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.