Masculinity is defined as the possession of the qualities traditionally associated with men. But, what type of men?
In the documentary The Mask You Live In, director Jennifer Siebel Newsom explores the masculine qualities found in the United States today, asking the viewer to question the harm they are causing to boys. (The film is available online; click here to watch.) This is Newsom’s second film as part of The Representation Project, following the documentary Miss Representation, looking at depictions of women in the media. Although the discussion and research for The Mask You Live In is focused on the U.S., the film’s message is important to millions of boys and men around the world.
“It was really important to me that I could nurture a son who could be true to his authentic self, who wouldn’t always feel like he had to prove his masculinity. There’s so much loneliness, pain, and suffering when one is pretending to be someone that they’re not.”
The Mask You Live In resonated with me and my childhood. Each area discussed – sport, relationships, work, etc. – provides opportunities for growth…but also provides opportunities for perpetuating harm. The harm in question is that of patriarchy.
There are three lies about masculinity that every boy learns in America:
- We associate masculinity with athletic ability
- We associate masculinity with economic success
- We associate sexual conquest with masculinity
These three lies pave the foundation for a life of men feeling inadequate.Boys who don’t achieve a fictional level of manliness and are unsupported in alternative achievements live without the self-esteem needed to be happy. As one interviewee notes, “Comparison is the thief of all happiness.” As the film shows, boys and ultimately men struggle to stay true to themselves while negotiating America’s narrow definition of masculinity.
This all starts at a very young age, when boys enter school.
- 1 in 4 boys report being bullied at school
- Only 30% of those who are bullied notify adults
(All stats come from the film.)
One of the main reasons for bullying is societies binary view of gender: Men are masculine; Women are feminine. This outdated view of a person’s range of self-identification is framed around femininity being about emotion, relationships, and empathy. Men and masculinity are everything that isn’t these attributes, and any boy who exerts emotion or empathy will be bullied for not adhering to it.
The conservative view of masculinity – one that doesn’t leave room for emotion and relationships between boys – also breeds homophobia. Boys learn very early that if they do anything remotely seen as feminine or loving towards fellow boys that they will be labeled a “sissy” or other sexist language than harms all genders. Society has taught boys that girls are the only one who are free to care about boys.
This inevitably leads to loneliness among boys and men. One way to combat these feelings is to self-medicate, which young men do by taking drugs and alcohol.
- By age 12, 34% of boys have started drinking
- The average boy tries drugs at age 13
- 1 in 4 boys binge drink (consume 5 or more drinks in a row)
These social problems are made worse by society’s inability to let boys talk about their feelings, whether good or bad. In the film, a male teach gets a group of young male students to do an exercise. Each takes a mask. On the front they write what image of masculinity they present to society. On the back they write what they are hiding. This simple exercise gets to the root of so many problems, yet is still difficult to build into a reformed education system.
Until everyone understands the root problems of masculinity, boys and men will continue to experience inadequacy, loneliness and the mental health problems these feelings produce. Ultimately, many will turn to suicide if these problems go untreated.
- Every day 3 or more boys commit suicide
- For boys, suicide is the third leading cause of death
- Fewer than 50% of boys and men with mental health challenges seek help
Even in the small village I grew up, we had a fellow student commit suicide. Many students and adults could not understand why it happened. It’s a shame that the teachers and staff in that school were not better trained to understand the root problems discussed in The Mask I Live In. It may have prevented this needless death and other, unseen pain.
In the last century, thanks to the fight of the women’s rights movement, girls and women now have greater equality in attaining educational success. Unfortunately, during that same period of time, men in power did little to change the way boys learn. Schools were punishing boys through humiliation, such as by making them write on the board. Rarely did they ask why is this kid acting out. This has meant that boys are under-performing in school, as compared to their female counterparts.
- Compared to girls, boys are more likely to flunk or drop out of school
- Compared to girls, boys are: 2 times more likely to be in special education, 3 times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, 2 times more likely to be suspended, and 4 times more likely to be expelled
In a world that limits boys’ ability to talk about themselves, most turn inwards and spend their time in solitary activities – many of which spur harmful notions of masculinity.
