Festival Recap: How to “Be a Man”

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August 23, 2017 | 1:37 pm by Mandar Apte

By Sarah Krauss

The Media Rise Festival presented its second day of events featuring a screening of “The Mask You Live In,” the new acclaimed documentary from director Jennifer Siebel Newsom. Despite the pouring rain, dozens of media professionals and social activists gathered in the Pearl Bailey Room of Busboys and Poets in Brookland for good food, film and spirited discussion.

“The Mask You Live In” examines America’s definition of masculinity and the struggles young men face as they attempt to fit its narrow confines. The film interviews educators, psychologists, neuroscientists, community organizers and a diverse range of young men, all of whom come to the same conclusion: representations of masculinity in America are failing our boys.

The film posits that young men are inundated by media messages that promote a dangerous “hyper-masculinity.” From an early age, boys are taught to emulate aggressive, often emotionless, men who objectify women and are financially successful. Qualities seen as feminine, including emotional sensitivity, intimacy and artistic creativity, are discouraged.

Viewers learn the damaging effects that this type of performed masculinity can have on young boys. As boys don their “mask” of masculinity, many aspects of their true nature are suppressed, and the pressure to meet these expectations becomes overwhelming.

The young men featured in the film share their struggles growing up with stereotypes of manhood that did not feel authentic to their experiences. This kind of stress produces grim results. Newsom correlates hyper-masculine narratives to high instances bullying, violence, sexual misconduct, isolation and suicide among young men.

The film points a damning finger at the media for promoting these stereotypes. Viewers are confronted with clips from popular and recognizable media sources guilty of reinforcing these rigid gender roles: everything from popular movie franchises to network sitcoms, Top 40 hits, video games, the NFL and commercial advertising. The problem is systemic and pervasive, as Newsom explores in her film.

Drawing laughs, sighs, and even a few tears, the film clearly struck a chord with many festival attendees who are at the forefront of media creation and social justice. In a post-film discussion, guests lamented the overall impression that American media sells to young boys.

“If you were an alien,” moderator Marc Carr asked, “and all you saw of our culture was 24 hours of American media, what would be your perception of the American Male?”

The answers varied, but the words “violent,” “macho,” “thug” and “Trump” were used several times.

To learn more about the film and its educational resources, visit The Representation Project.

This film was showcased as part of the Gender & Sexuality track of the 3rd annual Media Rise Festival, with support from the D.C. Office of Motion Picture and Television Development.