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The toxic pressure to be masculine

By in Culture


The Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for The Mask You Live In.
The Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for The Mask You Live In.

VANCOUVER (CUP) — Director and filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom sees a “boy crisis” happening and, as the mother of a young boy, it concerns her.

She introduced her concerns in a five-minute trailer for her upcoming kickstarted film, The Mask You Live In,  by saying she is increasingly sensitive to the extremes of masculinity that will soon be imposed on her own son.

“Who will he become as an adult man? A sensitive, caring and compassionate human being or a depressed, lonely and disconnected portrayal of masculinity, limited by cultural stereotypes?” she said.

Newsom is the director of the acclaimed documentary Miss Representation, which sheds light on the harmful ways in which the media portrays — or erases — women and their experiences.

What words do we normally associate with masculinity? Tough, strong, stoic, a leader who never cries and is able to “man up.”  Men and boys who don’t follow these stereotypes are mocked and ridiculed, labelled with feminine terms like “pussy”. The gender binary of male/female and the idea that men are tough and women are weak are concepts that are harmful to everyone — to boys and girls and to men and women.

To gather information for her documentary, Siebel Newsom reached out to sociologists and psychologists as well as boys and youth in American schools.

“Our kids get up every morning; they have to prepare their mask for how they’re going to walk to get to school. Hopefully they can take the mask off so they can focus on learning,” youth worker Ashanti Branch says in the trailer. “A lot of our students don’t know how to take it off. The mask sticks with them all the time.”

Reaching out to people in your community is an important first step to starting the discussion that college and university-aged people should already be having. This is a time in our lives when we are learning about ourselves and the way we present ourselves to the world.

Husain Vahanvaty is a Douglas College student seeking a degree in social work who is currently working with at-risk youth. He says that in his experience with youth, he has noticed the effects of masculinity.

“You can’t really be sad about your situation, you can’t be upset that you’re given a shitty lot in life,” he explains. “You have to be angry about it, you have to hustle, you have to deal drugs, you have to go get into fights [and] you have to do a lot of drinking.”

But Vahanvaty says that the documentary trailer fails to point out class intersectionality, which is a criticism shared by Vancouver resident and activist David Miller. “A key point in the film is the experience of urban African-American youth who are asked what they hide. They mostly say it’s anger,” Miller said. “I obviously can’t speak for their experience, but I’m sure it is not just the performance of [the] masculine stereotype which serves patriarchy. What about class? What about racism? What about capitalism? What about the education system which attempts to mould them?”

In a society that is deeply stratified by gender and race, it isn’t useful to look at such things in a vacuum.

“Sure, it’s good to focus on one aspect. But if you want to get to the root you need to look at all aspects of the forces that shape and determine us without our consent,” Miller said while also noting that the documentary doesn’t mention the patriarchy, which he describes as “a system of power and domination that for some reason we don’t want to acknowledge.” He implies that the absence of patriarchy might make the documentary more palatable to a wide audience.

Vahanvaty mentions patriarchy, but not by name. He notes the challenges of the quest set out in the documentary. “You’re working against thousands of years of culture,” he said. True, for thousands of years, women were systemically subjugated by men. Structurally, things are becoming more equal, but in terms of our socialization, there is still room for improvement. By divorcing the idea of toxic masculinity from the systems of oppression which uphold it, Newsom does her cause a disservice.

The type of assault on masculinity that Newsom brings to light in The Mask You Live In is a product of the patriarchal system under which we have all been raised. The fact that young boys are raised to play with trucks and girls are raised to play with dolls does not mean that men innately want to drive big machines and that women are innate caregivers; both sides of the gender binary have an equal capacity to want both things.

Miller notes that harmful ideas about masculinity are ingrained in this system.  “You can’t separate masculinity from patriarchy, so in order to end the latter you must destroy the former,” he says.

Madison Paradis-Woodman, Douglas Students’ Union College Relations Coordinator, agrees that the strict adherence to gender binary is harmful.

“I believe we are doing a disservice to boys by pressuring them to blindly adopt blanket masculinity at face value,” Paradis-Woodman said, adding that the statistics in the documentary trailer — such as that boys under the age of 17 drink more than any other demographic — do not surprise him.

“We teach at a young age that expressing feminine emotions is inappropriate,” he says. “I believe that to facilitate men opening up more, we need to redefine what it means to be a man and express masculinity.”

He suggests some beneficial structural changes, such as media initiatives to rebrand masculinity to be more human and compassionate, and a national campaign educating youth.

Paradis-Woodman thinks the documentary is a step in the right direction, and that screening it on campuses would be a good idea.

“This documentary would spark a fulsome discussion around gender and expression, and it would also be informative and engaging,” he said.

It should be the responsibility of the academic cohort within colleges and universities to spearhead discussions on gender expectations. These discussions should be inclusive; there should be spaces made in which men can feel comfortable expressing feminine-associated emotions.

Photo: OG Jennifer Siebel Newsom

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