed to someone with a real job at a real airline). Martin insists the smoke from Leeman's cigarettes got in his eyes. Douglas, not fooled, sings 'Smoke Gets In Your Eyes' at him.
The "Literal Lyrics" version of the infamous trailer for Dead Island invokes the Trope.
I'm not cry-ing, there's some-thing in both my ... eyes.
In Devil May Cry 3, Dante sheds a tear for his lost brother Vergil and unconvincingly dismisses it as "only just the rain". When this is pointed out, he quips the series' Catch Phrase "Devils Never Cry", to which Lady makes an understanding Title Drop.
Reversed in the good ending of Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, where Laharl sheds a tear for Angel-turned-flower Flonne, and says out loud: "What is this...? A tear...? ... Hmph. I never knew I could shed tears."
At the ending of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Nathan Drake claims that the tears he shed when he thought Elena was dead were just the rain.
Nathan: It was raining and you were unconscious. Elena: It was sunny, and you were bawling. Whatever, I kept your tears in a jar. I have proof.
Played for laughs in The Curse of Monkey Island, in the scene where Guybrush discusses with the Voodoo priestess the way to lift the curse put on Elaine. The priestess mentions he has to replace the ring with a pure one found on an island, for which she recites the values of that ring:
Voodoo Lady: The value of the ring on Blood Island comes from its emotional significance. It represents a pure, true love, a power greater than any other.
Guybrush: Oh, that's sweet. I... I think I have something in my eye.
Voodoo Lady: (points at him in a strict manner) Do not mock the voodoo priestess.
Maha of Maplestory makes this claim once, only for him it's a little more egregious than usual- he's a polearm and doesn't have eyes to begin with- since nobody but the protagonist can see his ghostly human form, presumably it's not tangible...
"And we end on an extreme close-up of your reflection in the gooey filling of a jelly donut as you shed a single tear." (Strong Sad's proposed storyboard for Strong Bad Email #150, from Homestar Runner.)
Nicely subverted in the Justice League animated series. After thinking Superman had been killed, the members of the League are understandably pleased to see him alive and well.
Superman: I'm fine. Very glad to be home. ...Flash? Flash:[sniff] Something in my eyes. Green Lantern: Yeah, tears. It's OK, man. We all feel the same way.
Fozzie on Muppet Babies actually cries pretty hard when he tries to give up comedy, but that doesn't stop him from saying, "Sorry, joke — er, smoke got in my eye."
Played with at the end of one Men in Black animated series episode, as K's implied love interest takes off in her ship, leaving Earth for an unknown length of time.
K: *puts on sunglasses* Careful, slick, there's dangerous gas fumes around here. J: *solemnly regards K for a moment* Those gas fumes... they really sting the eyes, huh? K: Yeah.
Interestingly inverted in one episode of Phineas and Ferb. Buford has lost his pet goldfish, the one he won as a young boy, and is understandably devastated. But, being the neighborhood bully, he has a reputation to uphold. When one of the characters asks "Are you crying?" Buford replies, "No, I'm just sweating through my eyes!". Later, Isabella asks "Buford... are you sweating through your eyes?", he replies "No, I'm crying!" but that just may be because he's being contrary.
Played straight with a Continuity Nod in The Movie, when Major Monogram tears up at an emotional scene and uses the same excuse to Carl.
King of the Hill (Chasing Bobby) has Hank crying in an emotional scene in a movie which alarms Peggy because he knows his long time truck is dying. Hank denies it by saying he has something in his eye. Peggy wants him to admit it and even takes him to an eye doctor.
In the Kim Possible half-episode "Roachie", Kim tears up after Ron has to let go of Roachie (a dog-sized cockroach). When Rufus notices it, she complains that the wind's coming off miles of garbage, where Roachie was let go.
In Care Bears To The Rescue Movie, even Grumpy, who spent the whole episode complaining, is moved by Cheer and her new pet's goodbye. When the others notice this, he just says, "What? I have allergies."
In Jimmy Two-Shoes, when a bird is reunited with his mother, Jimmy and Beezy cry...and so does Heloise. When they comment on this, she claims she has a feather in her eye.
During his presidential campaign in 1972, Democratic candidate Ed Muskie made an emotional speech, defending his wife from some unpleasant journalist smear. The press reported that he broke down and cried; he insisted that what had appeared as tears were actually melted snowflakes.
David Tennant's last video diary for Doctor Who shows him trying to remain composed as he knows he is about to say goodbye to the show's cast and crew, though his voice keeps cracking and he can't stand still. It's rather Adorkable.
The Japanese have a verb for pretending you're not crying: shinobinaku. Which literally means "ninja crying." Sounds a little more badass now, doesn't it?