- In a week, the average boy spends: 40 hours watching TV, sports, movies; 15 hours playing video games; 2 hours watching porn
- 31% of males feel addicted to video games
- 99% of boys play video games
- 90% of games rated appropriate for children over 10 contain violence
- 50% of parents don’t monitor ratings
- The average 18 year old has seen 200,000 acts of violence on screen including 40,000 murders
Even when boys are outside, playing sports and interacting with other boys, they can be prone to the same negative examples of masculinity. Sports encourage play that is violent and competitive. Coaches often act as father figures, which can do an awful lot of good and an awful lot of bad. A coach can instill the same type of homophobic, anti-girl language that recycles through generations of unchanged language.
In the film, when asked “how would you feel if your coach called you a ‘sissy’?” a boy responded that it would “devastate” him. What does this mean for how we teach boys about being a girl.
Sports has the wrong mix of power, dominance, control, moral clarity. A ‘Win at all cost’ culture in sports means winning at the expense of character development. The myth that sports builds character can only become true if coaches teach and model it.
The Mask You Live In documents four male archetypes in media:
- Strong silent guy, who is always in control
- Superhero character engaging in violence to maintain that control or in order to achieve whatever goal is in front of him
- Thug, man of colour, who are pigeon holed into violent roles
- Man-child, who is in perpetual adolescence, whose body doesn’t have lots of muscle. He purports masculinity in another way – through degradation of women, engaging in high-risk activities
Media has a definite effect on people’s behavior. If it didn’t, advertising would collapse.
Violence on TV, movies and video games adds to the culture of boys being made to think that ‘real’ men must fight to be respected. There’s a reason the US army trains people using video games. It’s because it gets them used to some of the experiences.
A report on youth violence by the US Surgeon General found that violence in media has the following three effects:
- Children may become less sensitive to pain and suffering of others.
- Children may be more fearful of the world around them.
- Children may be more likely to behave in aggressive or harmful ways toward others.
These same forms of entertainment, combined with pornography, push an agenda of dominate men and submissive women – a fundamental lie of masculinity.
- 34% of youth online receive unwanted pornographic exposure
- 93% of boys are exposed to internet porn
- 68% young men use pornography weekly and 21% of young men use pornography daily
These harmful portrayals of both men and women can be overcome through reasoned sex education. Unfortunately, many parent in the United States are opposed to this, due largely to conservative views about talking openly about one’s sexuality and alternatives of sexual identity.
- Only 22 states require public schools teach sex education
Because of shame around sexuality, porn is sex education for most people. Without sex education in the school and with silent parents at home, many boys turn to their computers for guidance, with terrible consequences. The internet provides “excess in social isolation”.
- 83% of boys have seen group sex online
- 39% of boys have seen bondage online
- 18% of boys have seen rape online
- Exposure to pornography increases sexual aggression by 22% and increases the acceptance of rape myths (that women desire sexual violence) by 31%
Boys are being conditioned towards violence.
By the time boys reach puberty, society has implanted the worst forms of masculinity, through school systems that allow bullying and punish expression; through media and sports that promote violence. Porn then teaches boys “what women want and how men are supposed to perform”. Both of those are wrong. It’s difficult to think, but “rapists are being produced by our culture”.
Researcher in the film call this the Great Set-Up: “We raise boys to become men whose very identity is based on rejecting the feminine and then we are surprised when they don’t see women as being fully human”. So we set boys up to grow into men who disrespect women at a fundamental level and then we wonder why we have the culture that we have.
Boys enter their teenage years being told that “A man is always supposed to be on the prowl” or “I’d like to hit that” or “I’d like a piece of that” or “I’d like to tear that shit up”. In all of these cases the woman (or sometimes man) is an object, an “it” or “that”. And violence – “hit”, “tear” – is the means to the sexual end. This teaches boys not to see the humanity in girls and leads to a culture of sexual violence against women. Young men are then sent to universities with toxic ideas of sex and sexual expression.
