'The Mask You Live In': A Blessed Mess

Editor's Note: This article is part of a blog series for Women's History Month featuring stories of men and women working to create a more equal and safe world. May we all continue to partner and pray together for gender justicedownload our free March 2015 Prayer Calendar.

From impossible standards of beauty generated by the fashion and make-up industry to the disproportionate number of women who are elected to political office, women and girls in America face a variety of obstacles in their journey of empowerment. But what also warrants attention are some of the less noticeable consequences when gender norms are so narrowly defined across the board. For instance, if we characterize women as submissive, emotional, or alluring beings, then what does it mean to be a man? And how might damaging myths and stereotypes about masculinity produce its own host of social ills?

These questions remain central to The Representation Project’s latest documentary The Mask You Live In, a film that ambitiously seeks to re-evaluate how masculinity is defined and expressed in America. According to director Jennifer Siebel Newsom, when mainstream culture views masculinity as a rejection of everything feminine, traits like kindness, healthy emotions, and constructive resolution of conflict become undervalued if not wholly disregarded for most men. Instead, the prevailing norms that young boys receive from their homes—as well as in movies, sports, and video games—push them to equate masculinity with domination, violence, stoicism, financial success, or sexual conquest.

The Mask begins with expert sociologists and educators explaining how most parents raise children with a high degree of gender partiality. At an early age boys hear “stop crying,” “don’t be a sissy,” and “quit being a girl”—all phrases which suggest that gentleness and emotional expression are a direct affront to manhood. On the playground, boys who display athleticism and assertiveness usually receive more attention and affirmation in their masculinity. The documentary then claims that when adolescent boys move into manhood few spaces allow them to develop close friendships and community where they can process their thoughts and feelings.

In many respects, boys are set up to fail. As Dr. Michael Kimmel, distinguished professor of sociology at Stony Brook University, states in the film: “We’ve constructed an idea of masculinity in the United States that doesn’t give boys a way to feel secure in their masculinity, so we make them go prove it all the time.”

A majority of the documentary attempts to directly link this narrow construct of masculinity to why problems like bullying, binge drinking, violence, depression, and homophobia remain so prominent in the U.S. The social and domestic spheres receive a good deal of the blows, but the real target here is the media. Using personal and expert voices, we hear about the celebration of violence and sexism in film, television, video games, and the music industry as well as in professional sports. These arguments are joined by an array of clips, mostly from movies and T.V., including Breaking Bad, Whiplash, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Tree of Life, among others.

The personal stories and anecdotes offered are perhaps the true strengths of the documentary, giving the film a genuinely poignant tone. Joe Ehrmann, former NFL defensive lineman, explains how he lacked acceptance from a young age. For him, playing football was ultimately an unfulfilling, hypermasculine means of gaining love and approval. Now a motivational speaker and minister, Ehrmann calls for masculinity to be measured by one’s capacity to love and improve the world.

A fair portion of the film also highlights the work of Ashanti Branch, a teacher and youth-based activist in Oakland, Calif., who leads workshops with young men on how to understand their pain and sense of isolation. While Branch speaks, we witness boys begin to let their guards down. Many appear broken and defeated. At one point, a boy reaches his arm over another’s shoulder in an act of solidarity. Additional testimonies from prisoners and young suburban kids attest to the immense emotional and psychological damage generated by narrow and harmful conceptions of masculinity.

Yet in its criticisms of the media, the film often favors sensationalism over nuance. While the correlations it points to may have legitimate connections, it doesn’t always allow itself enough space to thoughtfully develop some of its more salient points. (Admittedly, though, I don’t know how this could be done in a single documentary of reasonable length.) Bombarded with violent and chauvinistic shots of men in film and television, all divorced from their larger context, it’s taken for granted that artists’ representations are not always their direct endorsements. Also, the vast number of subjects and institutions under attack give the film a lot of ground to cover, and the quick transitions between topics is often dizzying. Viewers may feel discouraged that a clear alternative vision of masculinity isn’t offered. A huge mess is made and then left unclean.

Still, I choose to see the overgeneralizations and absence of a defined masculinity as benefits to the film’s larger aims. Instead of providing an impenetrable social commentary, The Mask (like its predecessor Miss Representation) successfully functions as an educational piece that fosters awareness. Regardless of the film’s shortcomings, it still produces dialogue about an important and underexamined issue: the pitfalls of hypermasculinity in America. To offer an explicit counter-definition of masculinity would ultimately undermine the greater overarching idea offered in the film that personal identity is complex and where we go next has no easy answers.

Each of has a responsibility to consider how we can personally create a society that allows all people to celebrate their full humanity without constructing it at the expense of another.

Ted English is the Executive Assistant for Sojourners.

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