ReVamp Recommends is a special blog feature highlighting theater productions, artists, movies, TV shows, books, events, etc. that are relevant to ReVamp Collective's mission, and that we want to share with our fellow artists and audience.
What does it mean to be a man in 21st century America? How is masculinity defined, taught and expressed in our culture? What are the negative side effects of rigidly categorizing "proper" masculine behavior, and how do they manifest both in individuals and in society at large?
These are the questions posed by The Mask You Live In, a 2015 documentary directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom and written by Newsom and Jessica Congdon, available on Netflix and YouTube. Newsom and Congdon are also the team behind the 2011 doc Miss Representation, which explored similar questions related to our culture's definitions of femininity and women's gender roles. Newsom is the founder of The Representation Project, an organization dedicated to "using film as a catalyst for cultural transformation," and "inspiring individuals and communities to challenge and overcome limiting stereotypes so that everyone, regardless of gender, race, class, age, sexual orientation, or circumstance, can fulfill their human potential."
The Mask You Live In draws on interviews with psychologists, sociologists, educators, and youth leaders, as well as men of various ages and backgrounds, to paint a picture of how our culture creates and encourages an environment of "toxic masculinity" - a world in which men are taught from an extremely early age to hide and deny emotions, reject anything hinting of femininity as bad, compete against other men in a zero-sum game of power and dominance, and treat women as objects provided only for their consumption. Set against a backdrop of pop culture references, including movies, music, video games, advertising and sports which demonstrate the hyper-masculine "man's man" ideal that men must achieve, the film charts the development of males from young children who are told to "man up" and that "crying is for sissies" into young men who cannot, or are afraid to, express their feelings and form trusting relationships, and turn to destructive or violent behaviors in an effort to prove their manhood. The doc explores how these developmental challenges have hurt the individuals interviewed for the film, as well as the larger implications they have for our society, including mass shootings, drug and alcohol abuse and the perpetuation of rape culture.
It's not a perfect documentary. I would have liked to see more historical context for the issue - how did this culture of hyper-masculinity develop, or was it always present, we're just better at recognizing it now? The film just sort of drops us in the present-day climate without presenting a lot of background on the issue. It also would have been interesting to see how masculinity is defined and taught in other cultures around the world, perhaps as a model for what we could be doing better here in the U.S. But overall, The Mask You Live In is a powerful, sobering look at what it means to be a man in our society, and how narrowly defining gender is possibly one of the most harmful collective attitudes we as a culture can hold.