- Every 9 seconds a woman is beaten or assaulted
- 35% of male college students indicated some likelihood of raping if they knew they could get away with it
- 1 in 5 female college students is the victim of an attempted or completed sexual assault
Young men on university campuses represent a recipe for failure: 18 year-olds desperate to prove their masculinity to 19 year-olds. Campus environments provide two things for young men: horizontal solidarity by bonding with your ‘bros’ (hooking up, initiations, hazing); and the feeling that girls can’t do these things (hierarchy – men are superior to women).
The Mask You Live In notes a unique ‘code of silence’ found in American society. This is the conflict between the heart that wants to the right things, and the head that has been conditioned to do the opposite. This is the fear that many men have that prevent them from acting ethically and continues the ‘male peer culture’.
“Choice is rooted in our privilege.”
Not only is sexual violence perpetuated by men, mostly, it attacks both women and men, girls and boys. The culture of silence that our society has instilled into boys prevents them from seeking the medical and mental health services to overcome these violent crimes.
- Over half of all boys are physically abused
- 1 in 6 boys is sexually abused
- Abused and neglected children are 9 times more likely to be involved in crime
America is unique for its culture of guns. These guns are the weapons of choice for many boys and men who seek suicide as an end to their pain – an end with immediate resolve. The films summarizes this as: “Whether its homicidal violence or suicidal violence, people resort to such desperate behavior only when feeling overwhelmed by shame and humiliation.”
“While we as good men don’t perpetrate the violence, we are part of the collective socialization.” Men and the culture that works against progress are the fertile ground that’s required for the violence to exist.
- Every hour more than 3 people are killed by a gun. That’s over 30,000 lives annually
- 90% of homicide perpetrators are male. Almost 50% are under 25
The male role belief system is a recipe for violence: Men are defined as superior, women are defined as inferior. And to be a real man, you also dominate other men. Respect is linked to violence. These notions and all that was explored above collectively explain the level of violence that remains in society, as well as the phenomenon of ‘mass killings’ in America.
- Mass homicides (where 4 or more people are killed) occur on average every 2 weeks
- 94% of mass homicides are committed by males
- The youngest mass shooter was 11
- The rate of mass shooting has tripled since 2011
- And there has been almost 1 school shooting per week since Sandy Hook
At its core, The Mask You Live In creates a dialogue between healthy and unhealthy ways to define manhood. These dialogues have for far too long been absent from education institutions and the wider society but are slowly being openly discussed. Debates among men are addressing many long-standing problems, such as ‘aggrieved entitlement,’ where men in positions of power feeling entitled to power and that they’re not getting that power anymore.
The Men’s Rights Movements sees the end result of patriarchy – suicide violence, depression, rape against men – and feels that its the result of women’s liberation without understanding where the struggle really lies. Until men understand that the system that produces inequality between genders (as well as racism, homophobia and other discrimination) is harmful to others as much as it is to themselves, men will never be free.
The liberation of men and boys is inextricably linked to the fight by women and girls against patriarchy. The language and actions of men towards boys must start with peace and respect. Violence can not be condoned in any form; language that assists violence must be countered in every instance. Homophobia must be challenges alongside recognition that all males have the right to be feminine, irrespective of their sexual orientation.
The coming revolution in mental health will help boys open up and discuss their needs with other boys, who were also sitting silent with the same concerns. Parents should take the opportunity to encourage their children to challenge the harmful masculine and feminine stereotypes in society through their words and actions. Individual action is not enough; a new society needs to be created.
Everyone deserves to feel whole. Starting the process of talking about these issues, as early as possible, for both boys and girls, is essential for future improvements to solving society’s problems. Talking across gender line is needed at all ages.
Each of us can do our part in expanding what it means to be a man for ourselves and the boys in our lives.
Watching The Mask You Live In is a good place to start and should be required viewing in all classrooms.
Four decade ago, the women of Iceland decided to call for a “day off”. On 24 October 1975, 90 percent of women in Iceland, in both urban and rural communities, did not go to their paid jobs or do housework or childcare at home. They refused to work to raise awareness that women at the time earned over 40% less than men. “As a result, many industries shut down for the day,” writes libcom.org:
Newspapers were not printed since the vast majority of typesetters were women and there was no telephone service. Many schools were either closed or partially closed as the majority of teachers were women.
