“Man up”…”Be a man”…”Boys don’t cry”…”You’re acting like a girl.”
These are among the many common phrases that emphasize what society has determined what it means to be a man. Dictionary.com defines masculinity as “Something traditionally considered to be characteristic of a male” and lists among its synonyms “machismo,” “muscularity,” “strength” and “manliness.” Under this definition, a man is considered a man if he is tough and does not show emotion.
But could this narrow definition of masculinity possibly have a damaging effect on young males? This is a question posed by the documentary, “The Mask You Live in,” which will be screened at Benicia Public Library next week.
“The Mask You Live in” was directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the wife of California Lt. Gov Gavin Newsom. The filmmaker had previously directed the 2011 documentary “Miss Representation,” which examined the poor portrayal of women in the media and how it contributed to the underrepresentation of women in powerful positions. The movie was an official selection at several film festivals across the country— including the Sundance Film Festival—and inspired Newsom to launch The Representation Project, a nonprofit aimed at using film for promoting positive portrayals of genders and combating stereotypes.
According to Library Teen Services Director Brandi Bette Smead, Benicia Public Library screened “Miss Represenation” after being approached by a parent. The screening was a huge success and prompted much discussion.
“The audience just came up with some really amazing questions,” she said. “The library closed at 9, and we actually didn’t finish our discussion until after the library had closed.”
When Smead heard Newsom was working on another documentary, she determined the library would do another screening when the movie came out.
Whereas “Miss Representation” focused on the portrayal of women in the media, for “The Mask You Live in,” Newsom chose to set her sights on society’s portrayal of men and how it feeds into people’s perceptions of what it means to be masculine. According to “The Mask You Live in,” movies, TV shows, athletics, comic books and even some forms of music propagate the notion that men have to be strong and unsentimental to affirm their manhood. What this creates is a standard that young males feel they have to live up to, and the film argues that it has negative effects on their livelihoods. According to the Institute of Education Sciences, when compared to girls, boys are more likely to drop out of school, be enrolled in special education classes or be expelled. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also noted that three or more boys commit suicide every day and suicide is the third leading cause of death for boys.
Smead hopes the audience at next week’s screening is a mixture of teens and adults to provide different points of view.
“If they’re an adult, they can say what it was like when they were a teenager being told to man up or hide your emotions,” she said. “I want to hear from girls’ points of view as well. I want a total mix in the audience.”
“There’s a lot of teenagers who consider themselves gender fluid, so I’d like to hear from some of them,” she added.
Smead is also hoping to have a small panel consisting of a Benicia Unified School District psychologist, district teacher and student to help facilitate the discussion, which she hopes will be influential to attendees.
“I think it’s important for everyone to understand- whether you’re a guy or a girl-to understand the pressures that society puts on you,” she said. “I think everyone should be free to respond naturally, not in a way that gender tells them they have to.”
Smead says the film will give people plenty to talk about afterwards.
“Whether or not the conversation is finished, it will open up a conversation to be continued,” she said.
“The Mask You Live in” will be screened at 6 p.m., Wednesday, March 23 at the Benicia Public Library, located at 150 E L St. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, call the library at (707) 746-4343.
Poster courtesy of Benicia Public Library