We were so excited to watch the film. We had already spent a bit of time discussing and reading about masculinity and social inequalities in our Sociology of Gender class at Hamline University. When we learned that we'd be one of the first groups of students in the country to view The Representation Project's highly anticipated new documentary The Mask You Live In, we felt privileged. Our Sociology of Gender class, taught by Professor Valerie Chepp, partnered with Professor Ryan LeCount's Introduction to Sociology class for a joint screening of the film (and free pizza!). We were given a few prescreening clicker questions about gender issues, norms around masculinity, and what we thought about gender inequality. Interestingly, one of the results of the anonymous clicker questions showed that, when asked, "When you hear a reference to ‘gender issues,’ which group(s) come immediately to mind?," the vast majority of us thought about “girls and boys,” “men and women,” or “girls and women”; only roughly 10% of us thought of "boys and men."
The day following the screening, our two classes met again to discuss the film’s content and our reactions to the film. We alternated between small and large group discussions. The large group discussion encouraged more students to engage in the conversation, whereas the small group discussions were a bit more difficult to have given the challenging and sometimes sensitive nature of the topic. Overall, it was a great experience. The film was awesome and it was nice to step out of our routine classroom setting to discuss the complex issues surrounding masculinity.
The documentary is centered around the question: What does it mean to be a man in America? "Be a man," "grow some balls," "man up," "don’t be a pussy," "don’t cry," and "bros before hoes" are all sayings used to police masculinity for men and boys. The film provides a front row seat into the rarely discussed but highly prominent presumption that, in American culture, there is an "ideal" way to be a man. The film explores how damaging this ideal can be to our men. To combat this damaging ideal, the film introduced us to a number of men, coming from a wide range of backgrounds. Many men spoke about their experiences and revealed how ideas about masculinity shaped them. The film also provided the viewer with a number of statistics, some unsettling, and many surprising.
We each had our own reactions to the film. Below, we place our unique perspectives in conversation with one another. Three themes from the film really stood out for us, and we frame our discussion around these topics: intimacy, policing, and athletics.
Nyjee: I definitely found that interesting, but I wasn’t at all surprised. As the documentary expressed, intimacy is feminized and for a man to be considered “a man” he cannot be feminine. That really sucks. It seems as if all the characteristics that are fundamental to being mentally healthy (such as intimacy, compassion, and empathy) are feminized and many men become increasingly disconnected from these characteristics as they grow older.
Alexandria: I really liked the example of Steven and his young son, Jackson. Steven really stepped up when he told Jackson’s mother that he would raise him on his own if she didn’t want to. Steven showed how he had to struggle with letting down his guard in order to express compassion and intimacy. These were things he was never shown by his own father. He really had to break down his own barriers after Jackson said, “Daddy I’m sensitive.” Steven then went on to research how to be “sensitive” in order to have a better relationship with his son.
John-Mark: I think that’s the crux of the matter. Boys can’t express themselves without being told they are wrong. Or at least, they can’t express any emotion other than anger if they want to avoid sanctions from their peers. Somehow our society has latched onto anger as the sole acceptable masculine emotion. You can see that in just about every depiction of masculinity in popular culture. All of that pressure builds up into a prohibition on any positive, healthy expression of emotion by men. That must have devastating effects on men’s mental health.
In addition to intimacy and policing, I also love that the film explored the relationship between masculinity and athletics. Excelling at and having an interest in sports is often assumed to be the default position of being a man in America. Many men, from the moment they are born, are inundated with baseballs and basketballs and the expectation of athleticism. I loved Joe Ehrmann’s piece in the film about debunking the commonly accepted myth that sports builds character. He says that, “In a win-at-all-costs culture, it’s strictly about winning at the expense of character development.” Ehrmann made it clear that sports cannot teach character unless the coach is intentionally teaching and implementing it every day. Ehrmann teaches his boys empathy and integrity. He wants them to become men who will be responsible and change the world. I think that that’s what coaching should be about, but today, many coaches police their teams in unhealthy ways.
Alexandria: I completely agree! A lot of athletes look up to their coaches as parental figures. Some even become surrogate parents for these players. If boys are only being taught to be aggressive, emotionless, and go for the win and not for the team, how are they supposed to learn to be men of character?
John-Mark: The case of Steven and his son Jackson that you brought up earlier is a perfect example of how boys can learn to be men of character. Steven was raised by his mother and so he absorbed the values that she instilled in him. Steven can then pass those values on to his son. Jackson is the beneficiary of Steven’s willingness to violate societal gender norms and promote “feminine” traits. However, Steven’s exceptionality emphasizes the lack of adequate male role models. The question is, if coaches and fathers are both out of the running for being adequate examples of manhood, are boys doomed to be denied positive male role models? Clearly, a reevaluation of the people suitable to guide the development of boys is necessary.
A Few Critiques
Alexandria: I agree with you. For us, it was a recap of the things we had already learned or were currently learning. I also think the film could have talked more about family life, particularly mothers' roles in family life. We also didn’t touch much on mothers in our class either.
Nyjee: I agree with you, Alexandria. I would have loved to have seen a short section of the film dedicated to mothers and their role in shaping masculinity for their sons. I think that both mothers and fathers play a critical role in defining manhood and many times when fathers are absent from the home, mothers are left to teach their sons what it means to be a man. Nonetheless, the film was amazing. Although we were familiar with the topics discussed, the film would be so beneficial to most of the general public.