Flights were cancelled as flight attendants did not come to work and bank branches had to be staffed by executives as tellers took the day off.
Fish factories were also closed, with many nurseries and shops also shut or at reduced capacity.
That sunny day would become an annual tradition in Iceland known as “Women’s Day Off”. The rally in Reykjavik’s Downtown Square gathered 25,000 women and was the largest of more than 20 to take place throughout the country. It was a moment that changed the way women were seen in the country and helped put Iceland at the forefront of the fight for equality.
Five years later, during the summer of 1980, the people of Iceland elected Vigdis Finnbogadottir, a divorced single mother, to be their president. Vigdis was Europe’s first female president and the first woman in the world to be democratically elected as a head of state. Vigdis went on to hold the position for 16 years – years that set Iceland on course to become known as “the world’s most feminist country”. Vigdis insists she would never have been president had it not been for the 1975 protest. “What happened that day was the first step for women’s emancipation in Iceland,” she says. “It completely paralysed the country and opened the eyes of many men.” By uniting women from all social and political backgrounds, the day of action in 1975 was able to bring the issues of unpaid care work and wage inequality to national (and ultimately international) attention. The movement carried on the tradition British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst foresaw decades earlier: “We have to free half of the human race, the women, so that they can help to free the other half.”
At the turn of the 20th century, Pankhurst and other suffragettes, during what is now referred to as the “first wave” of feminism, pushed governments around the world to allow women the right to vote, starting with New Zealand in 1893. Women in Australia got the vote in 1902, followed by Finland in 1906. Iceland was next, in 1915. The 1910s also saw Norway (1913), Soviet Russia (1917), Canada, Germany, Austria, Poland (all 1918), and Czechoslovakia (1919) do the same. Suffrage in US and Hungary came in 1920. The UK saw full voting rights for women later in 1928, following limited suffrage from 1918. Switzerland was one of the last countries in the world to allow women to vote, taking until 1971 to do so! These fights for political equality were followed by a second wave of grievances, ones opening the door to economics.
The two movements in Iceland – the “Day Off” and the election of Vigdis – illustrated the interconnection of economic and political inequalities women face within a patriarchal system. In 1975 there were just three sitting female Icelandic MPs, or just 5 percent of the parliament, compared with between 16 and 23 percent in the other Nordic countries. Globally, women continue to be underrepresented in politics. Without also gaining equal political representation for women, it will be difficult to achieve equal pay for equal work.
In 1976, a year after the strike, Iceland formed the Gender Equality Council and passed the Gender Equality Act, which outlawed gender discrimination in workplaces and schools. Today Iceland has the highest level of women’s participation in the labour market, with heavily subsidised childcare and three months’ paid parental leave to each parent.
Despite these improvements and being the best country in the world for gender equality – the country has topped the U.N.’s Global Gender Gap Report for the sixth year in a row – women in Iceland still earn on average 14 to 18 per cent less than their male colleagues. Currently, there’s no country in the entire world where a woman earns as much as a man for doing the same job. This is know as the “gender pay gap”. According to unions and women’s organisations, this means in every eight hour day Icelandic women are essentially working without pay from 2:38 pm. So, to mark the 41st anniversary of the original “Women’s Day Off,” thousands of female employees across Iceland walked out of workplaces at 2.38 pm on Monday to protest against earning less than men.
In 2005, women left work at 2:08 pm.
In eleven years, less than three minutes has been gained annually towards eliminating the gender pay gap. If progress continues at the same rate, it will take 52 years to eliminate the disparity between men and women’s earnings in Iceland entirely.
The fight for gender equality in 1970’s Iceland is reminiscent of battles in other countries, such as the UK. In 1968, five women led a strike of sewing machinists at Ford Motor Company Limited’s Dagenham plant in London, which employed tens of thousands of workers. (The film Made in Dagenham chronicles the strike.) Ford was making billions in profits while the women in its plant were struggling to pay their bills.
