‘Mask You Live In’ addresses damaging definitions of masculinity

Filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom is on a mission to change the way people think about what it means to be a man.

In “The Mask You Live In,” she and co-writer-producer Jessica Congdon address what she calls a “boy crisis” — the fact that, statistically, boys are more often diagnosed with behavior disorders, prescribed medications and expelled from schools than girls. They also drive drunk and commit violent crimes more than girls.

“I didn’t want my son to be one of those statistics,” says Newsom, who will screen the documentary Wednesday at the Castro Theatre in an event presented by AT&T and hosted by Mark Rhoades. Joy Venturini Bianchi will interview the director; her husband, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, is special guest.

Newsom says she got the idea to make the movie in 2011 when she was promoting her previous film “Miss Representation,” which discusses how and why women are under represented in positions of power and influence in America, and she was pregnant with her son.

People liked that movie, she says, but also were concerned about boys’ precarious position in society.

At the time, she “had suspicions” about some of the statistics revealed in researching the film. They include: suicide is the third leading cause of death for boys, and that every day, three or more boys commit suicide.

“The Mask You Live In,” Newsom says, addresses the root causes of these societal problems.

“Out of the womb, boys are socialized to disconnect their heads from their hearts, to deny their true selves,” says Newsom. “It’s dehumanizing.”

The film opens with Joe Ehrmann, a former NFL player who talks about how his dad scolded him for crying when he was a boy. Today, Ehrmann is a coach and inspirational speaker who challenges common definitions of masculinity, and particularly the phrase “be a man,” which he says, wrongly tells boys that they are OK only when they are physically strong, good athletes, sexually aggressive, and make a lot of money.

“I felt like that was a good anchor,” says Newsom, describing Ehrmann’s excellent set up of the problems — and what’s at stake.

Action in the right direction begins by letting boys know that they don’t have to suppress their emotions.

She and her husband, she says, are “making concerted efforts as parents to raise human beings, not gender stereotypes.”

She encourages her 6-year-old daughter Montana to get her knees dirty, chase lizards and build things, and she gave her son Hunter, 3, a doll, to show him that “caring and loving and nurturing are part of being a human being.” She says he’s quite active, curious, and hangs out in the kitchen “mixing this and that.”

“The Mask You Live In” also addresses negative influences of violence in video games and the media, which Newsom says she personally tries to avoid as much as possible. (“I prefer PBS,” she says.) As for monitoring children’s use, she says, parents, and all adults, need to remain in the drivers’ seat.

“It takes a village to raise kids,” she says. “Child influencers need to be on the same page, ensuring that their kids are not buying into these stereotypes.”

To that end, “The Mask You Live In” is being shown in schools in 49 states, and it’s accompanied by diverse curriculum for all levels. It’s also available for screening privately, and plans for a theatrical premiere are in progress.

While very few naysayers who favor nature over nurture may find the film “uncomfortable,” Newsom says the vast majority of people who’ve seen it (it premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival) are “moved,” “overwhelmed,” “grateful” and “appreciative.”

Some say it has changed their lives, from the man who realized he never told his son he loved him who began to schedule weekly outings with his son, to men who reconnected and made peace with their own fathers, to men in business who want to change misogynistic, sexist practices in industry.

With the global conversation of healthy masculinity started, Newsom says, “We’re on to the next level. A lot of work to be done in the next year is going to be about elevating that conversation and expanding our influence.”

The Mask You Live In
Where: Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Dec. 2
Tickets: $10
Contact: http://castrotheatre.eventbrite.com

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