The Mask You Live In is an important and accessible documentary. It has educators, psychologists, sociologists, paediatricians as well as political scientists and sports coaches, talking about their experiences as well as what they have learnt about young men and our culture of telling them in very strict terms, what it is to be a man.
This film looks at boys in pre-school, and how from a very early age they find themselves having set rules to follow that are laid out by their classmates. These rules can be “be mean”, “don’t talk to the girls” and if they don’t follow these rules they’ll be pushed out and ignored by their peers. It shows how from a very young age boys are aware of what it is to be a boy and how one of those big “rules” is to not cry or show any emotion besides anger. It becomes clear that not allowing boys and young men to show emotion and telling them to “man up” can be very dangerous – to the boys and their mental health, as well as it leading to substance abuse and violence.
The Mask You Live In examines cultural influences like violent video games as well as films. More often than not the male hero of a film is the strong, silent type who’s always in control, may have a lot of money and he is probably also a character that commits some acts of violence. This is the standard that boys look up to and it’s near-unachievable without the boys losing a part of themselves, or burring they’re emotions. Then there’s the fact that there’s so many depictions of thugs and gangs that are predominantly men of colour, leading these young men to have few positive role models in media.
There are so many great speakers in this film. My favourites were Joe Herman, a Coach and Former NLF Player, who talks about what an important and defining role a coach can have in young men’s lives, especially when they may not have a great male role model at home, and Ashanti Branch, an educator and Youth Advocate who works with boys to try and get them to express themselves and give them a safe space to do so.
Not only are there the professional speakers but there’s interviews with men of all ages from under ten to adulthood, relaying their experiences, who they found to look up to and how they decided what “being a man” means to them – even if it doesn’t fit into the expectations of society or even their family and peers.
The Mask You Live In can be upsetting, shocking and uncomfortable viewing at times, especially as it highlights so much of our everyday language that can have a negative affect on boys and young men. It looks at how young men can feel entitled to success, wealth and women as that’s what is shown in popular culture to be the positive qualities of “being a man”, and how that entitlement can lead to violence and perpetuating rape culture.
The Mask You Live In is more American focused, and that’s especially clear with its statistics to do with gun violence, but what it has to say about society and the media and rape culture and how it all affects boys from a young age is universal. The Mask You Live In is an important documentary that doesn’t necessarily offer a complete set of concrete solutions to society’s narrow definition of masculinity, but it does offer guidance and advice and by pointing out society’s failings when it comes to boys. It allows us to be more educated going forward and helping young men become more comfortable in their own skin. 5/5.