Are school shooters and mass murderers born out of an aggressive emphasis on masculinity in our society? The trailer for filmmaker and feminist activist Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s new documentary, The Mask You Live In, would have us think so.
The recently released trailer has attracted 1 million views on YouTube. It argues that American boys are captive to a rigid and harmful social code of masculinity. From the earliest age, they are told to “Be a man!” “Don’t cry!” “Stop with the emotion!” and “Man up!” This “guy code” suppresses their humanity, excites their drive for dominance and renders many of them dangerous. The trailer features adolescent men describing their isolation, despair and thoughts of suicide, artfully interspersed with terrifying images of school shooters and mass murderers.
I admire Newsom for using her considerable talent to advocate for boys. But I worry that she is less concerned with helping boys than with re-engineering their masculinity according to specifications from some out-of-date gender-studies textbook. The trailer is suffused with males-are-toxic ideology but shows little appreciation for how boys’ nature can be distinctively good. The Mask You Live In is scheduled to be released later this year. Let’s hope there is still time for edits.
Here are a few suggestions:
1. Recognize that masculinity is more than a “mask”
The title and content of the film suggest that masculinity is a cultural creation. That is only marginally true. A lot of typical boy behavior, such as rough-and-tumble play, risk taking and fascination with gadgets rather than dolls, appears to have a basis in biology. Researchers have found, for example, that female monkeys play with dolls much more than their brothers, who prefer toy cars and trucks. Are male monkeys captive to a “guy code”? A recent study on sex differences by researchers from the University of Turin, in Italy, and the University of Manchester, in England, confirms what most of us see with our eyes: with some exceptions, women tend to be more sensitive, esthetic, sentimental, intuitive and tender-minded, while men tend to be more utilitarian, objective, unsentimental and tough-minded. We do not yet fully understand the biological underpinnings of these universal tendencies, but that is no reason to deny they exist.
2. Appreciate the difference between healthy and pathological masculinity
Some boys are hypermasculine or pathologically masculine. They are bullies and worse, establishing their male bona fides through destruction, mayhem and preying on the weak and vulnerable. But most boys evince healthy masculinity. They may enjoy mayhem in games and sports, but in life they like to build, not destroy. Their instinct is not to exploit vulnerable people but to protect and defend them. Of course, all boys need guidance and discipline from the adults in their lives. I agree with Newsom that telling a boy to “man up” can be harsh and degrading. But teaching him to “be a gentleman” is another matter. It’s a tried-and-true way to bring out the best in males.
3. Acknowledge the virtue of male reserve
Newsom’s film tells us that boys in our society don’t feel safe talking about emotions and personal struggles. To do so violates the boy code and subjects them to shame and ridicule. The driving message of Newsom’s film is that we must free our young men to become emotionally expressive. Of course, parents should do all they can to improve their sons’ emotional literacy. But parents (as well as wives and girlfriends) should keep in mind that male reticence has its advantages.
A 2012 a study surveyed and observed nearly 2,000 children and adolescents and found that boys and girls have very different expectations about the value of problem talk. Girls were more likely to report that personal disclosure made them feel cared for and understood. Boys, overall, found it to be a tedious waste of time — and “weird.” Contrary to what we learn from Newsom’s film, boys did not find personal disclosure embarrassing or unmasculine. According to the study’s author, Amanda Rose: “Boys’ responses suggest they just don’t see talking about problems to be a particularly useful activity” (emphasis added).
But in girls, excessive problem talk is in fact linked to anxiety and depression. Male stoicism may be adaptive and protective. If you want a boy to be more forthcoming, Rose has good advice for parents and counselors: “You will have to persuade him that it serves a practical purpose.” Engage his male instinct for problem solving.
4. Make clear that most boys are psychologically sound and resilient
The Mask You Live In gives the impression that the average adolescent boy is severely depressed. In fact, clinical depression is rare among boys. (National Institute of Mental Health data show that the prevalence of depression among among 13- to 17-year-old boys is 4.3%; among girls of the same age group, it is 12.4%.)
Newsom’s film reports that every day in the U.S. three or more boys take their own lives. Suicide is, indeed, primarily a male disease. Among 10- to 24-year-olds, 81% of suicide victims are male. In 2010, a total of 3,951 young men died by their own hands. Male suicide is a much neglected scourge, and Newsom’s efforts to raise awareness are admirable. Still, in a nation of nearly 33 million boys, that means that the percentage of boys who commit suicide is close to 0.01%. Each of these deaths is a tragedy. But it helps no one to pretend that suicide is typical male behavior.
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) does appear to be an epidemic among boys, but the implications of that are ambiguous. It could be that as a society, we are pathologizing age-old male rambunctiousness. Some experts have suggested that ADHD would be significantly reduced if we allowed boys more unstructured recess and occasions for spirited rough-and-tumble play. Yet, in Newsom’s documentary, scenes of boys engaging in mock fisticuffs, playfully head-butting and chasing one another around the playground are offered as evidence of how young males are driven to “prove” their aggressive masculinity.
5. Include specific ideas on how to help boys with depression or thoughts of suicide
Some of the most promising, innovative ideas are coming out of Australia. In 2006, a report in the Medical Journal of Australia argued for a paradigm shift in the nation’s mental-health system. Rather than blaming “masculinity” or trying to “re-educate” men away from their reluctance to seek help, the author asks, “Why not provide health services that better meet the needs of men?”
The Australians are now developing male-specific mental-health protocols. A 2012 Australian study, for example, found that large majorities of young men associate the term mental health with insanity and straightjackets. Mental fitness seems to go over better with men. The Australians recently launched a mental-fitness app for guys. The focus is on acquiring “skills,” developing “strengths” and achieving “self-mastery.” But doesn’t that reinforce traditional narratives of masculinity? It certainly does — that’s the point, and the key to its promise.
The energy, competitiveness and corporal daring of normal males are responsible for much good in the world. No one denies that boys’ aggressive and risk-taking tendencies must be socialized and channeled toward constructive ends. But the de–Tom Sawyering of the American boy should not be anyone’s agenda. I am sure it is not Newsom’s. Yet her film in progress suggests otherwise.