Review of and Response to the Documentary Film “The Mask You Live In”
Long-time readers of this blog will know that one of my concerns, often expressed here, is the plight of boys and men in America. That is also the concern of the documentary film “The Mask You Live In” which was produced by a feminist film maker who also produced the documentary “Miss Representation” (about the many misrepresentations of women in popular culture).
If you have not watched both or one of these excellent documentaries, please do so. They complement each other very nicely. Here I will focus exclusively on “The Mask You Live In” and invite responses from those who have seen the film. My general rule of thumb for this blog is and its comment section is the sign I have seen posted in some cafes, bars and restaurants: “Be nice or leave.”
Let me begin with a story. I could begin with hundreds of stories from my own experiences, but I think this one is fresh and pertinent to “The Mask You Live In” which is about our American culture’s profoundly problematic images of masculinity.
I recently had the privilege and great joy of walking my daughter down the aisle at her wedding and releasing her into the loving care of her husband—a young man who epitomizes what I can only can “undistorted masculinity.” (Something I can say of my other son-in-law as well and of many men I know personally.)
I was raised in a culture—both macro- and micro- – about which “The Mask You Live In” speaks. “Boys and men don’t cry.” Yet, no sooner had I handed my daughter over to her fiancée, her husband to be, and sat down next to my wife in the front row than I broke down crying. I was simply unexpectedly, but not surprisingly, overcome by emotion. All the years of fatherly love and care and worry and hope came to a head in that moment and I couldn’t hold back the flood of tears.
In that moment I was embarrassed and liberated. Isn’t it only women who cry at weddings? My fatherly anxieties about my daughter’s well-being in life felt released. At that moment I felt more conflicted than at most moments. The voices of the culture and family in which I was raised shouted “sissy!” in my head, but the voice of reason and love shouted “be yourself in this moment” in my head.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
That is what “The Mask You Live In” is all about—the distorted images of masculinity that many boys and men suffer from, and that cause much suffering of others, and the deep need boys and men feel to just be themselves in normal and positive ways, including showing emotions of tenderness, and the tremendous conflict that tension creates inside.
The narrative of “The Mask You Live In” is that pre-adolescent boys, by and large, are not very different from girls in terms of feelings and not being afraid to show them. Emotions of profound joy and sorrow, intimate friendship and empathy, mostly come fairly easily to boys before adolescence. However, due to cultural norms promoted by popular culture, older males, peers, some parents, many adolescent boys put on a mask of feeling nothing but coolness and anger. The cause of the transformation has been labeled by some psychologists and sociologists “the boy code.” Of course it begins very early in life when boys are called “sissies” for crying or showing any kind of vulnerability, but it becomes especially prominent and controlling in adolescence. The result for many young men is belief that “being a man,” being “masculine,” requires no vulnerability and no tenderness. In its most extreme form this distorted masculinity is sometimes labeled “machismo.”
“The Mask You Live In” very helpfully illustrates the damage this “boy code,” this “machismo,” this distorted masculinity has not only on women but also on boys and men themselves and on society in general. The film includes many interviews with boys and men of all ages as well as with psychologists and sociologists of both sexes. And it is not at all anti-male; the overall ethos of the film is empathy for males. But, of course, the underlying concern is for culture as a whole because “machismo” has negative effects not only on the boys and men but also on girls and women and on society as a whole.
The film focuses much on the roles of men in the lives of boys and young men—especially the roles played by fathers and mentors (e.g., coaches)—without neglecting the roles of women (e.g., mothers). The stories told by some of the young men, many of them prisoners, can be deeply moving. The film flashes statistics that I think would surprise most people in America. According to one statistic one in five boys experience sexual molestation.
The film shows quite clearly how men can play a crucial role in the emotional development of boys and young men but without shaming or blaming or putting fathers and mentors up on a pedestal to the neglect of mothers and other women who also play crucial roles in boys’ emotional development—for good or bad.
