The Mask You Live In, the new documentary from director Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the guiding force behind 2011’s Miss Representation, takes us from negative media portrayals of women to the other side of the gender spectrum to answer the question: “As a society, how are we failing our boys?” American boys, the film posits, are born into a culture that saddles them with a construct of masculinity that is both impossible to attain and destructive to pursue.
Through interviews with sociologists, activists, psychologists, neuroscientists and other experts, as well as personal stories from everyday boys and men, the filmmakers present a compelling argument that we are robbing boys and young men of the freedom to express their feelings, experience intimacy or participate in certain activities deemed not “manly” enough. The cost of this deprivation is high. The film explains how the demand for hyper-masculinity contributes to all manner of social ills including sexism, rape culture, transphobia, homophobia and violence.
So, let me stop here for a moment. I really tried to write an objective review of this movie. I had a whole draft about documentary technique, advocacy versus reporting and the importance of properly citing sources for quoted statistics, but it sort of fell apart in my hands. This film really touched a nerve with me and I only know of one way to write about such things – and it’s not a dry, detached review.
To start, you really need to watch the trailer. It will help all of this make much more sense. So go do that now. I’ll wait.
That was powerful, right? I watch a lot of documentaries and I have equal interest in those that advocate a specific position and those that present a topic without bias. This film is absolutely the former, but having a point of view is not a liability here. Especially when they’ve got the facts to back it up.
That being said, I actually approached this film with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. Although I agreed with the central premise that boys are told to be masculine (as very narrowly defined by dominance, control, power, athleticism, economic success and sexual conquests) and that such an expectation is incredibly destructive, I was still hesitant to buy the whole argument hook, line and sinker. I’m a feminist. Feminists do not hate men or wish them ill, but I admit that it’s often hard for this particular feminist to understand that the plight of my intrinsically privileged brethren directly affects our ability to achieve equality and to build a more healthy and peaceful society. To my mind, just by virtue of their biology, straight, white, cisgender men are born with all the power and none of the fear and oppression heaped on the rest of us. Although I am immediately empathetic to any individual’s tale of woe, (regardless of demographic), when it comes to the complaints of straight white dudes in the aggregate, sometimes I just want to just yell “cool story, bro!” and move along.
This is wrong.
The Mask You Live In forced me to confront some uncomfortable truths, and no matter what what perspective you have coming in to this film, it will challenge you too. The screening I attended was at a Lutheran church in Evanston. The person-to-NPR-tote-bag ratio was nearly 1:1, and in this cohort I thought for sure the film would be preaching to the choir. But judging by the reactions I saw when the movie ended, even in this über-liberal, socially aware audience, everyone seemed a bit…rattled. I am confident the same would happen among the “Harumph! Why can’t men just be men?” crowd.
This film is a lot to take in. The flurry of statistics, neurological evidence and sociological analysis comes at you hard and fast. One of the most effective discussions is about something called “The Great Set-Up”. The idea is that we raise boys to reject the feminine and then wonder later on why they don’t always see women as equals. And it’s important to understand that by “feminine”, we’re talking about things like emotion, empathy and intimacy. We’ve feminized these very human experiences and have taught boys to reject them. If “human = feminine” and “feminine = bad”, we’re giving boys an extremely dangerous message.
In addition to the Great Set-Up, the film makes the important distinction between gender and sex. As neuroscientist Lise Eliot explains, sex is biologically determined, but gender is a social construct. This is important, as the film explains, because if we created what it means to be “male”, then we can also change it. There are of course biological differences between the sexes, but gender is fluid and malleable. So why do we define it for our children in such rigid terms?
There is also a very important media component to all this, and the film brings up the very salient point that young boys today spend extremely large amounts of time with media; almost 60 hours per week on average between video games, TV and pornography, according to one statistic cited in the film. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I saw that the filmmakers did not make a case for censorship as their solution to this dilemma, but rather that parents need to better monitor and restrict which media boys consume and to regularly discuss the messages they receive. Who is going to teach your son how to handle conflict, treat women and process his feelings? You? Or the protagonist of “Grand Theft Auto”? If he’s playing that game without hearing a different story from you, then it’s the latter. Even for “good kids” damage is being done.
The film also makes it very clear, that as with almost all social ills, the consequences of the hyper-masculine demand disproportionately affects boys of lower economic status, people of color and members of the LGBT community. However, it’s still an issue that crosses racial, socioeconomic and gender lines. It’s a universal problem that contributes to a more violent, painful and regressive society in which we all have to exist.
I hope it’s not just the easily excitable, passionate-to-a-fault, NPR-tote-bag crowd like my Evanston friends and I who make time to see The Mask You Live In. It will move you. It will challenge you. And, most of all, it will make you look at the men and boys in your life in a whole new light. And probably make you want to give them a hug.