It was gratifying to be part of an audience of more than a hundred committed and concerned people who showed up for last Friday’s screening of The Mask You Live In, a film about the stereotypes of masculinity in our society that denies boys the full range of emotional human expression – and the sad consequences that result by director Jennifer Siebel Newsom.
Cultural messages both direct and subliminal bombard boys from a young age to “man up”, not be a sissy, not cry, not touch each other and more – effectively cutting them off from their emotional side and denying them the full range of human expression so vital to individual and community health.
As our society increasingly divides us along gender lines with images and stereotypes of hyper-masculinity and hyper-femininity, there is less and less room for individual expression of the more than 90% of characteristics that boys and girls are said to share. At the risk of being labeled weak and effeminate, society and then peer groups of boys themselves pressure each other to fit into the “right” stereotype.
And that means being competitive instead of cooperative, being good at physical activities and sports, making lots of money, and having lots of sex without emotional attachment. Furthermore, boys are taught to solve any pain instead of exploring it and quickly learn to conceal or downplay the fact that they’re sad, angry, or scared to avoid being isolated and excluded from their peer group.
Sadly the result is a lot of unhappy boys and men and high rates of substance abuse, violence, and suicide.
More than 25% of boys in the U.S. are bullied in school – a phenomenon that happens early – as early as preschool. One study showed that within 3 months of starting preschool, many children see the members of the opposite sex and the characteristics they express as distasteful and something to avoid in themselves and are already restricting their behaviour to fit the appropriate stereotype.
As boys grow older and become more withdrawn emotionally they are more liable to hit a point where they have so much internal pain yet don’t feel they have anyone they can talk to. At this point, many turn to drugs and alcohol, and in the worst cases, to suicide.
Stats show that by the age of twelve, 34% of boys are drinking and using drugs. A quarter of them are binge drinking to blot out their pain and loneliness. And everyday, more than three boys in the US. kill themselves – a rate that’s even higher among gay youth – and five times the rate of girls.
One of the experts interviewed in the film did say there is some light at the end of the tunnel. More boys are benefitting from men in their lives who show their emotions, hug and care for them, and all in all, give them healthier emotional role models to emulate. But he also said that there is still a long way to go before we are serving our boys’ emotional needs and that too many boys still yearn for guidance and leadership from the men in their lives.
Following the film, there was a panel discussion led by local experts and others involved with these issues. I will let you know about this in my next post.
This film was a production of the Miss Representation Project – a movement that uses film and media to expose the injustices of gender stereotypes. It was brought to Unity on Oak Street in Vancouver by Loren Spagnuolo who may host another screening. I’ll keep you posted.