is america having a male identity crisis?
In her latest documentary, 'The Mask You Live In,' director Jennifer Siebel Newsom examines the damaging effects of America's narrow definition of masculinity.
Hollywood filmmakers figured out long ago that when they really want to emotionally devastate their audience, there is always one tool left in their belt. Get the emotionally repressed father to admit he loves his son, or the lock-jawed football coach to cry. The idea that men are less emotionally adept than women is, says director Jennifer Siebel Newsom, a stereotype that is reinforced throughout men's lives (largely by mass culture), and to disastrous effect.
Her latest documentary, The Mask You Live In, seeks to explain and provide solutions to what she calls America's "boy crisis." Through interviews with youth program leaders, psychologists, sociologists, and surprisingly frank male middle schoolers, the film examines the problems caused by societal expectations of male stoicism. Boys are four times more likely to be expelled from school than girls, Siebel tells me, and twice as likely to flunk. And, most troubling, suicide is the third leading cause of death for boys. The reason, she believes, is a widespread male alienation caused by "a society that has institutionalized the gender binary."
In her work with The Representation Project, the non-profit organization she founded after releasing her first documentary feature, Miss Representation (about female gender stereotypes), Siebel Newsom has worked tirelessly to burst open that gender binary and advocate for gender equality. Here, she discusses what she learned from talking to America's male youth.
Did this film seem like a natural follow-up to Miss Representation?
After making Miss Representation, some people asked, "What about our boys? How can we help our boys be part of the larger equity solution?" This sparked my curiosity and concern — I was actually pregnant with a son at the time. We started delving into the research and what we found is that in the United States boys, compared to girls, were more likely to be diagnosed with a behavior disorder, more likely to be prescribed medication, more likely to binge drink, more likely to stay out of school, more likely to commit a violent crime, and more likely to take their own life. This horrified me. Not only did I not want my sons to be one of those statistics, but I didn't wish that on anyone. There is so much more that society could do. So, we turned the lens on boys and men and began our production of the The Mask You Live In.
What was the first step?
We started with the research and finding all of the big thought leaders on this topic: neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists, and educators. Then we started going, "Okay, who are the boys, the true stories we want to tell?" We interviewed so many young boys, but inevitably you had the parental approval angle. While we did get some really beautiful, poignant stories from young boys, we would have fathers who actually wouldn't sign off to allow their kid's interview to be made public in a film. It speaks to the shame that many men feel for exposing any vulnerability or weakness.
We found a couple of really powerful educators and mentors who worked in after school programs — individuals who had stories that were worth telling and compelling, and that also provided solutions. We knew that we couldn't end the film in a desperate, depressing place. We needed to provide the hope, resolution, and opportunity for change.
What, do you think, are the main forces propagating this idea of masculinity?
Around the world, what you're finding is that there's a lot of value in cultures, in America in particular, placed on masculine-associated attributes like dominance, control, and aggression — at the expense of more feminine-associated attributes like empathy, care, compassion, and collaboration.
Boys are socialized right out of the womb, often unconsciously, to think that there is a hierarchy called the gender binary, that the masculine is more valuable than the feminine. And as early as four, they are being told to be dominant, to repress emotions, to not cry, to disassociate from the natural self.
So they get it at home, then they get it on the playground, and from pop culture. It's everywhere. It's all around us. The real damage, I would say, is reinforced on the sports field by coaches who have a win-at-all-costs mentality, who aren't helping boys become healthy, whole human beings. And extremely violent masculinity is celebrated and reinforced in the media. Boys are getting a message that ultimately normalizes violence in their lives, that normalizes repression of emotions in their lives, and then ultimately, encourages them to disconnect from their true, empathic self. Certain studies indicate that boys are more sensitive at first than girls and that we socialize the sensitivity out of them.
Were there particular moments in the making of the film that really moved you?
So many. I was really surprised when we were interviewing middle school kids that so many of these young boys want to resist conforming to the pressure that's placed on them to be men, in a generic sort of hyper masculine sense. They're so earnest, especially as they're entering middle school. They'll often ask questions like, "Why is there so much violence in video games?" They don't understand it. But because it's so normalized and accepted in the culture because adults aren't saying anything, that it's unhealthy.
They could have been given the tools to resist the pressure to conform. If they don't conform and stay true to themselves, they end up being isolated and alienated. If they do conform, they completely cut off from themselves. So they lose too. It doesn't surprise me that, by the age of 40, so many men have these midlife crises, when they've spent so much of their life donning a mask of masculinity.
How does the film suggest we can fix this?
There are three things. One, we need to have a global conversation about what it really means to be a man, and expand that definition and not limit it to a stereotype. Stereotypes harm all of us. Second, we have to celebrate healthy role models in young boys' lives. Third, we have to help our boys not repress their emotions, keep their heads and hearts connected, and ultimately stay true to their whole selves, authentic selves.
The film was shot almost two years ago now. What's changed since then?
There have certainly been positive changes, within the younger generation in particular. In families that are impacted by a child who is struggling with their identity, it has sort of awakened those people's minds to the possibilities and a greater acceptance and to a greater compassion.
We still have a long way to go and I always argue, until you have more equity in terms of representation of women and men in leadership, across the board in all industries, and more policies that enable women to be in the workforce while also raising children, you are going to continue to see this patriarchal mindset and the institutionalization of the patriarchy even though the younger generations are being socialized differently because it's just so entrenched . We have to transform culture. And with transforming culture, I think you also have a better chance of transforming policy.
'The Mask You Live in' is now streaming through Amazon.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson