THE MASK YOU LIVE IN Review | Sundance 2015

     January 26, 2015

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I tend to ignore “Everything wrong with the world,” statements because they’re reductive.  They try to boil down the complexities of the modern civilization and humanity into one problem, and if we can just solve that problem, then we’ll all live in a society filled with sunshine and rainbows.  And while its observations and solutions may seem obvious and somewhat facile, Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s advocacy documentary The Mask You Live In still makes a strong case that the diseased root of our awful culture comes from our society promoting outdated and harmful notions of masculinity. The director tries to cover a lot of ground, and while that’s to the detriment of any specific argument, the overall picture depicts a culture that desperately needs to change.

Beginning with a conversation with a former NFL player who tells us that “Be a man,” is the one of the most destructive phrases to a young boy, The Mask You Live In builds an argument about how early development of certain attitudes in boys and negative reinforcement from authority figures and society have created men who are violent, callous, and self-destructive.  To build these arguments, the documentary talks to doctors, educators, parents, and men who once bought into society’s pre-conceived notions of masculinity only to later realize the harmful effects.  The documentary investigates many facets of American culture ranging from sports, the media, colleges, drinking, wealth, and more.  These institutions are an outgrowth of our demand that males be “tough.”

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Newsom recognizes that the positive emotions in men—particularly empathy—aren’t absent as much as they’ve been buried by a society that enforces the notion that strong men hide those emotions.  We’ve been taught that the best man is the strong, silent type rather than the man who’s willing to emote in a non-destructive way when he’s upset.  Everybody feels emotional pain (some of it caused by distant fathers who inherited the same negative values), but the ideal man is the one who never shows anguish and projects that he’s “just one of the guys” by always smiling and never questioning any negative masculine behavior.

For some audience members, many of the film’s arguments will seem obvious.  It’s good for men to be in touch with their emotions?  Yes, I know.  Fathers should be affectionate towards their sons?  Of course they should.  People who grow up in abusive households or without good role models will probably turn out poorly?  Not a controversial viewpoint.  Newsom provides statistics to back up her claims, but stats for a largely agreed-upon viewpoint are unnecessary.

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And as film fan, she somewhat undermines her argument by taking footage from movies out of context.  If you’re going to show your film to a bunch of people who watch movies for a living, you should probably know that showing a clip from ParaNorman isn’t a good example since the character being shown ultimately debunks a jock stereotype (and does so in a clever, surprising, and uplifting way).  When you show the clip from The Tree of Life where Brad Pitt’s character is encouraging his son to hit him and saying this is how media encourages kids to be tough, it’s because you’ve ignored that the movie is criticizing an outdated notion of masculinity.  If want to express the seriousness of your argument through popular media, you can’t be disingenuous with your examples no matter how minor they might be.

Assuming this movie can even keep all of its clips (I’m not sure how the movie will fall under Fair Use), the target audience probably won’t notice the inconsistencies.  The movie is best suited for parents and teachers, and should be required viewing in classrooms.  As something that will show in a theater, it will only play to the converted, and that’s a shame because perhaps there are people who won’t find the film’s points as obvious as I do.  This is a film that has to be brought to people who can learn something rather than play those who already believe in its viewpoint.

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I’ll admit that the movie raises a few ideas I hadn’t thought about such as “Aggravated Entitlement” and peer culture reinforcing negative concepts, and how exclusion is punishment for failing to follow social norms.  The documentary is fully behind the belief that we follow nurture more than nature, and while I can agree with that sentiment, I also can’t help but wonder how the talking heads would observe primate society or any animal group that has “alpha males”.  I assume this concept was ignored since the movie argues that rather than our biology informing society, our society has now changed our biology through constant stimuli (again, the movie covers a lot of ground although it largely avoids specific comparisons for how women process the same experiences).  If this is the case, and Internet pornography and violent media aren’t going away anytime soon, how is being nicer to boys going to change anything?

Like many advocacy documentaries, The Mask You Live In falls into the trap of spending the majority of its runtime pointing out a multitude of problems only to provide facile answers in the closing minutes.  Thing would be nicer if people were nice?  Well, yes, but that’s not going to happen, and I find it hard to swallow that the majority of American society’s ills (no other countries are mentioned) emanate from how boys are raised with negative values.  I absolutely agree that telling boys to bury their feelings is harmful, but is that the source of our social strife?  We certainly can’t ignore that the large majority of violent crimes are committed by men, but does this all come back to poor parenting and media stereotypes?

The Mask You Live In at least makes us consider the possibility that a large amount of major problems come from how we raise boys.  It’s professionally presented, compassionate, confident, and I’m glad it exists rather than passively letting toxic masculinity continue on without comment.  Perhaps if the human sludge that are GamerGaters saw this documentary when they were younger, they wouldn’t be threatening women with rape and murder.  The message of The Makes You Live In undoubtedly needs to be heard, but specifics matter if we hope to implement important and necessary changes in what “being a man” means.

Rating: B-

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