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Uncovering the "mask" of masculinity

May 3 2015

Man up. Grow a pair. What are you, a sissy? These phrases are used casually in everyday conversation. But why are these expressions so common? And what are their consequences?

The Mask You Live In, a new film by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, challenges widely held assumptions about boyhood and masculinity. The film connects sexual assault, violence and other risky behaviors to narrow definitions of masculinity. Ultimately, The Mask You Live In is a challenge to overhaul our expectations about being a boy or man in the U.S. today. This is an important next phase of the conversation Siebel Newsom started with the film, Miss Representation. The widening of masculine expectations will not only allow men and boys to express themselves and achieve their full potential, but will also allow women to feel less constrained within their own gender norms.

Hundreds of Stanford students, staff and faculty joined the conversation about what defines masculinity and the unintended consequences as part of a screening of the film organized by the Program in Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies and co-sponsored by a number of campus groups including the Clayman Institute.

Learning how to be a man

From an early age, boys experience harsh socialization. Sociologist and masculinity scholar Michael Kimmel said that fear of “being seen as weak, as a sissy, starts in earliest boyhood and follows us for the rest of our lives.” Boys learn quickly that it is not masculine to cry in public, or to express emotions or affection. But how are these characteristics learned? Gender experts know that gender is learned and attained, not solely a biological attribute. According to Caroline Heldman, associate professor of politics at Occidental College, boys learn from their “educational experiences, parenting styles and pop culture” how to conform to society’s standards of masculinity. Through these social avenues, boys learn the key attributes of boys and men: sports and athletic abilities are highly valued; violence is an acceptable tactic to solve problems; both economic privilege and sexual prowess heighten masculinity.

Boys learn that it is appropriate to suppress their feelings, not be attached to others and to lack empathy and sensitivity. Why? These attributes are feminine. Masculinity, thus, is a rejection of all that is feminine.

Consequences of dominant expressions of masculinity

The Mask You Live In shows how these types of masculinity are at the root of sexism and homophobia. When boys learn to devalue anything related to femininity, it’s not surprising when they go on to degrade women.

Adolescent psychologist Niobe Way said that boys learn that emotions and empathy are feminine traits, so they distance themselves from these characteristics. At about age fifteen, boys fully understand that it is not masculine to have close relationships with other boys and men. At this age they often start having problems in their relationships. However, said Way, it is very important that boys and men have friends with whom they can speak about their emotions. When they do not have these relationships, rates of depression and risky behavior escalate.

The film illustrates how drinking, drug use, depression and violence escalate in boys when they become teenagers. One in four boys binge drink (five or more drinks at once), and every day three or more boys commit suicide. Fewer than 50 percent of boys reach out for help.

Experts in the film argue that this behavior is because boys are lonely—they lack essential emotional outlets and intimate connections. Drinking and other risky behavior block out or cover up these feelings. Youth worker Ashanti Moore explains how boys are more likely to flunk or drop out of school than girls, and four times more likely to be expelled. He attributes this to the fact that boys lack good mentors, and understand that it is uncool to excel at school.

Another ramification of this dominant form of masculinity is what Kimmel calls the “code of silence” among men. When in a group of men, such as a fraternity, their “hearts and heads come into conflict,” said Kimmel. If they witness unethical behavior they know that “if they say or do something, they will lose status in the group.” Thus, silence is perpetuated, for fear of violating codes of masculinity.

The “mask” of masculinity prevents boys and men from expressing themselves, experiencing authentic relationships and pursuing their interests and passions.

Moving forward and creating change: at Stanford and beyond

The screening concluded with a Q&A session with youth advocate Dr. Joseph E. Marshall Junior, Stanford lecturer and expert in boyhood Dr. Judy Chu and film director Siebel Newsom. 

Newsom said that she hoped she had started a national conversation about what it means to be a man — and encouraged the audience to have these conversations in fraternities, dormitories and on sports fields. When men are allowed to be their whole selves, she said, society will become a much healthier place.

Asked how exactly to encourage boys and men to be open and express their emotions, Chu underscored the importance of creating trust and openness with men — it is imperative to break down the “boys don’t cry” stereotype. By opening up the possibilities of what it means to be a man, men and boys can feel free to express themselves. Similarly, Siebel Newsom said that it is important to understand that empathy, sensitivity and intimacy are human traits, not traits of men or women specifically.

A student who is an anti-sexual assault organizer at Stanford, asked if there is a way to start raising awareness of the dangerous forms of masculinity earlier in a young life. Siebel Newsom said that education modules to accompany the film are available for elementary school children. Versions of the film that are appropriate for younger children are also in the works. In her own life, Siebel Newsom shared with the audience how she teaches her three-and-a-half-year-old son that caring for others is not a trait that is only for women and girls, but for all people.

When men and women are freer in their gender identities, everybody wins. Men can feel less restricted and able to express their emotions healthily. With this expansion, women too, may be less bound by traditional norms of femininity. By expanding the definitions of both masculinity and femininity, we have a chance of having our identities empower, not constrain.

“The Mask You Live In” challenges viewers to understand how gender not only constricts boys and men, but also shapes our society at large. We can all take action in our own lives to expand what it means to “be a man.”



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identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.