The Mask You Live In is a 90-minute documentary written by Jessica Congdon and Jennifer Siebel Newsom and directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom. This film was released to the US public on January 25, 2015 at the Sundance Film Festival. This film highlights the detrimental effects of pushing masculinity and manliness on young boys and men, while also providing potential solutions and answers to ensuring the boys in this world have outlets to express their emotions and feelings. In particular, I am interested in analyzing society’s tendencies of oversimplifying gender and investigating the internal struggles these boys encounter on a daily basis due to their fears of being seen as emasculate.
The very first line of the movie epitomizes the attitudes our society has toward men of all ages: “Stop with the tears.” The film interviews all types of different men and boys starting with personal stories and accounts of early childhood memories and understandings of masculinity and what it means to be a man. Some important characters in the film include Dr. Michael Thompson, Dr. Caroline Heldman, Tony Porter, and Dr. Michael Kimmel. Viewers are exposed to the listing of stereotypical insults/jabs that men hear everyday including, “grow some balls,” “be a man,” and “be cool and be kind of a dick.” The rest of the film is centered around interviews from doctors, psychologists, parents, and coaches that give us the facts and realities of our culture’s obsession with masculinity. Then, the film touches on the assumed associations between masculinity and other qualities, such as athleticism, sexual conquest, and power or possessions. Finally, the film ends with the academic experts discussing what our society can do to help our boys stay true to themselves including, encouraging good media and good technology, spending quality time with our sons, encouraging coaches to step up and redefine their roles as mentors, and challenging boys to rise up. The very last message the film leaves viewers is from a young boy stating, “Everyone in boys’ lives should help us stay true to who we are, so we don’t have to wear a mask.” This leaves viewers contemplating what steps they can take in their personal lives to help America’s boy crisis.
The personal quotes and researched statistics displayed in The Mask You Live In demonstrate that boys are being manipulated and expected (before they are even born) to live a masculine, manly life deprived of tears, emotion, and the color pink. Why does society force these ideals onto our men, even when we witness, first-hand, the devastating effects of our actions? As a society, we have come together to learn to accept certain behaviors and deem them appropriate or inappropriate. This societal response definitely comes in to play with gender rules and stereotypes. In a Huffington Post article titled, “This Is What Masculinity Really Means To Men,” every man interviewed agreed that “having fewer limitations on what men and women ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ do is a win for everyone. Because at the end of the day, we’re all just human beings” (Genuske, 2015). The men who have learned how to master masculinity or those who opportunely have a natural high muscle tone and sculpted body were also victims of society’s rigid pigeonholing (even though they probably did not notice as much as less masculine individuals); however, these same individuals are now passing on their misconstrued, rigid ideals of masculinity to our young boys of the future! Men are brainwashing their children (and society’s children as a whole) to believe that masculinity is natural and expected. Dr. Caroline Heldman refutes that frequently misunderstood notion by stating, “Masculinity is not organic. It’s reactive. It is a rejection of everything that is feminine” (Newsom, 2015). It is a crucial first step for individuals to realize that they all have the power of influence and guidance over our young boys; therefore, our society is able to change the outcome of how boys view themselves and how boys are viewed by society by teaching them what we know. One fact we do know and can share with the community, so that misunderstandings can be eliminated, comes from Dr. Michael Thompson: “Boys and girls are far more human and the same, than they are different” (Newsom, 2015). If we can keep this fact present in our minds, we can challenge ourselves to look for the similarities, instead of the differences.
As I was listening to the boys in the film discuss their fears of being vulnerable and emotional, I was overcome with a sense of frustration and sadness. It was very clear to me that these boys are hurting and exhausting themselves by constantly trying to hide under a mask of masculinity and toughness. Coach and former NFL player Joe Ehrmann self-reflects on his adolescence emphasizing his true, buried-deep desires in the statement, “I thought if I could manifest as hyper masculine, it would somehow validate who and what I was. Certainly, my father would respect that. He’d see how powerful, how strong, how tough I was, then give me the love and attention I desperately wanted” (Newsom, 2015). This statement epitomizes boys’ feelings from all over the country. All boys (and all people) want to be loved and recognized from their father, so they do whatever they think will earn that love and attention. Furthermore, individuals look to other men in the community to compare themselves with in order to better understand how they fit in with society. We see an example of this in Buzzfeed’s video, “The Try Guys Get Photoshopped With Men’s Ideal Body Types.” One of the smaller, less masculine men states, “Intellectually, I know that I am not any less of a man because I’m not big and strong, but it is hard sometimes to not look at the people around you and feel less than” (B., 2016). Boys are being conditioned to believe they are supposed to look like the other “men” around them, when in reality, all individuals are shaped differently due to genetics, different hobbies, etc.. This overall universal idea of how men should act, look, and feel is destructing the self-worth, confidence, uniqueness, and individuality of all of the boys in our society.
All in all, I thought this documentary was an enlightening, easy-to-follow film that made me consider the struggles boys are faced with and how our society is to blame for reinforcing the stereotypical, conventional gender labels. I think that all people can enjoy and learn something from this film. Although the film mostly talks about the struggles American boys go through, individuals that are not boys can still learn facts about gender and social conformation and gain insight from personal, touching stories about instances involving gender. Since we are all human beings, I believe everybody can learn about empathy, understanding, and expression of emotions through watching this film.
B. (2016). The Try Guys Get Photoshopped With Men’s Ideal Body Types. Retrieved July 02, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dLNTb2zfh3Q
Genuske, A. (2015, January 23). This Is What Masculinity Really Means To Men. Retrieved July 02, 2016, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/23/what-masculinity-means-to-men_n_6527710.html
Newsom, J. S. (Director). (2015). The Mask You Live in [Video file]. In Netflix. Retrieved June, 2016, from https://www.netflix.com/watch/80076159?trackId=13752289