Some of my all-time favorite documentaries are: Nanook of the North, Hoop Dreams, Nostalgia for the Light, This is Not a Film, Close-Up, 5 Broken Cameras, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Stories We Tell.
Notice any common threads there? They’re all documentaries about people. They’re about how people function in society, the pressures they feel, the fears they hold, the regrets they have, and how all of their troubles can serve as a lesson to the viewer. Because they’re primarily focused on key characters, I can imagine myself in their shoes, deeply connecting with the themes and issues and subject matter at hand.
You know what I rarely connect with in films? Information.
I think films like Waiting for Superman and Capitalism: A Love Story and An Inconvenient Truth are solid documentaries, but I have a hard time investing myself in boatloads of information being pumped into my brain. I guess (to sound snarky) I don’t really find information upon information upon information to capture what film is truly about. I want to be captivated by subjects and their problems and how they overcome those problems.
So, along comes The Mask You Live In. It’s a movie I really wanted to see at Sundance because I’m a huge fan of the Representation Project, which aims to inspire individuals and communities to challenge limiting gender stereotypes & shift norms.
But. I will say I had my doubts. The Mask You Live In, along with the Representation Project’s first film Miss Representation (which focuses on how women are targeted and portrayed in the media), rides on a ton of information. Both are well-researched films that make compelling cases about how our youth are being raised in our current cultural landscape. But unlike director Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s presence in Miss Representation, The Mask You Live In does not have a consistent character to attach ourselves to.
Immediately? I’m hesitant. And even throughout the film—which I desperately want to appreciate on a human level—I’m nervous.
But then this stat came across the screen:
A 2008 study of suicide attempts by gender found that women “have a higher rate of attempted suicide than males earlier in life, and that this rate decreases with age.” For men, the suicide attempt rate “remains fairly constant when controlled for age.” So it’s not that boys are attempting to commit suicide more often, but they are completing it more often, and their suicide attempts remain constant from boyhood to adulthood.
Why is that? Why are so many more boys dying by their own hands than girls?
Seeing that statistic put everything into thematic context for me: death. Death is the end of life, and birth is the beginning. The statistic that boys are seven times more likely to commit suicide had such an emotional impact on me—not because of the alarmingly high ratio, but because of how The Mask You Live In structures itself and delivers its information.
From birth to death, Newsom tracks how the myth of how masculinity is sold today—that men aren’t necessarily different, but must act differently than women and deny all that is feminine—began, how it was cultivated and passed on through our youth, how it shapes the men they become, and how it has, statistically, resulted in a higher percentage of men committing heinous acts and lowering their own self-worth, resulting in murders, rapes, violence, depression, behavioral disorders, mental illness, alcoholism, and suicides. It’s the root of misogyny, of course, but what really struck me was how the myth of masculinity caused a lack of empathy, which leads to lower self-worth, which leads to the unfathomably high suicide rate among young boys and men.
This isn’t just some information I didn’t know about—this is an epidemic.
The film is able to breathe life into all of this information and these statistics by giving them a narrative arc like any other character in any other movie. We start from the source: neurologists have shown through studies that, starting from birth, there are very little differences between men and women psychologically. There are chromosomal differences, obvious physical differences, radically different socialization skills, differences in brain structure and activity, etc.
But, when it comes to defining our levels of empathy—that’s where the changes come in. Tests show that when asked questions that warrant emotional responses, “from empathy to sexuality to science inclination to extroversion,” the bell curves for boys and girls show a 90% match…90%! Essentially, before we enter society and are shaped by the cultural landscape, there is very little different between males and females. However, it’s those 10% outliers that become exaggerated, resulting in the rejection of all things “inherently feminine”—that is the root of misogyny, the birth of the myth of masculinity.
Then the film tracks how that myth is formed in our youth. The information, essentially, goes through its childhood on through its teenage years: commercials, TV shows and movies, video games, and pornography flood young boys’ lives, creating the pressure to be tough and not show emotion; the insistence on sex and getting with girls; the homophobia; the bullying.
Then, as boys exit youth and enter into adulthood, we see this information manifest into something powerful, something troubling. That 10% outlier has become so exaggerated and stretched that it has become the traditional form of masculinity: you must assert your authority; you must not cry; you must not talk about your problems; you must establish your dominance. Essentially, the myth of masculinity has become the norm, and the rejection of all that is feminine becomes a constant pressure. And to maintain that myth, men react.
Which, coming full circle, results in death. When I saw that stat about suicide, my utter disbelief was the result of a film that had given a wealth of important information a tangible identity, a character with an arc I could feel for and associate my flaws and hardships with, that I could suddenly connect with as deeply as Hossain in Close-Up or Sarah Polley in Stories We Tell or Emad in 5 Broken Cameras.
So, in that sense, I can honestly declare that The Mask You Live In is the first documentary I’ve ever seen that is not only for me, but about me, which I think makes it an extremely important documentary that everyone needs to see.
I see myself in this film. I am pained by all these boys who are currently going through what I went through and feel pressured to be “masculine.” I am deeply troubled that I could become a statistic that results in suicide or murder or depression. But, most of all, because of this film, I feel eternally blessed to have grown up with the glorious people in my life, the wonderful people I love who shaped me into the beautiful person I am today, the amazing people who said it was OK that I wasn’t as masculine as the other guys.
I refuse to be a statistic, and I refuse to accept the myth of masculinity as it’s sold today. And I will do my best to make sure the next generation, and one after that, and the one after that, and so on and so on, denies it as well.