The Mask You Live In. Directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom. San Francisco, CA: The Representation Project, 2015. 97 minutes.
The Empathy Gap: Masculinity and the Courage to Change. Directed by Thomas Keith. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 2015. 70 minutes.
The Mask You Live In and The Empathy Gap: Masculinity and the Courage to Change take on the same important topic—masculinity’s links to violence—but from different and complementary perspectives. Both list masculine norms or themes, describe some of the socialization processes that promote these norms, connect these norms to violence, and provide some suggestions for change.1 While The Mask You Live In takes a more societal view and uses the guiding metaphor of a mask, The Empathy Gap has a more psychological perspective revolving around the idea of a harmful masculine script and proposes increasing men’s empathic abilities. When reviewing these films, I hosted a screening for undergraduate students.2 We all agreed that though the literature connecting masculine norms to violence is too substantial and complex to squeeze into a film, these movies begin the conversation in engaging, interesting ways.
The titular mask in Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s film is an extended metaphor for masculine norms, referring primarily to the emotional repression required to maintain respect.3 The norms discussed in the film include athletic accomplishment, financial success, sexual conquest, substance use/abuse, and dominance/violence, which the film very effectively ties to rape, murder, and mass shootings; it highlights fathers, friends, sports (especially coaches) and media (specifically film, video games, and pornography) as key sources of this socialization. The mask metaphor also helps the film show how these norms produce insecurity and harm the boys and men who attempt to embody them. This compassion and humanization is accomplished in the film through the authentic and vulnerable voices of a diverse cast, including boys and men who failed at the conventions of masculinity, suffered in attempting to accomplish them, or succeeded in ways that led to failed relationships or ending up in prison.
My students and I found the most engaging parts of the film to be its depictions of young men being vulnerable, especially with their parents and peers, and I appreciated the discussion of neural plasticity that helps to highlight the socialized nature of gender differences. On the other hand, we found some of the analysis of media influences to be oversimplified and uncritically accepting of moral panics. My students also appreciated the clarity of the film’s argument: everyone is responsible for making sure boys and men no longer have to wear a mask. While it does not give any direct suggestions or steps for making this change, it shows many models of transformation through a diverse cast of men telling their own stories of change, being sensitive, struggling, and showing support for each other. In doing so, The Mask You Live In seems to say, even if you are engaging in these toxic forms of masculinity right now, we see you and value your humanity, you can change if you want to, and here are some examples of how.
In The Empathy Gap, Thomas Keith introduces the concept of “the masculine script” and reads the script as saying “men need to be tough and emotionally distant, aggressive and hostile when challenged, sexually objectify women, and strive to be incredibly wealthy,” naming Donald Trump as the exemplar of these characteristics. There are some very clever and engaging moments in this film, including when men are posed in the sexualized positions women often take in modeling, and when the filmmaker revisits the classic racial psychology “doll experiment” with a twist to illustrate the early impact of gendered stereotypes.4 This film makes the crucial addition that masculinity is performed in groups: individually, boys and men can be vulnerable and kind, but around other guys the pressure is on to follow the script. However, even though only five years old, the content has quickly come to feel dated, such as in the pre-2016 reference to Trump. This and the lower production value may unfortunately undercut students’ willingness to engage. While my students found this film less clear and well supported than The Mask You Live In, it is also more direct in its suggestions: it focuses on empathy, pointing to Brené Brown as a key resource, and concludes with a list of famous feminist men and examples of men parenting and intervening in assaults. The biggest shortcoming is its tone. Men’s early efforts at feminist allyship often took the form of telling other men how bad and sexist they were; unsurprisingly, this was not particularly appealing to audiences.5 Similarly, my students described this film as scolding, harsh, and preachy. Moreover, despite discussing how statistics are an ineffective way to bring about empathy, it involved a lot of statistics and only a few moments of emotional connection. For a feminist-inspired film about empathy, it comes across as surprisingly masculine and unempathetic, all told.
I personally would not recommend showing The Empathy Gap without also showing The Mask You Live In. The latter does a better job with some key foundational concepts and emotionally convincing viewers of the importance of the issues, and it is significantly more intersectionally aware, bringing in sexuality, race, and immigration status through the voices of its cast (The Empathy Gap seems to assume that Keith’s masculine script holds constant regardless of race, class, sexuality, etc.). I would also not show either film without related readings and sufficient time planned for discussion.6 Both address specific masculinity norms that are most linked to harm but stop short of critiquing masculinity or gender norms overall. For example, neither learns much from the lives of transgender and nonbinary people, let alone features people whose lives contain both transgender and masculine experiences, which is a significant loss and a shame.7 That said, the topics covered in these films are crucial and complex, and their creators have done a great service by providing an engaging visual medium to help frame and inform the conversation.
1 The themes in both films maintain surprising consistency with the four rules of masculinity forwarded by early masculinity scholars: be a big wheel, be a sturdy oak, no sissy stuff, and give ‘em hell (Deborah Sarah David and Robert Brannon, eds., The Forty-Nine Percent Majority: The Male Sex Role [Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1976]).
2 This was done both to gain a better sense of how the films are received by student audiences and to engage in crucial reflexive accountability practices promoted by men’s allyship movements, so that my own partial perspective would not be the only perspective included in this review (Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 : 575-99).
3 Two speakers featured in this film have faced recent controversy and scrutiny of their actions and expertise. Michael Kimmel, sociologist of masculinities, has been accused by multiple graduate students of sexual harassment and sexist behavior; Philip Zimbardo faces accusations of falsifying data and unethical research practices with his famous Stanford Prison Study. For further details, see Ben Blum, “The Lifespan of a Lie,” Medium, June 7, 2018; Colleen Flaherty, “More Than Rumors,” Chronicle of Higher Education, August 10, 2018; “Philip Zimbardo’s Response to Recent Criticisms of the Stanford Prison Experiment,” Stanford Prison Experiment, 1999-2020; Rebecca Ratcliffe, “US Women’s Rights Campaigner Accused of Sexual Harassment,” Guardian, August 15, 2018; Thibault Le Texier, Histoire d’un mensonge: Enquête sur l’expérience de Stanford (Paris: Zones, 2018).
4 “The Significance of the ‘Doll Test,’” NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
5 Michael A. Messner, Max A. Greenberg, and Tal Peretz, Some Men: Feminist Allies and the Movement to End Violence against Women (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015); Marc D. Rich, Ebony A. Utley, Kelly Janke, and Minodora Moldoveanu, “‘I’d Rather Be Doing Something Else:’ Male Resistance to Rape Prevention Programs,” The Journal of Men’s Studies 18, no. 3 (2010): 268–88.
6 Both films also at times fall short in citing studies and statistics clearly, which leaves the onus on teachers to be prepared with explanations as necessary.
7 For examples of the importance of transgender experiences in understanding masculinity, see Tey Meadow, Trans Kids: Being Gendered in the Twenty-First Century (Oakland: University of California Press, 2018); Kristen Schilt, Just One of the Guys? Transgender Men and the Persistence of Gender Inequality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).