To former NFL defensive lineman and coach Joe Ehrmann, there are three words that haunted him from age 5, when his father taught him to fight in the basement of his family’s home, all the way to the football field in adulthood: “Be a man.”
“That’s one of the most destructive phrases in our society, I believe,” Ehrmann says in the opening of director Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s documentary, “The Mask You Live In,” which premiered at Sundance this month.
Ehrmann is one of a dozen or more advocates, educators and mental health professionals weighing in on the question at the center of Newsom’s second documentary: How is society failing our boys?
“The Mask You Live In” is the second of three installments for Newsom’s Representation Project, a nonprofit organization formed to expose gender injustice. Newsom founded the project after the 2011 release of the first documentary in the series, “Miss Representation,” which analyzed the media’s role in gender inequality against women.
Newsom argues that the problem lies in how society teaches boys that becoming a man means embracing violence. Everything from the way boys are reared to the media's messages about what it means to be a man can result in consequences ripped from recent headlines, including rape on college campuses and mass shootings committed almost exclusively by men.
“Plenty of girls live in a culture with easy access to guns, so why aren’t girls doing the shooting?” author and antisexism activist Jackson Katz said. “The men who commit these shootings are our sons. We ignore them at our peril.”
Violence isn’t the only unsavory attribute attached to modern manhood. The film also explores how ideas like economic excess, promiscuity, athletic ability and hiding emotion often lead boys down a devastating road toward substance abuse, anger and pain.
Newsom’s film argues that this approach to manhood and the high suicide rate among boys is no coincidence. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among males under 24, and boys ages 15-19 are five times more likely to commit suicide than girls.
“Our boys are suffering,” Newsom said at the Sundance premiere. “I was concerned, as a mother, to find a solution to this problem.”
Parents and peers
For many boys, the parallel between violence and manhood is first learned at home or school, psychologist Will Courtenay argues.
“Parents, teachers and peers do everything they can through approval, ridicule and exclusion to encourage gender-stereotypic behavior in boys and girls,” Courtenay said, adding that boys are subjected to this treatment at a much earlier age than girls. “Boys have far less latitude in choosing what they can wear, what they can play and whom they can play with, and they are seen far more negatively than girls when they engage in non-stereotypic behavior.”
It can begin small, said gender equality activist Tony Porter, like when parents and friends belittle boys who show emotion or urging young boys to stop crying.
“By the time they’re 4 years old, boys are taught not to cry in public. They’re expected to have perfected it by age 10,” Porter said. “If at 12 they’re still doing it, (the common perception is) there’s a problem.”
Because that conditioning usually starts at such a young age, when the brain is still plastic, neuroscientist Lise Eliot says emotional skills decline by the time a boy becomes a teenager. That means some personality traits humans need — most notably, empathy — can be diminished by adulthood because, Eliot said, “some things that aren’t used die back.”
NYU professor of psychology Niobe Way said that’s when the problems start, including anxiety, slipping grades and self-destructive behaviors like suicidal tendencies. It’s important to note, the film asserts, that among boys, initial signs of depression aren’t acting withdrawn or dumping social activities, but acting out in class or at home.
If unchecked, the problems exacerbate as the boy ages, leading to substance abuse or other destructive behaviors that indicate a man’s desire to belong and be accepted for who he is. The film theorizes that one way young men deal with the lifelong expectations to remain “strong” through suppressing emotion is drinking and substance abuse. By age 12, the film states, 34 percent of boys have started drinking alcohol and most have tried drugs by age 13.
“These problems arise at the same time emotional language disappears from the male narrative,” Way said.
Media and culture
Boys don't just learn about the stereotypes connected to masculinity from the people around them. According to the American Psychiatric Association, by age 18, children will have seen 200,000 acts of violence through various media outlets, including 40,000 murders — from movies, TV, music, video games and more.
Entertainment media sends other messages besides violence to young men, like the idea that strength comes from enduring hard, physical exertion or a “conquering” nature. Katz says for this particular message, advertising is one of the worst culprits.
“Truck ad after truck ad market to men that link these machines to the rugged ideal of being a master of nature, even though it’s not reality,” Katz said. “One of the ways consumer culture plays into it is by marketing products that give men a feeling of masculine power or efficiency.”
Mastering nature is a popular theme in film at the moment with the release of films based on nature memoirs like “Wild” or another of this year’s Sundance offerings, “A Walk In the Woods.” In that film, two friends (played by Robert Redford and Nick Nolte) decide to embark on a 2,000-mile trek up the Appalachian Trail for “one last adventure” as they begin attending friends’ funerals rather than barbecues.
Promiscuity is another popular theme media attaches to manhood, though Newsom’s film points out that it’s increasingly played for humor — think of hit comedies like “The Hangover” or more subtly in “A Walk in the Woods.”
In "A Walk in the Woods," much of the trailside talk between Nolte and Redford has to do with women and sexual conquests. When Redford’s character admits silently that in 40 years, he’s never cheated on his wife, Nolte is incredulous.
“One woman after all these years?” Nolte’s character says piteously. “That can’t be good for you.”
Katz says that for future generations, overcoming the pressures put on men won’t just be up to parents and policymakers, but also up to the men to overcome the pressures of destructive masculine stereotypes.
“For men, there will be the ever-present challenge of accepting vulnerability — the ability to take care of ourselves emotionally and physically, and making that consistent with the sense of ourselves as strong men,” Katz said. “All you have to do is look at the PTSD epidemic among veterans and it shows you there’s a myth that you can will yourself to transcend your vulnerability. It’s mythology we have to overcome.”