Film Review: ‘The Mask You Live In’

Mask You Live In Sundance

Jennifer Siebel Newsom follows 'Miss Representation' with a look at the social expectations surrounding masculinity.

Thought-provoking ideas about the ill psychological and sociological effects produced by expectations of “masculinity” are undermined by rambling and at times glib argumentation in “The Mask You Live In,” director Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s follow-up to “Miss Representation,” which examined sexism directed toward women. Educational venues represent the most likely future for what is basically an outreach doc, although some of the points made cry out for sharpening or elaboration.

The movie’s title takes its cue from a George Orwell quotation on the actions presumed of an imperialist: “He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.” The pic opens with former NFL defensive lineman (and now motivational speaker) Joe Ehrmann discussing how playing football was his way of showing off the “hypermasculinity” he felt obligated to demonstrate. These expectations take root early: Sociologist Michael Kimmel says that a sure way to get boys fighting on an American playground is to call someone a sissy. Political scientist Caroline Heldman says that the idea of masculinity is tied up with a “rejection of everything that is feminine.”

The film effectively highlights the unexamined implications of the language associated with maleness (“man up” or “be a man”). Many points are reinforced with television and film clips (including one from “Whiplash” — it’s here already). With bell-curve graphs illustrated onscreen, psychologist Michael G. Thompson says that if you gave the same psychological tests to girls and boys, the responses would overlap by 90% — indicating that the sexes have much more in common than not. The movie looks at stereotypes surrounding athletic and financial success; psychologist Madeline Levine says she’s seen 8-year-old boys who say they want to become venture capitalists. Some of the more compelling, activity-driven footage deals with the teaching work of Ashanti Branch, an educator who founded an Oakland, Calif.-based youth-advocacy group.

Title cards present a wealth of statistics, but without citations; some of the more specious-sounding data only raise questions about the validity of the movie’s assertions. For example: “Every day three or more boys commit suicide.” Is that national or global? Over what time span was that number drawn?

Siebel Newsom (who is married to California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom) gives her doc an almost unwieldy scope; masculinity is examined in relation to drinking, homophobia, depression, bullying, the stigmatization of male intimacy, crime, videogames, porn and campus sexual assault. (Siebel Newsom is an executive producer on Kirby Dick’s documentary “The Hunting Ground,” also screened at Sundance.) In general, the testimony from experts — who include the ubiquitous Stanford prison experiment psychologist Philip Zimbardo — is more illuminating than the many clips of boys and grown men sharing anecdotes about their fathers and upbringings. Some of the interviewees might as well have been randomly selected.

And while the movie notes that mass shooters tend to be male, even though American women grow up with easy access to guns, employing news clips of the Aurora movie-theater shooting (among other violent incidents) before the opening credits only suggests from the get-go that “The Mask You Live In” has little use for complexity. Reductive and sensationalistic correlations detract from the movie’s salient points.

A sprightly score from Eric Holland and the parade of talking heads against blinding-white backdrops enhance the edu-doc/TV commercial vibe.

Film Review: 'The Mask You Live In'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres), Jan. 23, 2015. Running time: 90 MIN.

Production

(Documentary) A presentation of the Representation Project in association with Regina K. Scully. (International sales: Submarine, New York/Preferred Content, Los Angeles.) Produced by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Jessica Anthony, Jessica Congdon. Executive producers, Maria Shriver, Geralyn Dreyfous, Abigail Disney, Wendy Schmidt, Novo Foundation, Sarah E. Johnson, Scully.

Crew

Directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom. Written by Siebel Newsom, Jessica Congdon. Camera (color, HD), John Behrens; editor, Congdon; music, Eric Holland; music supervisor, Andrea von Foerster; sound, Phil Turner; supervising sound editor, Holland, Zach Martin; re-recording mixer, Martin; line producers, Jessica Anthony, Debbie Brubaker (consulting), Wendi Gilbert (early); associate producers, Annenberg Foundation, Brin Wojcicki Foundation, Dani Fishman, Charlie Hartwell, Maureen Pelton, Amy Rao, Amy Zucchero, Barbara Bridges, Kathleen Janus, Ted Janus, Laura Fisher, John Fisher, Pacific Gas & Electric Co., Peery Foundation, Susie Tompkins Buell.

