The Mask We Live In grapples with the theme of toxic masculinity, interspersing powerful and sometimes shocking statistics with commentary from a diverse group of interviewees of differing age, class, race, sexuality and experience. The broad interviewee pool is helpful as it serves to emphasise that the experiences are not confined to certain marginalised groups or pockets of society. They are relevant to boys and men in general. Observations around the shifting patterns of behaviour from childhood to boyhood to youth are fascinating, as they demonstrate how deeply entrenched common notions of masculinity have already become by the time young boys reach adolescence.
The documentary points out that by holding hyper masculinity as the ideal to which young boys must aspire, society perpetuates sexism and homophobia. Dr Terry Kupers talks of how sexism and homophobia find their roots in the “dominance hierarchy” with the dominant male at the top and those who are deemed to be “weak” and “girlish” at the bottom. He notes that as boys fight against being such perceived weaknesses, they also begin to suppress or hate those traits within themselves.
Suppression is a big theme in the documentary and a feature which runs through many of the stories. One man notes that he always felt he wasn’t allowed to cry until he was confronted with single fatherhood and realised his son required something more than emotional distance. “I Googled sensitivity,” he notes, wryly. Another comments that after multiple playground scuffles (he was attacked both for being gay and Chinese in a predominantly white school) he learned to “…wash my own hands…just not talk about it…I just didn’t feel like living anymore…I was discouraged with physical force from ever expressing my emotions.” The psychologists comment on the way in which suppressing emotion, empathy and traits which have been gendered and designated 'feminine' can lead to isolation among young men as they struggle to find intimacy with their peers.
The Mask You Live In notes a connection between hyper masculinity and substance abuse. By age 12, 34% of American boys have started drinking. By age 13 one in four will have tried drugs. The documentary notes that this is often instigated by both alienation from self and others and the uninhibited freedom which goes hand in hand with drinking to excess and drug taking. The commentators note that the louder and more rebellious a boy can get, the more likely it is that he is exhibiting hallmarks of depression. However, the documentary also notes that the way we define depression means its signs are often missed in adolescent boys. Depression gets defined with reference to withdrawal, quiet behaviour and disassociation. The Mask You Live In challenges us to look at depression differently, noting that as a result of these pressures to perform at a level of hyper masculinity and dominance, depression in male adolescents often exhibits itself differently. 'Acting out’ and engaging in louder, more violent behaviour can all be hallmarks of depression which is commonly misdiagnosed as conduct disorder.
As well as considering mental health consequences of hyper masculinity, the documentary also considers the role models in boys lives. We say gender is constructed by society, but who teaches these lessons? The importance of the coach in American schools and colleges is emphasised, together with the continued pressure on boys to be good at sports. There's a tension between the good coach and the bad coach with the suggestion being that a number of the lessons learned on the sports field, in the locker rooms and so on, play into these harmful notions of toxic masculinity. The documentary shows snippets of news stories from college team mates assaulting other team mates to sexual assault perpetrated by athletes. Whilst acknowledging that a coach can be incredibly influential if they specifically teach and model the broad range of qualities we want to instill in our young men, the documentary refutes the idea that ‘sport builds character and calls for a shift in the kind of homophobic, sexist dialogue which still persists on the sports field.
The portrayal of men in popular media and video games is explored, with image after image of the different models of masculinity shown to the viewer. Intimate male friendships are few and far between. They are more typically found in 'dude bro' culture of laddishness and beer swilling with the characters who have less hyper masculine hallmarks often asserting their masculinity through excessive alcohol consumption or degrading women.
Of course, it is not just boys being harmed by the way society constructs its boxes of 'man' and 'woman'. While the hallmarks of femininity themselves are limiting and marginalising for women, women are also exposed to increased violence as a direct result of teaching that 'boys will be boys'. Rape culture is discussed in the documentary, together with the role porn plays in teaching young boys about sex. 93% of boys in America are exposed to internet porn and commentators note that although a boy might find porn because they're looking for sex, more often than not what they actually find is “normalised brutality.” From a young age boys learn to behave in a way which dehumanises girls and society constructs lenses of masculinity through which men are taught to view the world. The consequences are appalling. Every 9 seconds a woman is beaten or assaulted. 1 in 5 women attending college in America can expect to be sexually assaulted. The levels of domestic violence in America is rising to "epidemic" levels.
I have long resisted binary notions of gender and the idea that girls and boys are ‘wired differently’. Gender is, after all, something socially construed, the stereotypes of masculine and feminine making their mark from the moment we open our eyes to the world. These gendered influences are everywhere and they can be both harmful and limiting. The Mask You Live In was a thought-provoking documentary which looks at some of the issues which come from thinking of gender in pre-ordained, binary terms.