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Does Telling Boys To “Be A Man” Turn Them Into Mass Murderers?

Does Telling Boys To “Be A Man” Turn Them Into Mass Murderers?

Photo credit: ArtMarie / Getty Images

A film that casts legal gun owners as murderers in the making has been running the college circuit. The 2015 documentary, “The Mask You Live In,” features “experts” who say telling boys to be men, or to “man up,” pressures them to commit violent acts because “respect is linked to violence.”

In the film, Psychiatrist James Gilligan says that “whether it’s homicidal violence or suicidal violence, people resort to such desperate behavior only when they are feeling shame or humiliated, or feel they would be if they didn’t prove that they were real men.”

As Gilligan says these things, headlines on suicides and murder-suicides flash on the screen.

A trailer for the film says the “three most destructive words” a boy can hear growing up is, “Be a man.” (This trailer has received over five million views on YouTube.)

Other headlines in the film link shooting massacres to pressures on young men to be masculine. Images include stories about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and the theater shooting in Aurora, Colo.

But isn’t a real man a gentleman? Doesn’t a gentleman show poise under pressure, protect the weak and live by values that respect all life?

That is the culture I was brought up in and that the vast majority of America’s legal gun owners are a part of. Wouldn’t this film be better, and more effective, if it acknowledged this greater truth, and instead focused on the destructive gang and other subcultures now harming some of our youth? By telling the truth about what manliness really is and should be—that it should create gentlemen—couldn’t this documentary have instead offered a real solution?

But isn’t a real man a gentleman? Doesn’t a gentleman show poise under pressure, protect the weak and live by values that respect all life?Instead, it only uses emotion and misplaced judgment to condemn what a boy naturally does—try to prove himself. If people, like this film’s producer, successfully take structured rites of passage away from boys, then guess what: Boys will find ways to prove themselves on their own, and who knows what will happen then.

“The Mask You Live In” was written, directed and produced by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, wife of former San Francisco mayor and current California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. It premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

Newsom says her inspiration for making the film came from having a son. “It was really important to me that I could nurture a son who could be true to his authentic self, who wouldn't always feel like he had to prove his masculinity,” she said. “There’s so much loneliness, pain, and suffering when one is pretending to be someone that they’re not.”

Newsom seems unable to understand that boys (and girls) need to prove themselves, and that it is up to mature adults to show them safe, responsible ways to accomplish this that will build their character. (My new book, This Will Make a Man of You, explores and defines these very important rites of passage designed to build us into all we can be.)

Instead of trying to understand masculinity, this film uses stereotypes to condemn the good with the bad, then leaps to the sick conclusion that responsible gun ownership is creating mass murderers.

“[Boys] really buy into a culture that doesn’t value what we feminize,” says scholar Dr. Niobe Way in the documentary’s trailer. “If we are in a culture that doesn’t value caring, doesn’t value relationships, doesn’t value empathy, you are going to have boys and girls, men and women go crazy.” 

So Way thinks that masculine men, or gentleman, don’t value caring, relationships or empathy? She thinks these are only feminine virtues? To her, men, when they are away from women, are unfeeling monsters? Dr. Way, you need to do some field research. Go anywhere that men gather, and you’ll see fathers with their sons and daughters and with their pals and, yes, you’ll see caring, relationships and empathy.Instead of trying to understand masculinity, this film uses stereotypes to condemn the good with the bad, then leaps to the sick conclusion that responsible gun ownership is creating mass murderers.

Collider’s Matt Goldberg reviewed the film and said, “‘The Mask You Live In’ builds an argument about how early development of certain attitudes in boys and negative reinforcement from authority figures and society have created men who are violent, callous and self-destructive.”

But as I—also the father of a young son—watched this film, I kept asking questions like, “Aren’t this film’s ‘experts’ really talking about those who didn’t grow up with good role models or who weren’t otherwise shown how to be gentlemen?” Or, specifically in regards to the mass murderers they cite, “Aren’t they talking about mental illness, not masculinity? So then, do they consider masculinity to be a mental illness?”

The intellectual dishonesty of blurring a culture of respect, maturity and legal gun ownership with that of criminals who live in a very different culture, and with mental illness, is so disingenuous and mentally lazy it isn’t simply insulting. It is disgusting and harmful to society’s continual attempt to find real solutions.

This film is so offensive that some college students have been pushing back. Gettysburg College freshman James Goodman told The College Fix that the film made it “seem like masculinity was an unacceptable human trait.”

Following the film, Goodman took part in a group discussion with older student moderators. He said they “attempted to tie Sandy Hook and the Aurora shooting into being a result of toxic masculinity … The entire movie and lesson made it seem like masculinity was an unacceptable human trait. That it’s something males should avoid. It was completely pointless. It did nothing to help anyone. I got absolutely nothing out of the experience, other than a headache.”

Newsom’s first documentary was “Miss Representation,” a 2011 film that interweaves stories from teenage girls to argue the media under-represents women in influential positions and thereby pushes limited and often disparaging portrayals of women. The film’s motto, “You can’t be what you can't see,” emphasizes the message that young women need positive role models.

If Newsom understands that women need positive role models, why can’t she also understand that boys and men do as well? Why didn’t she look for real answers, instead of playing up stereotypes and condemning what is good with what is bad?