Starting the conversation at the college level
By Sophie Isbister, Life & Style Editor
Director and filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom sees a “boy crisis” happening, and as the mother to a young boy, it concerns her. She is the director of the acclaimed documentary Miss Representation (2011), which shed light on the harmful ways in which the media portrays—or erases—women and their experiences. Her next project is a Kickstarter-funded documentary called The Mask You Live In, the trailer for which has garnered immense Internet buzz and sparked a continent-wide discussion on the toxic effects of the gender binary on young men.
She introduces the five-minute trailer by saying she is “increasingly sensitive to the extremes of masculinity that will be imposed on [her] own son.” She asks: “Who will he become as an adult man? A sensitive, caring, and compassionate human being? Or a depressed, lonely, and disconnected portrayal of masculinity, limited by cultural stereotypes?”
What words do you associate with masculinity? Tough, strong, stoic, a leader who never cries and “mans up.” “Be cool, and be kind of a dick.” Men and boys who “don’t see the point” of these stereotypes are mocked and ridiculed: they are called by feminine terms, like pussy. The binary of male/female, and the idea that men are tough and women are weak, are harmful to everyone: to boys and girl, and to men and women.
To gather information for her documentary, Siebel Newsom reached out to sociologists and psychologists, as well as boys and youth in American schools, which is where the name of her project comes from. Youth worker Ashanti Branch says in the trailer, “Our kids get up every morning; they have to prepare their mask for how they’re going to walk to get to school. Hopefully they can take the mask off so they can focus on learning. A lot of our students don’t know how to take it off. The mask sticks with them all the time.”
Reaching out to people in your community is an important first step to starting the discussion; a discussion I believe that college-aged people should be having. College is a time in your life when you are learning about yourself and the way you plan to present yourself to the world. The Other Press spoke with a few members of the community about the ideas expressed in Siebel Newsom’s film clip, to find out of those ideas ring true, if they are useful, and if they go far enough.
Husain Vahanvaty, a Douglas College student finishing a diploma in concurrent disorders and seeking a degree in social work, currently works with at-risk youth. He says that in his experience with youth, he has noticed the effects of masculinity. “You can’t really be sad about your situation, you can’t be upset that you’re given a shitty lot in life. You have to be angry about it, you have to hustle, you have to deal drugs, you have to go get into fights, [and] you have to do a lot of drinking,” Vahanvaty says.
But Vahanvaty says that the documentary trailer fails to point out class intersectionality, which is a criticism shared by Vancouver resident and activist David Miller. Miller states, “A key point in the film is the experience of urban African-American youth who are asked what they hide. They mostly say it’s anger. I obviously can’t speak for their experience, but I’m sure it is not just the performance of [the] masculine stereotype which serves patriarchy. What about class? What about racism? What about capitalism? What about the education system which attempts to mould them?”
In a society that is deeply stratified by gender and race, it isn’t useful to look at such things in a vacuum. Miller elaborates: “Sure, it’s good to focus on one aspect. But if you want to get to the root you need to look at all aspects of the forces that shape and determine us without our consent.” Miller also notes that the documentary doesn’t mention the patriarchy, which he describes as “a system of power and domination that for some reason we don’t want to acknowledge,” and implies that the absence of the p-word might make the documentary more palatable to a wide audience.
Vahanvaty mentions the patriarchy, but not by name. He notes the challenges of the quest set out in the documentary: “You’re working against thousands of years of culture,” he says. True, for thousands of years women were systemically subjugated by men—but as recently as 100 years ago in Canada, women were granted the right to vote. Structurally, things are becoming more equal, but in terms of our socialization, there is still room for improvement. By divorcing the idea of toxic masculinity from the systems of oppression which uphold it, Siebel Newsom does her cause a disservice.
The type of assault on masculinity that Siebel Newsom brings to light in The Mask You Live In is a product of the patriarchal system under which we have all been raised. The fact that young boys are raised to play with trucks and girls are raised to play with dolls does not mean that men innately want to drive big machines and that women are innate caregivers; both sides of the gender binary have an equal capacity to want both things. Harmful ideas about masculinity are ingrained in this system, Miller says: “You can’t separate masculinity from patriarchy so in order to end the latter you must destroy the former.”
We also spoke to Douglas Students’ Union College Relations Coordinator Madison Paradis-Woodman, who agrees that the strict adherence to the gender binary is harmful.
“I believe we are doing a disservice to boys by pressuring them to blindly adopt blanket masculinity at face value,” says Paradis-Woodman, adding that the statistics in the documentary trailer (boys under the age of 17 drink more than any other demographic) do not surprise him. “We teach at a young age that expressing feminine emotions is inappropriate.”
“I believe that to facilitate men opening up more, we need to redefine what it means to be a man and express masculinity,” says Paradis-Woodman. He suggests some structural changes which could take place: “Initiatives like rebranding masculinity in media to be more human and compassionate, and a national campaign educating youth that being masculine isn’t about inhibiting certain emotions and acting a particular way.”
Paradis-Woodman thinks the documentary is a step in the right direction, and that screening it on campus would be a good idea: “This documentary would spark a fulsome discussion around gender and expression, and it would also be informative and engaging.
“The Students’ Union does facilitate discussions that members are having on campus, as long as the discussion is not promoting hate towards another group of people. It is a Students’ Union responsibility to support their membership.”
It should be the responsibility of the academic cohort within colleges and universities to spearhead discussions on gender expectations. These discussions should be inclusive: there should be spaces made in which men can feel comfortable expressing feminine-associated emotions. And the conversation should continue to challenge and explode stereotypes. Siebel Newsom’s documentary The Mask You Live In is a hotly anticipated slice of the pie, to be viewed as a jumping-off point for an ongoing analysis of the systems which socially define us.