The Mask You Live In examines masculinity

Gender roles often have disastrous consequences for people who struggle to fill their assigned stereotype. Last Wednesday, Carnegie Mellon had a special showing of a new film, The Mask You Live In, that focuses on how society’s narrow definition of masculinity can cause more harm than good.

The documentary was written, directed, and produced by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, who performed the same roles in the creation of the popular film Miss Representation. Where Miss Representation examines the feminine stereotype, The Mask You Live In takes a similar look at how masculinity is constructed. Newsom partially funded the film on Kickstarter, where she raised over $100,000.

The movie surveyed a wide array of the troubles faced by boys and men as they try to navigate the realm of masculinity. A common theme was the command “be a man” and the cultural baggage that comes with living up to that ideal. To “be a man” means to not cry, to not be sensitive, to not let people mess with you, to respond with violence, to be angry, to drink, to womanize.

The film included interviews with a wide variety of individuals, both male and female, as well as clips of conversations men have with each other about masculinity. One of the more jarring and interesting clips included in the film was the conversation between a discussion leader and a group of inmates. Each of the incarcerated men ruminated on how their perceptions of being male or feelings of emasculation may have contributed to their criminal activity. One man confessed that he thought what had brought him to kill another human was partially the feeling of powerlessness and feeling beholden to another person.

There was also a strong emphasis throughout the movie on the relationship between fathers and sons, and the kind of parenting behavior that might exacerbate negative societal expectations for men and boys. Numerous men throughout the film discussed how their relationship with their fathers or the absence of their fathers, has affected their feelings of self-worth. In one heartwarming scene, a man talked about how his son had explained to his father that he was a sensitive boy, and that raising him as a single father since then has caused him to get him more into contact with his own feelings. Every week they put notes or letters to each other in a box and then read them on Sundays. The notes often contain feelings, thoughts, and demonstrations of affection.

Filmmakers punctuated moving interviews and powerful footage with statistics, and the statistics were frightening. Adolescent boys are more likely to drop out of school, be expelled, or even commit suicide than their female peers. Experts in psychology and sociology used these statistics as a jumping off point to discuss substance abuse and depression among teenage boys, and how acting out is often not taken seriously. Instead of delving into the reasons, thoughts, and feelings behind a young man’s actions, often parents and community members simply write them off as “a bad kid.” The film emphasized the need to look beyond bad behavior for root causes and ways of solving a national epidemic of underachieving boys.

Toward the middle of the movie, they showed a group of middle school boys working with a mentor to help break out of the “masculine” mask. They each had sheets of paper, and they were supposed to represent the inside and the outside of themselves. On one side they wrote the faces they present each day: happy, silly, fun, tough. When coming in and sitting down, and writing on the paper, the kids were all joking around and messing with each other and laughing.

It wasn’t until they threw their papers into the middle and picked up someone else’s, and read the opposite side: angry, sad, hurt. Then it grew quiet. They started leaning back in the chairs, or folding up inward on themselves. Some of them put arms around each other. “That’s not a coincidence that all of you wrote something like pain or sadness on that paper,” the teacher said.

This moment really struck me, because it just fit with my middle school — and onward — experience. It’s not ordinarily okay for guys to open up and have “weak” emotions or to be vulnerable. They have to fit into either the “strong and silent” stereotype or the “man-child” who never grows up. Neither one has room for close bonds and shared emotion. I felt tears, and wondered if this was the time for me to leave the room, as we were told in the beginning that it was okay to do. Then I realized that I shouldn’t be ashamed of crying.