The 187 women made car seat covers and as stock ran out the strike eventually resulted in a halt to all car production. The women walked out when they were informed that they were graded as “less skilled” and that they would be paid 15 percent less than the full rate received by men, both of which were common practices for companies at the time. The strike soon spread and, with the help of the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity, ultimately resulted in the passing of the Equal Pay Act 1970, which did, for the first time, aim to prohibit inequality of treatment between men and women in terms of pay and conditions of employment in the UK.
Research shows that the gender pay gap is not the same among all women. It cuts differently across racial lines. A woman in the US typically earns 6 to 39 percent less than a white man; but a woman of colour earns less than her white counterpart.
The older you are, the bigger the gap. A 2014 survey by the Chartered Management Institute and XpertHR on the gender pay gap last week found that female managers earn less than their male counterparts, with the gap increasing with age. At 23 percent, the management gender pay gap is wider than the 19.7 percent in the workforce as a whole.
The gender pay gap also varies widely from country to country, the World Economic Forum reports. A woman earned only 48 percent of a man’s salary in Italy and 47 percent in Israel.
Burundi, where four out of five people live below the poverty line, is the top country in women’s pay. Women in the tiny African country earn 83 percent of salaries of the men in the same jobs.
In the so-called “developed world” women’s wages come closest to men’s in Norway and Singapore, but even there it’s still at 80%.
Why does the gender pay gap exist?
After fighting for the right to vote and to be legally protected from discrimination by employers, women are told that the gender pay gap doesn’t exist. So, to answer that question, it’s necessary to first dispel some of the common myths, according to the European Commission.
Myth #1: More women work part-time, so they should earn less.
Working fewer hours a week means you should take home less pay per month, NOT less pay per hour.
Myth #2: Women earn less because they choose lower earning jobs.
Women tend to earn less per hour than men for the same job whether it is a highly-skilled profession like a doctor or nurse or a lower-skilled job such as a salesperson. The gender pay gap exists across our economy, and in all sectors and occupations.
Myth #3: Men are better educated, so should earn more.
Today, 60% of university graduates in the EU are women.
Women’s equality movements in Iceland and elsewhere, combined with ongoing research, continue to remind us of these facts. Despite major gains in achieving higher education, girls and women have equal access to education in only 25 of the 142 countries. Discrimination from birth through schooling prevents women from achieving their economic liberation. Even worse, Algeria and Iran have the lowest female participation in the labor force with less than one in five women working outside their home.
Men still dominate the worlds of business and politics – Jamaica, Colombia, Lesotho and Fiji are the only four countries with more female legislators, senior officials and managers. Men continue to make up the majority of those in the highest paid and most senior roles – for example, there are just five female Chief Executives in the FTSE 100. Male-dominated companies and legislatures have repeatedly shown their unwillingness to address gender discrimination unless they are pushed by movements seeking change.
New laws need to be passed to overcome remaining barriers to women. More countries should consider passing legislation to ensure paid maternity leave for mothers and should include equal levels of paternity leave for fathers. Until men take an equal share of care work (of children, of the aged, of their spouses), women will continue to face an unfair job market.
Women in business, like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, are trying to provide their own solution: corporate feminism. In the book Lean Out, Dawn Foster unpicks how the purportedly feminist message of Sandberg neatly exempts patriarchy, capitalism and business from any responsibility for changing the position of women in contemporary culture. Foster and others point out that corporate feminists want women to work within the sexist system of business without changing its fundamental problems. Gloria Steinem provides a simpler examination: “If you say, I’m for equal pay, that’s a reform. But if you say, I’m a feminist, that’s a transformation of society.”
Another book that questions the current state of affairs is Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? by Katrine Marçal. In her book, Marçal shows that even today, the unpaid work of mothering, caring, cleaning and cooking is not part of our economic models. All over the world, there are economists who believe that if women are paid less, then that’s because their labour is worth less. Until political economies value all women at all levels of society, there will never be an “economic woman” like the “economic man” that has existed for millennia.