PARK CITY, Utah — Early on in the documentary The Mask You Live In, which premiered Jan. 23 at the Sundance Film Festival, the idiom "be a man" is identified as one of the most destructive phrases in the English language. That might be shocking to those who believe in adhering to traditional gender roles and the need for boys to learn about masculinity at a young age, but the documentary uses psychologists, coaches, and men of all ages to demonstrate the damage American culture's rigid definition of masculinity has had on society.
It's a subject close to writer-director Jennifer Siebel Newsom's heart. After making her 2011 documentary Miss Representation, which focused on the negative portrayal of women in the media, Siebel Newsom founded an organization called The Representation Project. In the course of the organization's research, Siebel Newsom and her team found startling statistics that indicated that the problems young women face start — and could perhaps end — with young men. It's that notion that prompted The Mask You Live In.
Joined by her husband Gavin Newsom, lieutenant governor of California, Siebel Newsom sat down for an interview with BuzzFeed News to discuss tackling a subject as broad as masculinity — and the controversy involved in challenging long-standing cultural norms.
Where do you even begin with a topic as huge as masculinity?
Jennifer Siebel Newsom: We really started with the research and trying to comprehend and understand, Is there really a boy crisis going on? And when you compare boys to girls, boys are more likely to drop out of school, be prescribed prescription meds, binge drink, commit a violent crime, and/or take their own lives. And when you hear those statistics you go, Oh my gosh, it's not just that our girls and women are suffering, but our boys and young men as well. And so, that sort of spurred further investigation with thought leaders in the different areas that affect boys' lives — not only looking at sociologists and psychologists, but then going into the education system and understanding what's going on with boys there, and also looking at sports culture and media culture. So that's kind of the process.
When you were making the film, did you see it as being controversial? To some people, surely, the idea that the phrase "man up" is damaging might be harder to understand.
JSN: I believe that it will make some men uncomfortable and some women uncomfortable, because many of us have been taught our gender roles. Because they're so ingrained in us, we assume they're biology, and we don't understand epigenetics and we don't understand socialization, and it's much easier to bifurcate gender the way we have done. It's almost easier and safer for a lot of people. So I definitely think there are going to be people who are uncomfortable. But I try to make films, or at least this film, tonality-wise, a bit more gentle. I like to bring the viewer in.
I'll just bring my husband in here. We had so many focus groups and test screenings early on because it was critical that we brought men who weren't necessarily aware of gender being a social construct or even aware of their hypermasculine or machismo attitudes or behaviors. We wanted them to be compelled to see the film and we wanted to draw them in. [Gavin] was the one who was like, in the very beginning, with earlier openings, providing really helpful feedback saying, "You cannot open with that scene," or "You cannot open with that character." Finally, I feel like opening with Joe Ehrmann, the former NFL star who also coaches boys, it just felt like that was the right way to make the film more palatable for the majority of Americans.
Obviously, Gavin, you're coming at this from a different perspective as a man, even if you are aware of the ideas and themes of the film. What kind of input did you have?
Gavin Newsom: Every week that she was in the process of doing this, there's a new report on college campus sexual assault. Every week there was something going on, particularly near the end, the critical editing period, in the NFL, from Ray Rice to Adrian Peterson, to everything that was going on even in our town with Ray McDonald. And then, of course, when we had that kid from Santa Barbara [Elliot Rodger] who did that video that's in the film. So we've gotta go there, we've gotta go here, we've gotta go here. Violence, social isolation, all these things. Taking on the gun violence without ever bringing up the NRA, which was interesting, taking on some of our core constructs around the idea that we never talk about gender in the context of gun violence. I loved all that. The art of all this was creating a compelling narrative that connects those dots. I think she did.
But Jen's point about getting Joe Ehrmann, I just thought it was important. I don't know. Maybe it's the guy thing. She had these other characters that started, but I wanted something that was gonna get the person in the Midwest, that was gonna get someone off the Coast, and get someone that's always believed that "man up" is a good thing, and be able to capture that voice. And I thought Joe was the one guy who could do that — literally, his voice and his example, his history in the NFL, all of that. If there's any contribution, I hope it was that. Otherwise, I was useless in the process.
Jennifer, you draw a clear line from our cultural fixation on masculinity to misogyny and homophobia. Why was it so important to you to show that influence?
JSN: Because they're all related and interconnected. Every film that I get behind — because I'm also an executive producer on The Hunting Ground and I was an executive producer on The Invisible War — they're all interrelated. Just looking at the feminine and the masculine, it's about the fact that we so have been taught, not just young men but young women, to devalue the feminine, not just in others but in ourselves. And so, it was so important for me to call that out in a way that people could hear and that was so applicable to so many young boys and men who are struggling and suffering because they're gay or just more earnest.
