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Unmasking the toxicity of masculinity in American culture

Milam's Musings,

A new documentary, "The Mask You Live In," aims to flip the script on our culture's narrow, idealized conception of masculinity.

The film "follows boys and young men as they struggle to stay true to themselves while negotiating the United States' narrow definition of masculinity, reassured by the media, their peer group and even the adults in their lives."

At 4 p.m. Thursday, at the Harry T. Wilks conference center on the Hamilton campus, I'll be introducing the documentary by writer, director and producer, Jennifer Siebel Newsom. Afterward, I'll help lead a discussion about the screening.

I agreed to introduce the documentary (which I haven't seen yet) because the question of masculinity is one I've long been interested in. I've written about my own struggles in confronting and dealing with prevailing notions of masculinity two different times in The Miami Student.

Theresa Kulbaga, my professor in Women's Gender Studies, gave me more insight into the issue of masculinity.

For starters, as you may have noticed, the film is written and directed by a woman, and it's being shown during Women's History Month.

Feminism, in fact, has a lot to say about masculinity, as the patriarchy is not only toxic to women, but to men as they try to fit within the patriarchy's narrow conception of masculinity.

Traditionally, Kulbaga said, masculinity is defined as the opposite of femininity: don't be a woman, don't be such a girl, boys don't cry, be a man, etc.

"We can't undo the toxic effects of a hierarchical and binary gender system without addressing both aspects of the binary," Kulbaga said.

The way we teach boys to be men through gender policing, in which we have them engage in homophobic, misogynistic bullying of other boys to keep each other in line, is harmful.

A fuller and better conception of masculinity doesn't just produce healthier men, but will have a positive effect on women's equality, Kulbaga said.

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"In reality, men (and women) are complex, multifaceted and deserve to explore their full humanity (emotional, intellectual, spiritual, physical) without being shamed, or humiliated or bullied, and without being forced to kill or repress a part of themselves that isn't acceptable by mainstream cultural standards," Kulbaga said.

Jackson Katz, one of the foremost writers on masculinity in the United States, has a documentary on the subject called, "Tough Guise: Violence, Media & the Crisis in Masculinity."

Katz showed a clip of teenagers and men describing what it means to be a 'real man.' They said: physical, strong, intimidating, independent, in control, scares people, powerful, respected, hard, a stud, athletic, muscular and tough.

Perhaps some missing words could include, but are not limited to: caring, soft, accepting, quiet, sensitive, empathetic and pensive. But those are words typically associated with women, and they're not manly.

Obviously, this is not an entirely black-and-white issue, wherein all men attempt to attain the status of a 'real man' at the cost of those latter words. There appears to be enough evidence, however, that the former traits of a 'real man' have strong pull in our culture.

Similarly to Katz, the Huffington Post released a video in Dec. 2015 called, "48 Things Men Hear In A Lifetime (That Are Bad For Everyone.)" They had boys, teenagers, young men and older men express the 48 things they've heard in their lifetime that question their masculinity and toughness.

I'm not going to list all 48 here, but I've heard most of them (save for the ones being related to marriage and fatherhood) such as "man up" or don't be a pussy or a sissy or gay or any number of ways to try to "police" my masculinity.

And that's not even getting into the sexual conquest myth - this idea that men are supposed to treat picking up women as sport and be aggressive with them.

For example, I recall my high school prom and dancing with my date. There was quite a bit of distance between us, as I was timid and unsure exactly what to do.

My friend was dancing and grinding on the date he brought to the dance next to me and signaled to me that I ought to do the same as him.

I was uncomfortable with that, so I didn't, but the message was clear: I was supposed to assert control over her, as an extension of the male sexual conquest idea.

Moreover, before I lost my virginity, you can add in the smirks, jokes and remarks over that to the aforementioned litany of ways men are policed on their masculinity.

Real men, it is thought, also don't seek help since they can solve their own problems.

This is particularly problematic when it comes to mental health and the issue of suicide, which is largely a male-driven phenomenon. For instance, even though females are more likely than males to have suicidal thoughts, men still take their lives at four times the rate of females and represent 77.9 percent of all suicides, according to the Center for Disease Control.

It should not be seen as weak to seek help for one's mental state, but it's ingrained in men to "tough it out."

I hope as many people as possible attend the screening of, "The Mask You Live In."

The boys growing up now, and fathers to those boys, need to know this idealized version of masculinity is impossible to live up to, and it's unhealthy.

It's a mask no man should have to wear.

I fully expect that much of this will be construed as typical social justice warrior psycho-babble, but my lived experience, the lived experience of all those men in the Huffington Post video and the lived experience of all other men who feel similarly, has to count for something.

When it comes down to it, that's all we're really talking about: the lived experiences of our fellow human beings and the ways in which they navigate a particular culture's prescriptions. In this case, that would be the idealized conception of masculinity reinforced in the media, in politics, in school, among our peer groups and at home.