The Mask You Live In: How is Society Failing Boys?
A group of young boys sit around in a small circle and are instructed to write words on their sheet of paper. On the front, they are to write the traits they show others and how they want to be viewed. On the back, they are asked to write what they feel on the inside – what they don’t want the world to see. All of the boys held up their papers to reveal the words pain and anger.
This heartbreaking scene appeared in the documentary The Mask You Live In. The moment the boys realized they weren’t alone and they were in a safe environment, their hearts and emotions instantly opened up. The pain brewing deep inside them was evident by the look in their eyes. Young boys are being socially constructed to exhibit toughness, aggression and masculinity while hiding their real emotions. Locking these feelings away results in pain which manifests into violence directed towards others. Boys and men are stuck in this vicious cycle until these emotional barriers are knocked down. The film shows the changes by fathers to raise their boys differently, teaching them emotional intelligence and to no longer hide who they are.
In her film, Jennifer Siebel Newsom explores the struggle for boys and men in our society to be themselves but also to fit in among their peers. This is a challenging balancing act because a waver to one side or the other could be dangerous. When boys get caught up in acting macho and hyper-masculine it can often lead to violence. On the other hand when boys simply try to be true to themselves, they face bullying and being alienated by their peers. The film showed a shocking statistic that 1 in 4 boys are bullied and a small percentage of those actually report the incident (The Representation Project). If a boy shows emotion, then he is labeled as “soft” and not accepted by other boys his age. This is extremely difficult for children because there are cookie cutter roles constructed by society they feel they must fit into.
In an article by PBS, boys were asked where they get their definition of masculinity from. They replied with ads on television, in particular, ads with athletes. It is unhealthy for them to narrow their definition of masculinity to what they see in advertising. In the film, they also explored the idea of a father’s influence and how upbringing can play a huge role in this issue. Similarly, the article by PBS talks about how young boys want to imitate their fathers and obtain their definitions of masculinity through them and their actions. Boys who grow up without a father figure have even more of a difficult time defining masculinity. “Outside of the classroom, one in three boys go to bed at night without a father in the house. Healthy male role models in many boys’ immediate lives are few and far between” says The Mask You Live In director, Jennifer Siebel Newsom (PBS). One father in the film discussed just this – he grew up with a sense of hypermasculinity, but wanted to change this for his son so he raised him quite differently. They had open and honest discussions with each other about their feelings, which led to a healthy relationship and view on masculinity.
The often heard terms “be a man” or “man up – men don’t cry” are the most destructive phrases to young boys says former NFL player Joe Ehrmann. Why then do we continue to raise boys with this mentality? The New York Times sums up this idea perfectly – “If you keep hammering it into a kid that he has to look tough and stop being a crybaby and a mama’s boy, the boy will start creating a mask of bravado.” Men are just repeating how their fathers raised them and reflecting that onto their children. This places a huge burden on boys to always uphold a facade and put on their mask against vulnerability. As mentioned before, this whole process of bottling up real emotions often leads to an outburst of aggression and violence.
This behavior then translates over to how boys and men treat women. The film touches upon the notion that masculinity is tied in with success and sexual conquest. Men are often praised for their sexual activity while women are shamed. A study by Rachel Allison and Barbara Risman found that although these views are declining, they still exist. Only 6 percent of women agree with these double standards, while 25 percent of men agree and have less respect for women who have many hook-ups (Inside Highered).This double standard tends to lead to unhealthy relationships between men and women. The issue is more prevalent than ever in today’s hookup culture where casual sex is the norm. Rape culture unfortunately has also become a norm – it is a product of society and encourages young boys to objectify women. 1 in 5 American women have been sexually assaulted, and 1 in 6 men are abused before they turn 18 (TIME). The film referenced how men want “a piece of that,” referring to women as objects or a piece of meat rather than another equal human.
Along with these poorly developed relationships, boys are damaging their friendship with other boys. The Mask You Live In talks about this lack of male intimacy and how boys’ friendships are very on the surface and shallow. They aren’t encouraged to talk about their feelings with one another like young girls are which creates this lack of intimacy and making them think close friendships with other males is wrong. A study talks about how females are rewarded from an early age to be expressive and communicate with their friends, which reinforces these norms. The study also discussed how boys and men have lower standards in their friendships, and women’s’ expectations are higher. When boys interact with each other they often engage in sports or other physical activities or rough-housing and the phrase “boys will be boys” is used. The film suggests that we need to step outside this social construct and not put them into these stereotypical roles.
Another outlet for boys’ aggression has become video games. Their brains are becoming wired to fast-paced, violent games. Young men are becoming desensitized to controlling a figure who runs around shooting and killing people, stealing, and committing other violent crimes. The New York Times talks about how children who regularly play video games are more aggressive than others. “90% of pediatricians and 67% of parents agreed or strongly agreed that violent video games can increase aggressive behavior among children” (OSU). This has become their entertainment and way of expressing their emotions.
As a society should we to erase the term “boys will be boys” from our vocabulary? What will the consequences be if we don’t? “If we are in a culture that doesn’t value caring, doesn’t value relationships, doesn’t value empathy, you are going to have boy and girls, men and women go crazy” suggests Dr. Niobe Way during the film. Boys are told that they need to be cold and emotionless, and then feel like failures when they do express feelings. Being told they are good enough is sometimes all they need to hear. The box that they are placed in makes them feel incomplete. After talking about their emotions, the boys in the film described feeling worthy, loved and whole. Redefining what it means to be a man in our culture will allow them to open their hearts and also redefine masculinity for the better.
TAKE THE PLEDGE at The Representation Project to challenge the media and society’s perceptions of masculinity. Redefine what it means to be a man!
MENTOR a child in your community and be a positive role model in their life!
DRAW YOUR MASK with boys to create conversation about what hides behind everyone’s mask. You can start this dialogue in your own community.
DEMAND BETTER MEDIA using Twitter hashtags and a Media Resolution! Change begins with creating role models for our youth.