So many young men, even if they're not gay, they're bullied because they're earnest and that's associated with femininity. At the end of the day, we've put young boys and men in a straightjacket, forcing them to conform to a construct and disconnect from who they really are so as not to be alienated or isolated or ostracized. And ultimately, what happens in the process is, by disconnecting from themselves, they are isolating themselves and contributing to a life that is lonely and depressing. You had to look at both sides of the coin and really, it all comes down to how we've been taught at such an early age to devalue the feminine. One wonders why we have the culture we have? Well, there you go.
As a woman talking about feminism, have you gotten a lot of vitriol?
JSN: The one thing that I think we as an organization [The Representation Project] have done pretty well, I think we try to come from a place of curiosity and, yes, we have conviction, but curiosity and compassion, and we try to deliver with facts. We love men, just as we love women, so it's really about, How can we make a better society? How can we create a healthier society? How can we make life easier for people? How can we help people to stay true to themselves and fulfill their human potential?
GN: I remember early on with Miss Representation, you got that [criticism] all the time.
JSN: Well, you get snide remarks here and there. We did have someone say the other day, "Why aren't there any male EPs on the film?" And I said, "Oh, so we were gonna wait around to make the film until a male decided to invest $100,000 in the film?"
GN: Someone really said that?
JSN: Yes! A male donor, who had the capacity to invest in the film. But I share that just because really, you can't wait around for people to give you permission to tell a story that's important.
There are some great discussions in the film about the way that race informs varying perceptions of masculinity. That's not usually part of this conversation.
JSN: It's critical because we live in a melting pot and we live in interracial communities. This is just the beginning of us unveiling that conversation, but the intersectionality of gender, race, and class so contributes to who we are and how we think about ourselves and how we perceive others. And I think, as a culture, we have to have those larger conversations and recognize that people come from different places, have different circumstances, have different opportunities in life, have different situations, and we all have to have a lot more empathy as well.
The boys at Fremont High in Oakland, who are struggling because, in the case of a few that we interviewed, fathers are in and out of jail, a father just died, mother's on crack cocaine, they're having very different circumstances and are being fed a slightly more extreme notion of hypermasculinity than, say, this kid over here. However, this kid over here is playing those violent video games and watching hardcore porn, and he's developing his own misogynistic tendencies. So they're all being fed some notion of what it is to be a man, and again, it's a scale, but it's not a healthy scale.
Gavin, how do the messages in this film impact your politics?
GN: I think this is profound. You think of everything we're trying to fix, societal ills, violence against women, all these issues that we're just bringing up, there's one common denominator: men. We tend to focus on what's happening, the "what" and sometimes the "how," but not the "why." So this is the "why" film. We haven't had this conversation, this discussion. And it's profound in every respect.
I'm already trying to incorporate this into everything I'm framing from a public policy perspective, including just last week at Cal Berkeley, talking about athletes and scholarships and academic incentives versus athletic incentives, and again, this whole notion of hypermasculinity. Just using this language, everyone's looking at me like, What the hell is going on? He's spending too much time with his wife, which would be a good thing for all of them, anyway. I don't have a very cogent response to your question except to say that this is deep, and I think it's fabulous we're talking about everything that's going on with women and women's rights, but let's get underneath the why women are making 77%, let's get underneath why women are portrayed in media a certain way, because the number of men on these boards, the number of men behind the cameras, the number of men writing these screenplays, the number of men who are perpetuating these stereotypes —
JSN: Because men hold the purse strings too. And the question you asked earlier, why delve deep into the misogyny and the homophobia, it's because there is so much pain and suffering in the world, and I don't want people to suffer. Miss Rep for me was, I didn't want young girls to suffer the way I did. If I could create a healthier culture for future generations, that's so important to me. We have a son, and I don't want him to suffer and be in pain and feel alienated or isolated or ostracized because he's different, because he just wants to stay true to himself — he doesn't want to conform, he doesn't want to be a misogynist, he's a creative soul, whatever he is. Nor do I want him to be part of the problem, and that peer pressure is really, really toxic.
Do you think we can ever truly get away from this widespread fear that we're becoming too feminine as a culture, that we're not separating the genders enough? It's a very old-fashioned notion that somehow still persists.
JSN: I think every person that's afraid of it is afraid of themselves, and clearly, they're hiding something. This film hopefully can encourage them to kind of go inward and do some inner work. Anyone that's like that, to me, they're obviously wearing a mask and that's gotta be exhausting. Hopefully the film will help them to go inside, take off the mask, look beyond the mask, and do some real soul-searching.
The most beautiful thing for me — because I like emotion and I want to encourage obviously that emotion in films — is so many adult men who are sobbing during the film. And it's because of their relationship with their own father, or it's their relationship with their son, or it's something that happened to them growing up. And so many young men have come up to me after screenings, I would say men in their early twenties, who are like, This film shattered me, this film transformed me, I completely feel like there's this whole new world out there. And that to me is like, OK, we've done our job. We're making an impact and we're helping people. I want to move them, I want to educate them, but I want to help them.
This interview has been edited and condensed.