(Wo)Man Up

Reality and PerceptionMedia

Imagine you were the opposite gender; do you think you would be treated differently by your family, friends, teachers, and even strangers? Instead of having dolls and dresses, would you have cars and superhero costumes? Instead of being put in soccer practice, would you be put in ballet class?

Do you think it’s right for the lives of youth -your lives- to be shaped by other people, or do you want to choose your own path and be your own person? The Mask You Live In, directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, is an eye-opening, controversial documentary that shines light on the much discussed and researched topic of “masculinity” in the United States.

To give a brief overview of the movie, boys ranging from toddlers to adolescents and even adults are interviewed on how they have managed to keep up the mask of masculinity while going through rough patches in their lives. Most of them do not have a stable father figure in their life, or they have been bullied and beaten in school and at home. The movie shifts between different interviews of men and boys, interviews of educators and psychologists, and clips that show how masculinity is portrayed in hip hop culture, toys, sports, and entertainment.

From a very young age, these males have been told to “man up,” and to not cry “like a girl.” They have been given the idea that being weak, showing emotions, and not being muscular means being feminine. These boys are s are forced to live up to certain expectations, or else become “uncool” social outcasts. This pressure contributes to a number of rapes, homicides, suicides, and sexual abuse cases. The whole idea of masculinity is to contradict anything feminine, which is portrayed as naive and trivial. Females are described as the weaker sex, and in subtle ways, such as messages in advertisements, entertainment, and sports, this stereotype has carved itself into the way we process and look at things in our daily lives.

The interviews were very powerful; the tears in many boys’ eyes clearly displayed how the pressure of being masculine and going against their true natures had destroyed them. Some of the ideas they shared about their experiences were extremely insightful. Their words show how, at a time when teenage boys become closed off and don’t feel comfortable talking about their feelings with others, violent video games give them that extra dopamine to make them feel like they are winning at something, even when their real lives are a mess. Then they start taking drugs and drinking alcohol to dull all their feelings, so they don’t have to feel hurt and scared anymore. Breaking down and crying is not an option, so they take all their pain out on others through physical abuse and violence.

The clips of educators and psychologists further explore various aspects of masculinity and how it affects d people differently on the basis of their age, gender, and economical background. A beautiful point that one of the psychologists brings up is that sex is nothing more than a biological term, determining a difference in body parts of males and females, and both genders are far more human, and far more similar than they are different. Having experts in the field talk about the subject is somewhat reassuring, because as I was watching it, knowing that there is actual data and science behind the conversations made them seem more serious and impactful. Other viewers might change their opinions because they are seeing educated, knowledgeable people addressing issues that they may have wrongly thought to be unimportant.

I really appreciate how this film shows masculinity from all angles, including how it affects lives and people and how people in turn shape the definition. Additionally, the examples of how males are portrayed as violent and dominating in video games, movies, and songs helps deepen the points the educators and psychologists make about the topic. The way in which the story and main ideas pan out through the movie, giving each aspect of masculinity a real-life example and illustrating how it impacts the world and is impacted by the world, really makes the film it strong and memorable, something that gives me food for thought even after watching it.

The movie could mean different things for different people; it could ask them to reflect upon themselves, make them more aware, touch them, or even interest them enough to start studying gender in more depth. Being born and brought up in a feminist household myself, none of this was very new to me, but the movie certainly broadened my perspective and knowledge of masculinity. The many examples shocked me, but also gave me something to think about. They made me look at some people in my life in a different way, because now I can understand what they may be going through, and why that makes them interact or communicate the way they do. I think that if males with experiences similar to those discussed in the film watch it, they can finally rebel against the people in their lives who oppress them and force them to act a certain way. The way one approaches and sees life definitely changes after watching the movie. It shows you the world and its troubled men hiding behind masks of power, toughness, and dominance, when inside they really need someone to comfort them and love them. Knowing just how vital it is to be aware about these many issues under the wider umbrella of masculinity might even lead people to make a global impact in the future. Though it isn’t mentioned in the documentary, I personally believe that this film is powerful enough to inspire people to do something about the stereotypes and pressures it discusses.

The only improvement the movie could use is more comparison to the way girls are brought up and treated by society. This was done to some extent by the psychologists and through anecdotes that the interviewed teenage boys brought up. However, it would have been more impactful if there were more visuals shown of the way stereotypes of girls are expressed through entertainment, advertisements, and media, in order for the viewers to get a better sense of just how erroneous the images and stereotypes associated with masculinity are. Doing so would also help bring more comparison into the film, and help people visualize the full situation better. If females were also interviewed, one could get a real-life feel for the difference between the upbringing and lifestyle of the two genders.

On a scale of one to five, I would rate The Mask You Live In a four, and strongly suggest that boys and girls above the age of twelve watch it and maybe even have a discussion about it with their parents, or in school. Perhaps if more people saw the world like this, the whole concept of gender would fade into a biological term instead of all these judgements of femininity and masculinity, and nobody would have to hide behind a mask anymore.

Nargis Mathur is 12 years old. She is in grade 8 at Riverside School in Ahmedabad, India. Nargis loves reading, soccer, badminton, basketball, waveboarding, swimming, and theater arts (especially drama).