One focus of one part of the film is the experience labeled “father hunger.” According to the experts, boys need either a good father, to show them how to become a good man, or a good coach—whether he be an athletic coach or just a mentor.
Overall I found the film extremely positive and helpful in plumbing and articulating, however briefly, of course, a major social problem too often neglected. One of the things I especially appreciated about the film was its lack of blaming and shaming of males in general. There was no narrative that males are simply bad unless they come to fit some stereotype of feminine beingness which requires undoing their masculinity entirely. The film makes clear that it is about distorted masculinity and not masculinity itself. Boys and men can be both strong, protective, energetic, performance-oriented, proud of being male, while at the same time being empathetic, in touch with their tender emotions, and kind.
So what difference would that have made? I don’t know exactly, but, had I been asked to be one of the producers, I would have insisted on a few things that are never mentioned in the film. I would have insisted that they at least be touched on.
For example, nowhere in the film is the role of testosterone mentioned. Perhaps that’s because there is really not much, if anything, that can be done about that. Culture can be changed, hopefully, but biology can’t be except in a few pathological cases of literal testosterone poisoning (clinically high levels of testosterone). What role does testosterone play in the adolescent transformations the film focuses on and decries? Surely some. Most adolescent boys, if they would open up and talk about their sexual feelings and other feelings about their changing bodies, would admit that they don’t even recognize themselves—compared with who and what they were before puberty “kicked in.” The flood of testosterone in early male adolescence has powerful effects over which many boys and young men seem to have little control. How many adolescent boys, going through puberty, are ever given any opportunity to talk with a medical professional about these changes? Girls usually have that opportunity; boys rarely do.
Testosterone is not only a “sex hormone;” it is also an aggression hormone. High levels of testosterone flooding a male body can influence him toward aggression he himself does not even understand or like. Studies have also shown that high levels of testosterone (and by “high levels” here I mean compared with what was before) tend to lessen feelings of empathy.
For the most part, “The Mask You Live In” was an excellent treatment of a somewhat delicate, somewhat controversial, and largely culturally ignored subject—the difference between “distorted masculinity” and what I will call here, for lack of a better term, “normal masculinity.” However, I think the film could have done a better job of describing normal masculinity. It shows it better than it talks about it. Many of the images of good men included: vigorously, working out, engaging in athletics, competing without undue aggression to cause harm, etc. Near the end of the film a very stereotypically masculine man talks about how masculine traits can be channeled into positive contributions to humanity.
Overall, however, I thought the film, perhaps because it was produced by women (some of them at least known feminists), lacked any in depth discussion of what being male means other than in negative ways (machismo) and in simply human ways that would be said of all people including females. So the question I often ask here, that almost always goes unanswered, is left almost untouched by this film: What is “good masculinity” other than just being a good person?
I do not think it will work, in the long run, to tell boys and men to “just be good humans” and totally neglect what value there is in being male per se. Nobody that I know says that there is no special value in being female other than just “being a good human.” We all know that females as females contribute much good to the world. Just look at the difference in popular culture between Mothers Day and Fathers Day; in the weeks leading up to the former there is much celebration of not only mothers but also women in general. Never a tinge of negativity. Contrariwise, Fathers Day, compared with Mothers Day, is given short shrift in popular culture and, if it is treated at all, there is often a tinge of negativity. (For example, many television sitcoms make fun of the neglect of the family for the wife and mother while the same sitcoms make fun of the husband and father as not really worthy of celebration.) The cultural narrative has, for quite a while now, been that females have laudable qualities as females whereas males only have laudable qualities insofar as they are like females. This, I fear, feeds into male resentment and undermines efforts to counter distorted masculinity. Adolescent boys and young men also need pride in being the sex that they are and insofar as the message they receive from culture is that their maleness itself is a detriment to society except insofar as it is adjusted to be more like females they will feel resentful and turn toward distorted masculinity to gain pride and respect. Somehow or other we need to communicate to boys and young men that they have much to offer to society, to the common good, as males. That is almost totally missing in even the very best treatments of sex and gender such as “The Mask You Live In.”
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