Issue: 2017-04-05, PHOTO: Jeff Schmale
Joe Erhmann (left) is a former NFL player who now speaks out against the hyper-masculine culture of American sport. Erhmann is a powerful voice in the film The Mask You Live In.
I was 12 years old when I first remember putting on a mask to face the day. My mask was that that of a joker, a dependable friend, a fun guy. I used it to hide the sadness and helplessness I felt over my parent’s disintegrating marriage.
I used it to face down the taunts, jeers, pushes and punches of those who needed to express their physical superiority.
I used it to prove I was “enough of a man” to those who would question it. I used it to show that nothing was wrong, everything was okay, there was nothing to see here.
I grew to hate my mask. Yet, I was terrified of removing it. Terrified of being seen as I truly was. The more I disconnected from my feelings, the safer I felt.
The Mask You Live In is a documentary that focuses on the mask of masculinity that men learn to wear. It looks at how the mask is constructed, the many forms and faces it takes on, how it is reinforced daily by our friends, family, culture and the media. It looks at how this mask is hurting our boys and men and fueling the rise of toxic masculinity we see expressed in sexual assault, suicide, and mass shootings.
It's a challenging film to watch. Many of us use phrases like “Man up”, “Be a man”, “Grow a pair”, out of love and out of fear for our boys – fear that they will be too soft to stand against the world. Such phrases also police a narrow definition of what “being a man” looks like in this day and age.
As boys become men we learn to distrust and disconnect from our feelings. Strong emotions are associated with femininity, and we are taught that femininity is weak. As young men we learn to numb ourselves with work, video games, sports, sex, social media, porn, drugs and alcohol. We isolate ourselves and try to bury our pain, our frustration, our rage. Asking for help, processing strong emotions in a healthy way, has not been modeled for us. In the Yukon, men resort to suicide at a rate seven times greater than women.
The documentary ends with a message of hope. We meet men who have the courage to remove their mask, men willing to broaden the definition of masculinity and model it for the boys and men in their lives. They include an ex-NFL coach teaching leadership skills, a single dad learning from his son how to talk about emotions, a former jock rediscovering the sensitivity he suppressed as a child, a newly-sober teen finding brotherhood in a men's circle rather than a street gang.
The common thread to each of their stories is the opening up, the asking for help, being willing to speak honestly about their pain, and being received with love and understanding.
Last year I developed the courage to remove my mask. I stopped numbing myself and discovered healthy ways to be with uncomfortable and challenging emotions. It takes work - after 30 years, the mask was stuck on pretty good, and it would replace itself again and again - but you find other men with the courage to remove their mask, and it gets easier. It is painful, but you also rediscover joy, fellowship, peace and a deeper ease moving through the world.
We need more men with the courage to remove their masks.
The film The Mask You Live In is a 2015 documentary film written, directed, and produced by American filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom. It screens on Tuesday, April 11 at 6 p.m. at Yukon College in room C1440 (the glass class), with a discussion to follow.