Watching the news, the idea that a man will be revealed to be responsible for an act of violence is so commonplace that it simply registers as a fact of life. But do statistics showing that men are by far the most common perpetrators of brutality, sexual assault and harassment, or violent self-harm mean that the male of our species is inherently more violent, or are men and boys acting out a script they’re not even aware they’re following?
That’s the question addressed by the film “The Mask You Live In,” screening on March 10th at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center at 6:30 p.m. A companion piece to director Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s documentary “Miss Representation,” which examined how depictions of women negatively impact girls, “The Mask You Live In” looks at how cultural factors combine to steer boys down a path that often leads to depression, violence, or worse.
Sponsoring the screening is the organization Maine Boys To Men (maineboystomen.org) a non-profit that has worked for nearly 20 years to challenge—and change—the inflexible definitions of manhood to which men and boys feel compelled to conform. Maine Boys To Men executive director Matt Theodores explains how his organization fights that perception and how “The Mask You Live In” helps further their goals.
What is the goal of Maine Boys to Men?
As a society, we need to do more to help boys reach their potential to be strong, non-violent men. There are a lot of factors coming at them that reinforce narrow, confusing, and destructive messages about masculinity beginning at very early ages. Our organization is about bringing boys and men together with girls and women to challenge those sorts of gender assumptions and stand together.
How does “The Mask You Live In” reinforce your goals?
It does exactly what we’re doing, raising awareness of how rigid definitions of masculinity damage boys, especially as they’re trying to navigate their adolescent years. It’s eye-opening, sometimes shocking, and ultimately hopeful in that it looks at the connection between what society conditions them do be, and how they’re hurting—and hurting others. It highlights, for example, how men are responsible for 90 per cent of violent crimes in this country, how men are incarcerated 20 times more than women, how boys are expelled five times more than girls. From an early age, boys are conditioned to be unwilling to ask for help, to be able to handle anything, and get through on our own. As a result, in Maine, men are half as likely to be diagnosed and treated for depression but eight times more likely to take their life by suicide. The film helps in our mission to talk about issues we don’t like to acknowledge and talk about, and to develop ways to help boys—and how that’s good for everyone.
What other messages are men internalizing that are especially damaging and where are they coming from?
One exercise we do with Maine Boys To Men is called the gender box, where students talk about whether they’re getting messages about what they’re supposed to be like as a man or a woman—from social media, video games, advertising, movies, television, peers, coaches, relatives. In about five minutes, they fill out that box with messages they’re getting, consistently, from everywhere, and, for boys, it’s always almost identical—self-reliance, toughness, power, money, womanizing. But the very hopeful thing is that there’s always someone who steps up and says, “Well, we hear it, but we’re not buying it.” What we provide is a safe space for people to say that, and, invariably, someone else jumps in to talk about things they’re comfortable with outside of that box. Still, boys are very open about the fact that there’s constant policing by peers when they’re seen as not living up to this dominant form of masculinity—the names they’re called are sexist, harmful, and disrespectful, and help feed the cycle of not standing up for women. The themes are very consistent, no matter what groups we’re talking to.
This way of thinking being as ingrained as it is in our society, do you see a lot of resistance?
We’ve reached as many people this year as we did in the prior nine years combined, and donations have steadily increased, as well as volunteers who’ve become aware of us through screenings of the film. We’ve taken “The Mask You Live In” into communities as a catalyst and encouraged discussion after the screenings and, while we’re prepared for all kinds of perspectives, it’s been overwhelmingly positive. I think it’s because you don’t have to look far to see this kind of thing in action. Examples in sports, politics, mass shootings—whose perpetrators are 97 per cent male—are, unfortunately, in our face every day, so people are making the connection more easily. There’s a lot of awareness, and a desire to support kids growing up with these challenges.
WHEN: 6:30 p.m. March 10
WHERE: Westbrook Performing Arts Center, 41 Stroudwater Road, Westbrook
HOW MUCH: The 87-minute screening is free.
NOTE: Theodores suggests that its often frank and upsetting language and subject matter are best for those aged 14 and up. He further recommends that parents and their kids attend together and take part in the discussion afterward.