With

Joe Ehrmann, Michael Kimmel, Caroline Heldman, Tony Porter, Lise Eliot, Michael G. Thompson, William Pollack, Madeline Levine, Judy Y. Chu, Pedro Noguera, Ashanti Branch, Philip Zimbardo, Ashly Burch, Jim Steyer, Jackson Katz.

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  1. I think the review touched on a lot of the issues I had with the film, mainly that it does perpetuate this idea that men should be less like men. It characterizes feminine traits as ideal. And I’m not in the social conservative camp of advocating that men like men, obviously there’s room for people to act and behave how they like and surely we should encourage people be themselves. The issue is that not all men secretly want to cry, not all men are pushed into sports, not all men feel trapped.

    And that’s where it misses the mark. On top of, the fact that it blames every social ill from homophobia to rape on masculinity as its defined it.

  2. jbartos33 says:

    I thought this was an intelligently presented, thought provoking documentary, as was Miss Representation. I feel the reviewer’s robotic and cold analysis of it reflects the apathy and disassociation so prevalent in American society today. Rather than accept a formulaic review that would pass well in a college film class, watch it for yourself, it’s currently on Netflix. To me, anything that starts conversation and presents different perspectives isn’t time wasted.

    • qismekwik says:

      Very well said, jbartos33. I will make mine your words: Rather than accept a formulaic review that would pass well in a college film class, watch it for yourself, it’s currently on Netflix. To me, anything that starts conversation and presents different perspectives isn’t time wasted.
      And add, it is time society start looking at something that is right under everyone’s eyes.

  3. Alexander Bernard Chartier says:

    Shooters are overwhelmingly men – how is complexity sacrificed in beginning an examination of masculinity by clips of a shooting? The shootings are a deadly consequence of contemporary masculinity. Sure, there’s a class angle – mass shooters are overwhelmingly middle class. And racial – they likely to be white. The usual approach to such stuff is the very definition of reductive – troubled souls, often youthful.

    Documentaries like this are sure to suffer becomes the large landscape they seek to cover. but the incessant desire to focus on individual stories keeps missing the forest for the trees. Our society can’t really seem to have a public conversation about masculinity – not the least because knee-jerk attitudes like TAW. Don’t you think “disgust” is a bit over the top? The problem is that TAW is a stereotype with all the self-centered myopia that a core piece to modern masculinity.

    BTW TAW – I served in the military too. Your gun-toting aggressiveness doesn’t define the modern military and your success is attributable to a human quality, not a masculine one. I don’t think you particularly like women. I’d watch this doc again. And again. And again. Flat learning curves demand it.

  4. TAW says:

    This film was so geared toward a feminist view of men that I, a man, was completely disgusted.

    The documentary sends information at you so fast that you don’t have time to thoroughly consider the points being made. It yanks you along from weak positions to questionable stories of victimization. If you already believe the ideas being delivered than you’ll love what’s offered, but if you don’t or if you are completely objective you’ll likely realize the documentary lacks credibility. Which may not seem too surprising since women are the ones pursuing this line of thinking. Men are confused by women and women, from my experience, are very confused by men. And for a woman to think they understood what it means to be a man is absurd as a man understanding what it means to be a woman.

    Full disclosure: I served in the military for many years, I hunt, I enjoy my aggressiveness and the success I derive from it, I enjoy competition, I enjoy winning, and I dislike effeminate qualities in men. So, maybe I’m too masculine to get this doc. But I’m also not a victim, which this film seems to want to make men while promoting other agendas that can easily be found by researching those involved in this production.

    There are definitely problems for young men in our country. Generations of fatherless homes have done nothing to benefit anyone. And that problem starts with men and women making poor relationship choices. Perhaps the solution is raising boys and girls to become confident enough and self-aware enough to make wise spousal decisions.

  5. Lame review. This was a fantastic, eye-opening film. The statistics can be found online, if you’re curious enough to do your own research.

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