A few years ago, when I picked my oldest son up from a friend’s house, he burst into tears as soon as he got in the car.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, shocked.
“Nothing,” he sputtered.
“Oh, come on. Seriously…what’s happened?”
“He…he…he said I throw like a girl,” my son sobbed.
“What’s so wrong with throwing like a girl?” I said, but that didn’t quell the tears. And so began my quest to dismantle our society’s fucked-up attitudes around boyhood and manhood.
Truthfully, though, my awareness of the gender hypocrisies began almost as soon as my son was born and quickly escalated through toddlerhood. There was no doubt that my son was different than many of the little girls we met. He didn’t sit still in circle time, but instead ran off to the far corners of the gym to climb the padded mats. He was loud and always moving. He was, as they say, “all boy.”
But what does that really mean — all boy?
This concept of masculinity — the expectations, double standards, and excuses we align with boys and men — has troubled me for some time. Why do we tell our little boys — who are just as sensitive as girls — to choke back their tears? Why do we put unrealistic expectations on little boys to sit still, while attaching labels like “out-of-control” when they simply need to move their body? Why are comparisons to girls, women, and femininity used as a criticism or an insult to boys and men? Why do we use phrases like “man up”?
What does that even mean?
On the suggestion of my editor, I recently watched the documentary The Mask You Live In, which was produced by Jennifer Siebel Newsom in 2015. With two sons — both of whom are incredibly sensitive, albeit in different ways — the concepts of masculinity, gender, and what it means to be a man, and a human, in this world are of utmost importance to me. How do I raise my boys to be caring, gentle, and emotionally literate men? How do I help them to be their most authentic self and not the person society tells them they should be? How do I teach them to express their emotions in a healthy and responsible way, without stifling those emotions?
Folks, I’m here to tell you, if you have not seen this film, you need to make a date with Netflix stat. If you have sons, it will change the way you parent. If you don’t have sons, it will change the way you think about and interact with the boys and men in your life, whether it’s your nephew, the teenager down the street, or your husband.
Be warned though, this film will give you all the feels. All of them. Not only was I sobbing or on the verge of tears for the entire 90 minutes, I also couldn’t stop thinking about the film for days and weeks afterward.
As its website states, The Mask You Live In follows boys and young men as they struggle to live an authentic life while navigating America’s narrow definition of masculinity. The film interviews parents, boys, teens, youth advocates, teachers, mentors, coaches, and men in the prison system to assess the damage caused by our harmful social constructs of masculinity and what it means to be a man in our society.
I couldn’t possibly summarize the entire movie for you in a thousand words, but much of the film focuses on dissecting the way we tell our boys that “being a man” means shunning everything that could possibly be seen as feminine (sensitivity, emotions, connection, and softness) because these aren’t just feminine characteristics, but human characteristics. By telling our sons to ignore these characteristics, we are depriving them of an essential piece of their nature while, at the same time, establishing a hierarchy over women that can contribute to issues like sexism, rape culture, and violence.
Even though the film got some lukewarm reviews for its cursory examination of complex societal problems, we need to start somewhere ASAP, and The Mask You Live In opens the dialogue on this essential topic. With violence, mass shootings, and sexual assault at epic levels, we all need to take responsibility for the ways we are perpetuating, or dismantling, a culture that breeds unhealthy hypermasculinity.
Our sons deserve better; we deserve better.
When my youngest son was attending a summer camp as a preschooler, the counselors gave out fun awards on the last day, and my son, a shy and quiet little boy, received the “Most Compassionate” award. I don’t know if I’d ever been prouder than I was at that moment, and that paper award is still proudly displayed on our fridge four years later.
Isn’t that what we should all be striving for? Shouldn’t we be commending our sons for their gentleness and empathy, and not just their winning touchdown? Shouldn’t we praise them for being a good friend, and not just for their ability to “man up”? Shouldn’t we expect our sons to be fair, kind, compassionate, and understanding instead of expecting them to be angry, aggressive, and hard?
Our little boys will one day turn into men, and even though it seems like this happens overnight, in the blink of eye, it does not. It takes years and many people to raise a boy into a man. In some ways, it takes an entire world to raise a child. Those sweet, doe-eyed little boys who sucked their thumb and slept with a blankie will one day become men with jobs and families of their own, and it’s up to us to help them be their best, most authentic self. We can either keep telling them to “man up” and push them out into the world, or we can tell them to “be you” and hold their hand along the way.