Documentary unmasks male stereotypes

On Tuesday, Oct. 6, students gathered in Tomson 280 for a screening of “The Mask You Live In”, a documentary about harmful conceptions of masculinity in the media. The Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, St. Olaf Democrats, the Sexual Assault Resource Network (SARN) and Feminists for Social Change all co-sponsored the event. Created by the team that produced “MissRepresentation,” a film that considers similar issues about conceptions of femininity, “The Mask You Live In” blends the personal and professional in its exploration of what boyhood is and how we talk about it in modern-day culture.

Beginning with a series of newsreel clips, the film quickly establishes a personal tone in how it addresses the exceedingly broad concept of American masculinity. “The Mask You Live In” is somewhat unique in this respect. One of a few films of its kind, the documentary lends itself to comparison with “Tough Guise,” another non-fiction work that focuses on the same topic. However, while “Tough Guise” and other documentary works of its kind focus on the academic aspects of gender theory, “The Mask You Live In” roots itself in the individual stories of boys and men struggling to express a concept both intimate and alien. The stories that these men tell, stories of isolation, insecurity and fear provide the bedrock for the film’s emotional credibility.

The most poignant of these stories do not come from the psychological experts or cultural critics, but from the single fathers, the teachers, the football coaches and the men imprisoned for violent crimes. These men speak from what are traditionally considered to be the bastions of masculinity, but the stories that they tell drastically diverge from these traditions. The father talks about his fear, the coach about the irrelevance of competition and the prisoner about the empty nature of his crime. These figures, so supported by the conventional understanding of masculinity, undercut these conventions with a powerful display of honest vulnerability.

The documentary also includes expert testimony from academics such as Michael Kimmel, scholars such as Philip G. Zimbardo of the Stanford Prison Experiment and other influential experts such as Joe Ehrmann, founder of Coach for America. These expert testimonies not only provide analysis about representations of masculinity in the media but also support the sentiments expressed in the anecdotes. Because the scholars come from a variety of academic disciplines, they provide a well-rounded, scholarly critique of modern masculine stereotypes, the pressures boys and men face to fulfill these stereotypes and the prominence of gender performance in American culture.

While “The Mask You Live In” features interviews with boys, parents, academics and other experts in the field of gender studies, it also focuses heavily on statistics. In the discussion that followed the event, some students found the quantitative evidence useful to conceptualize the scope of the social issue, while others found that the approach – as feminist scholar Audre Lorde would say – used the “master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.” Using statistics (which have traditionally been a patriarchal tool) to reimagine masculinity silences the individual stories of those whom the numbers represent. The statistics never cite sample sizes, populations or the methodology behind their construction. Although concrete numbers provide powerful statements about the quantity of men who have experienced trauma from contemporary conceptions of masculinity, they undercut the humanization of the individual the testimonies had created.

The event was open to the public, and students, faculty and community members comfortably filled the theater, despite the relative lack of advertising. No poster campaign preceded this event; instead, all publicity came from word-of-mouth and a series of emails. Approximately half of the attendees were males, a notable statistic in its own right.

“The Mask You Live In,” a film that has been lauded as a gender critique about men and for men, attracted a wider range of students than many other events hosted by organizations concerned with gender and sexuality over the past few years. The film lasted approximately 97 minutes, and a brief discussion followed. Professor of English Rebecca Richards facilitated the conversation in which students and faculty critiqued the film’s social implincations, bringing the documentary into a relationship with St. Olaf campus culture.