What Does a Woman Filmmaker Know About Masculinity? A Whole Lot, Actually.

(Original article: Michael Sainato, The Good Men Project, Nov. 16, 2015)

An interview with Jennifer Siebel Newsom, who created Miss Representation, and then turned her lens on what’s happening to boys and men with The Mask You Live In. 

The 2015 documentary, The Mask You Live In, discusses in detail the distorted cultural views of masculinity, which has led to dehumanizing attitudes about women in our society that often results in violence towards women, emotional detachment, and behavioral disorders. 

The film funded over $100,000 on KickStarter after the success of Director Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s 2011 documentary, Miss Representation, which she also wrote and produced after graduating from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. Miss Representation explores the destructive ideas perpetuated in the media of women being valued based on their youth, sexuality, and beauty, rather than their capacity as leaders. The documentary features appearances from Katie Couric, MargaretCho, Geena Davis, Rosario Dawson, and several other notable celebrities, researchers, and politicians. 

Jennifer Siebel Newsom also served as an Executive Producer for the critically acclaimed documentary, The Invisible War, which was credited by U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (NY-D) in shaping a new bill that addressed the rampant sexual assault in the military.

Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s latest documentary is a continuation of the themes discussed in Miss Representation.  

The Mask You Live In reveals the destructive and often conflicting messages that boys are subjected to on a daily basis. The film explores the influences of media, video games, and sports culture in reaffirming the narrow definitions of masculinity, and creating a culture that views women as objects, and idealizes violence as a way to assert male dominance.

Women in the United States are 11 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than are women in other high income countries. According to the film, ninety percent of homicidal perpetrators are males.  This social and cultural trend of violence merged with masculinity is perpetuated and enforced through media, ranging from video games, violent films and television shows, advertising, and the emergence of the internet porn industry in the past two decades.

Rather than demanding institutional changes, the films discuss what these images in our entertainment represent, and through media literacy, people can begin to broaden the constrictive and destructive gender stereotypes imposed on us.

We spoke with Director Jennifer Siebel Newsom about her new documentary, The Mask You Live In, the work of her non-profit, The Representation Project, the trend of mass shooters citing hatred towards women as a motive for their killing sprees, the effects of the limiting narrative of masculinity, and what we as a society can do to change these aspects of our culture.

In 2014, Elliot Rodger went on a killing spree in that left six dead and thirteen injured. “Women … don’t deserve to have any rights … [they] are vicious, evil, barbaric animals, and they need to be treated as such,” he wrote in a manifesto left behind after the shooting in Santa Barbara, California. Just a few weeks ago, a high school boy in Idaho was arrested for threatening to “kill all the girls” because they refused to send him nude photographs. In early October, the Umpqua Community College shooter in Oregon ranted in a manifesto about his dismay at not having a girlfriend. The Lafayette, Louisiana shooter a few months earlier openly hated feminists and targeted a female-led movie to carry out a mass shooting. What do you see as the origins of this violence and this resentment being conveyed by so many of these mass shooters towards women? 

We live in a patriarchal society where we unfortunately put our girls and boys, men and women, into boxes, social constructs, and gender stereotypes. These stereotypes have become increasingly extreme.

On the one hand, as you saw in Miss Representation, we’ve socialized not just our girls, but our boys to believe about our girls, that a woman’s value lies in her youth, beauty, and sexuality. So in a sense we’ve made our women objects versus agents.

On the other side, we’ve socialized our boys, and also taught our girls this is the value of boys, that their value lies in power, dominance, control, and aggression. So what you’re seeing is, over time, boys become men who have been socialized to see women as objects, who have been socialized to repress their emotions, deny their true feelings and as a result not know what to do when they’re shamed, humiliated, or feel disrespected, because they don’t have the emotional literacy that we allow our women to have because of the way we socialize our women and girls to value relationships, value feelings, and value emotions, whereas we tell our boys don’t cry, crying is for sissies, toughen up, be a real man.

So what you’re getting is, in addition to obviously a combination of easy access to guns and mental health issues, a case whereby young men have been socialized not only to feel entitled or privileged that women are secondary, or of less value, or anything associated with femininity is of less value to them, but that women are the property of or objects for them.

So what happens is you have these young men, again there’s obviously a lot of play here with mental health issues and isolation, but what you have is that these young men, when they don’t get what they want from women and girls, and they feel shamed and humiliated for not getting what they want from these women and girls, you have them lashing out, and the only way they know how to lash out is through use of violence. 

Does the media contribute to these notions of masculinity and femininity or merely reflect them?

The media definitely contributes to a culture of violence. Let’s just take a couple of examples. If you look at the violent video game industry or if you look at violent pornography, or you look at just the news media’s celebration of war and crime.

