The Mask You Live In: Men and Masculinity

“Be a man.” According to NFL coach and motivational speaker Joe Ehrmann, these are the three most destructive words so deeply ingrained in our American culture today. He was featured in the film The Mask You Live In, screened by the Women’s & Gender Resource Center on Thursday, September 20. It is also available on Netflix for those who could not attend the screening. The documentary shows how our culture perpetuates harmful and aggressive ideas of masculinity that shape men to live in a mask for their whole lives.

Boys and men in America live behind a mask of anger and confidence that conceals true emotions that we as a society have told them they cannot express. The psychologists, activists, and educators who were interviewed in the film all agreed that we’ve taught men that they can’t do feminine things. But we, as a society, have certain things feminine. Playing with dolls, for instance, is not inherently feminine. Anything connected with femininity or females is something even young boys learn to shun by an age as young as 5. One interviewee said that you can start a fight between boys on the playground so easily just by asking one question: who is the sissy of the group? He explained that any answer leads to trouble: either the boys start fighting amongst themselves over who is the most “girly” or they all point to one kid who everyone considers to be “sissy.” Also at these young ages, our society teaches boys that it’s never okay to cry, and that it’s not appropriate for them to show any emotions in public besides anger.

The men we teach our young boys to idolize—after we teach them that it’s not okay to show emotions—are aggressive sports players, men who game the financial system, and any man who has sex with the most girls. The media’s role in perpetuating these stereotypes can’t be overstated. The messages and stereotypes filter through popular movies, TV, music videos, video games, even the news. The film provided many statistics about how many hours young boys and men spend watching TV and playing video games; during all of those hours, image after image of aggressive men and sexualized women are filtering through young boys’ brains. Eventually they learn to emulate that, or at the very least believe that’s what a “real man” acts like. By the time boys get to college, some engage in excessive drinking and/or drugs as a way to cope with the emotions they aren’t allowed to express. As the documentary stated, drugs and drinking are a way to relax the tight rules of “being a man,” a way to relax the mask that they wear all the time. All of the stereotypes involve rejecting the feminine—men are taught that as long as they aren’t “girly” in any way, then they’re still one of the guys.

So what does this teach young boys about girls? It teaches them that girls are overly-emotional and incompetent and are objects that exist to please men. This, in turn, leads to increased violence against women, because men grow up learning that women are not fully human. Thus, the violence becomes justified. So, in order to solve the problem, we need to change the way we teach young boys about themselves, about gender, and about how to treat people equally. We can’t attain gender equity in the U.S. without realizing how the problems hostile masculinity causes affect both men and women. If you’re interested in The Mask You Live In’s counterpart, Miss Representation, check it out on the Dickinson Kanopy streaming website:

Written by Angelica Mishra ’19, WGRC student worker and Vice President of the Dickinson College AAUW chapter
September 30, 2018