Gender has never been more of an issue than it is today: Feminism has a bigger platform than ever; people of the LGBTQ community continue to make strides; and the overall conversation about gender issues in the country has changed.
The Mask You Live In, a new film from actress and producer Jennifer Newsom, takes aim at the idea of how our society teaches boys to become men. The Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara hosted a screening of the movie this weekend, with the event being sponsored by the ManKind Project and Rape Crisis Center of Santa Barbara.
While the film focuses on obvious issues like mental and physical abuse in the home, it also sheds light on much subtler issues of gender — like the simple fact that parents decorate their future child’s room a particular way depending on the boy or girl news.
“Gender is a social construct,” says Dr. Lise Eliot, a neuroscience specialist. And it’s not just the room, she points out, it’s the clothes and toys and everything else that a parent surrounds their child with. “So this notion that there is such a thing as gender-neutral rearing…is a psychological impossibility.”
One of the biggest culprits creating this culture is sports. Boys are taught to “toughen up, suck up the pain, and be a man.” This immediately equates showing pain or emotions as feminine, and this divide is one of the hardest things to change, according to the film.
Dr. Caroline Heldman describes it as the great setup. “We raise boys to become men whose very identity is based on rejecting the feminine,” she says in the film. “Then we are surprised when they don’t see women as being fully human.”
And our professional sports culture mirrors this, with domestic violence and sexual assault becoming the new norm for organizations like the NFL. The famous Ray Rice video, the Greg Hardy case (Hardy allegedly threw his girlfriend on a sofa full of guns and threatened to kill her), large numbers of college athletes being charged with rape and sexual assault; these cases are becoming more and more frequent.
Boys are told from a young age that crying is something to be ashamed of and to hide. This might be part of the reason boys are five times as likely to commit suicide as their female counterparts. It’s now the third leading cause of death among boys in the U.S. And worst of all, less than half of men affected reportedly seek help. Ashanti Branch, an educator and advocate for gender issues, describes it as going into a warzone every day. “They have to prepare their mask.”
He started the Ever Forward Club, a support group and nonprofit that helps black and Latino males reach their full potential. The film shows a group of students working with Branch one day, creating their own physical versions of the masks they wear. He has the students write down what they show other people on the front side, and what they hide from the world on the back.
All of the boys said the same thing; they acted happy and collected on the outside, but they were in serious pain internally. They didn’t have anyone to share it with outside of that support group, something most men just don’t have access to. It’s something they have to hide every day, and it’s the reason so many of the advocates in the film work toward making masculinity and femininity more united.
The Mask You Live In premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival and is available on Netflix for streaming.