My husband always has the TV on when he’s shaving in the morning, so I get to hear the news, and you wake up and oh my god there’s fighting in Israel, there’s deaths in these conflicts. It’s everywhere around us and yet it’s not. The media is obviously trying to report the news, but they’re also all about eyeballs, trying to capture your attention, so they’re going to lead with the most high stakes, violent, or grabbing headlines.

Not to mention the number of TV shows that solve problems with gun violence.

That’s a big focus in the work that we do here at the representation project. What you’ll see when you watch The Mask You Live In, is that our culture perpetuates this notion of men equaling violence or men resorting to violence to achieve their goals, or get the girl, in Hollywood and through the entertainment industry. It’s old, it’s tired, it’s not very creative, but you see it in the superhero films all the way to the hip hop music videos all the time. It’s all about being more of a “man.” The more you resort to violence, the tougher you are, and it’s just unfortunately a very limiting narrative that we’re feeding our young boys and men.

What can parents and educators do to help children break away from these attitudes?

It all starts at home, but obviously,  especially in America, 70% of the women in the workforce are working moms, so unfortunately we have a culture where parents don’t have a lot of time with their children. What we try to do is make that time count and make that time matter. We provide parents with not only the films, but the curriculum, the conversation starters, and resources and tools to have conversations that deconstruct these limiting narratives about what it means to be a boy and what it means to be a girl.

At home, I have two daughters, a son, and one other son on the way. It was very important to me out of the gate to reinforce to my son that to be a man is to be caring and loving, so I gave him a doll when his younger sister was born, just as I gave his older sister a doll, to reinforce that boys need to learn to care for things. That’s part of being a human being.

We all know, and the studies indicate that we’re all born with empathy, and boys are slightly more sensitive at birth than girls are, but we socialize that sensitivity out of them.

The epidemic of violence we’re seeing in our society, it’s a public health crisis, and it’s not natural. It’s been sort of socialized and reinforced by the larger culture and limiting narratives we’re feeding our boys and men. So it’s up to us as parents to spend the time nurturing our children’s emotional well-being, and reinforcing that boys and girls can have emotions, and it’s not healthy to repress your emotions, what to do with their emotions, what to do when there’s conflict so they don’t resort just to violence, and how to deal with shame and humiliation, which is part of being a human being. There are a lot of things we can do as parents and educators.

Frankly, I feel tremendously for our educators. They’re overwhelmed, understaffed, under resourced, not always all trained in therapy, psychologically, and ways to deal with some of the issues confronting youth today, so it really has to be a concerted team effort when it comes to supporting our young children. It goes beyond the teachers, it goes to the coaches, the caregivers, the mentors.

We have a lot of work to do in our country and what we’re doing at the Representation Project is working with these different communities, bringing them together through the films, trying to inspire them to take action, and providing them with the tools and resources so they can be the best support to youth in their communities. 

What inspired you to make the film Miss Representation, and subsequently establish The Representation Project?  

I witnessed injustices and inequities, especially when I entered the entertainment industry, and saw the under representation of women, and the misrepresentation of women In positions of power and influence, and that’s really where Miss Representation was really born, but I knew in making the film, it needed to be more than a film, it needed to be a movement as well and hence I started the Representation Project.

I’ve always been someone who recognizes that there’s only so much one individual can do, and that at the end of the day we’re all in this together. We created this culture and we can recreate this culture, but men need to be a part of the cultural conversation and the gender equity solution. The only way they’re going to be a part of the solution is if we engage them, if we turn the lens on them and are able to expose them to the limiting narrative they’ve been fed. And so, having made Miss Representation, I knew I needed to turn the lens on boys and men in order to bring them into the conversation to help them be a part of the larger solution. 

What has the reception of the Representation Project been like and what are some of the organization’s greatest accomplishments so far?

The support, the accomplishments, and achievements we’ve made just in terms of changing attitudes, behavior, and ultimately transforming culture have been enormous relatively speaking  given we’re this small non-profit organization.

Our “Not Buying It” campaign was credited for transforming the portrayal of women during the Super Bowl in a matter of three years.

Our “Ask Her More” campaign was credited for transforming the cultural conversation on the red carpet during the Oscars and Emmys in a two year period, so I know we’re having a huge impact.

We try to educate people and connect the dots for them. Especially fathers of daughters who understand that culture limits their daughters. Many fathers of daughters are concerned about their daughter’s future, therefore these men are a little more conscious about the need to play a role in recreating that culture. I feel like we’ve brought a lot of those men on board.

One of the things we do is we try to elevate the men that aren’t “celebrities”, but who are incredible thought leaders and change agents in the masculinity arena and I think we’ve elevated some of those voices through our film, through getting the film out there in distribution, not just in America but all over the World.

In partnership with these men, its really about elevating and celebrating the discourse around what is healthy masculinity, what does that look like and how can men be healthier role models to young men and how can we support our boys in not repressing their emotions and denying their true selves.

There’s a whole movement that we’re building, it’s doing its work in the world in a really profound and powerful way, and it’s resonating.

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