The documentary “The Mask You Live In” explores how the unhealthy way we raise boys in our culture to the detriment of themselves, their relationships and the larger society.
Emotional expression is suppressed through bullying and humiliation. They are shamed or ostracized for crying, showing fear or emotional pain. Showing emotion is labeled and discounted as being for girls and label such as “being a little girl” are often coupled with “be a man”.
The movie begins by showing us a rapidly changing montage of boys faces while the voice over speaks those put downs that are used to control them. An ex- professional football player and coach says that the three most destructive words in the English language are “be a man.” And by using that expression boys are shamed into silence and emotional disconnection from themselves and others.
They are forced to live behind a mask they cannot remove and where they live isolated from themselves, others and their feelings. That disconnection leads to higher rates of depression and five times the suicide rate by boys. Deprived of their emotional feeling language they are lost and ashamed when they realize they need help. This cycle of pain and isolation can end with the already familiar statistics that almost all mass shooters are male.
With the mask on the goal is to present to the world that you are OK and don’t have any needs. When boys are asked: “How are you doing? Do you need help?” The reply is invariably, “I’m fine.”
Without the mentorship, guidance and leadership they need most boys are adrift in their own world and lack the ability to reach out. That same mask makes them look OK so that help is seldom offered and their depth of despair and hurt is unknown until it is acted out.
The film explores sexuality and how this same unhealthy man code teaches boys to always be on the prowl and to not see the humanity in the girls around them. Therefore, male violence towards women is at epic proportions. They are set up to reject whatever is seen as feminine in themselves and grow to disrespect women on a fundamental level and then we wonder why we have the culture that we have.
The film does not offer solutions or programs to engage that will solve this problem. Perhaps that is best as this is somethings that needs to be addressed on an individual level, a couple level and family level. One professional in the film notes that there are young fathers treating their pre- school age sons with tenderness and when asked about it said they are concerned about the loss of that tenderness in their boys as they grow. They know from their experience that that in time that innocence will be lost and their mask will be in place.
As we become more conscious of the impact of this unhealthy masculine more dads and moms teach their sons that it is OK to cry and that their pain can be met with understanding and comfort instead of discounting and shaming.
In the men’s group I lead the focus is on encouraging the men to be authentic in expressing their emotions and create real depth and vulnerability in their relationships. That means that each man is honest and says what he is feeling and struggling with in his life. There is a lot of emotional support inside the group and outside that provides a container for the feelings that need to be worked through.
As we shift to healthier ways of parenting boys they will find that they do not need to mask who they are and what they are feeling. And the benefit of this change to the larger culture will be immeasurable.
Towards the end of the film there is some brightness as one interviewee says, “Good men do exist. Men who are reliable, accountable and not obsessed with dominance, power or control. There are men of empathy and integrity that will go out and change the world.”