Review: ‘The Mask You Live In’ provides thought-provoking stories and iffy claims

The organization behind the film “The Mask You Live In” also produced another film “Miss Representation” about representation of young girls. (Courtesy of The Representation Project)

Filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s 2015 documentary, “The Mask You Live In,” is a provocative assessment of the narrow definition of masculinity in the U.S. The film features discussions by social scientists, psychologists and educators about how masculinity in American culture is defined by physical strength, sexual dominance and economic success. Experts assert that these potentially toxic norms have dire consequences and are perpetuated by violent video games, pornography and sports.

The University of Oregon Counseling Center’s Be Well program screened the film in the Erb Memorial Union on Wednesday, Nov. 1. The screening marked the beginning of “Movember” events, which focus on men’s health education for UO students.

But the film loses credibility by suggesting that American society’s perception of masculinity is the root cause of some of the worst mental health and violence issues in the U.S. The film implies causality without adequate, research-based substantiation.

Throughout the film, viewers hear a deluge of alarming statistics surrounding the topic of masculinity. Boys are four times more likely to be expelled from school. They are three times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for young men.

These statistics are certainly dismaying, but the film doesn’t adequately put them in context, and sometimes they are detached from the moment in the film in which they are placed. The documentary also displays them without citations. Citations are available for some — though not all — of the statistics on the website of the nonprofit that produced the film, The Representation Project.

The most salient parts of the film are those that show activists’ work in California schools and prisons. The activists encourage young men and inmates to reflect on the role ideas about masculinity plays in their lives. Participants build emotional support systems in ways that typical masculinity would prevent. The film proposes we desperately need more of in this kind of reflection in America.

One particularly captivating moment of the film focuses on the work of the Oakland-based educator Ashanti Branch, who founded a youth-advocacy group called The Ever Forward Club. The group supports young, vulnerable African-American and Latino boys by helping them reshape their ideas about masculinity.

In the film, Branch gives paper masks to a group of his boys and asks them to write on the front words that represent the image of themselves they think they need to display every day. The boys write words like “cool” and “funny.”

On the back of the mask, the boys write feelings they are pressured to hide. Almost all of the boys write words like “anger” and “pain.” After the activity, with some boys teary-eyed, Branch tells them about the value of simply being able to ask another male friend, “What’s up with you man? How are you doing? How can I support you?”

The feature-length documentary is now available to watch on Netflix

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