By Jorden P. Hales
A panel faced the audience in City Heights’ You Belong Here creative space.
With a mic in hand, four experts looked upon raised hands and eager men after a Tuesday, April 23 screening of “The Mask You Live In.”
The group seemed to resemble a classroom more than an audience.
The film chronicles the experiences of young boys and men dealing with societal expectations of masculinity. Its title references the proverbial disguise young men feel the need to put on as an alternative to public vulnerability.
The 2015 documentary had just finished screening in the creative space and the entire audience had joined the opportunity for group discussion.
Among a mostly female audience, the session’s first four questions and statements came from men.
“The film gave us permission to speak about how we relate to it,” said panel member Francis Donald. “A lot of the time when men are feeling a certain kind of way, we don’t know how to name it because we haven’t just watched a film about it.”
The documentary features commentary from boys and men who had resorted to violence, suppression of emotion and other coping mechanisms in cases where they felt vulnerability would work to their detriment — an experience nearly every man present at the screening said they could personally relate to.
The tone of the forum provided a stark contrast to that of the film, as the viewers took advantage of an immediate opportunity to engage in healthier tactics of communicating emotion.
“A lot of different cans opened up,” said Brandon Steppe, founder of The David’s Harp Foundation, which seeks to provide environments wherein San Diego’s at-risk youth can be expressive in productive ways.
Steppe contributed from the audience, sharing a case in which he had a breakthrough with the young men he serves after being vulnerable to them in a group setting.
“It’s no different from [what a] coach would [do] in sports,” Steppe explained.
Despite this analogy, Steppe and Donald noted the value of mentors like him and Donald in spaces where roles like those of a coach or disciplinarian are not the primary voices.
Men often socialize in environments that are inherently competitive or sexual in nature, whether it be in sports, at the gym, drinking at bars, etc.
The film notes young men who partake in theater, and other extracurricular activities not known as conventional male spaces, are often maligned or discouraged by peers and mentors alike.
“My dad was really uncomfortable with [me] changing into this very ‘un-man-like person,’” a subject in the film recalls, chronicling his experience turning from sports to theater in his youth. “Even in the context of theater, where it [the character] wasn’t really me… it became a point of friction between me and my father.”
Similar reinforcement of hyper-masculine behavior was a theme throughout the film and a shared experience of those who spoke during the forum afterwards.
Encounters with such reinforcement were cited as memorable negative experiences on par with physical trauma in terms of influencing behavior.
“It’s performative… If it was natural, we would already just be doing it,” said Dr. Jenn Gunsuallus, a local sociologist and sexologist who counsels people on navigating gender roles and communicating with the opposite sex, and who was one of two women on the panel. “People feel very threatened if you step out of that box. If people think a baby is a boy, they’ll be more rough and tumble with them… You could have the same baby and dress them up differently, people will treat the baby differently and have different expectations. There’s blunt versions where someone is beat up or called ‘faggot,’ but the smaller [versions] can be a trauma to the spirit.”
Viewers at the screening gave the project high praise and recommended that those planning to see it do so in a group, with the hope that it will bring about similar discussion among other men.
“The Mask You Live In” can be found on Hulu, iTunes, YouTube and other popular streaming platforms.
You Belong Here is located at 3619 El Cajon Blvd. and provides space for creatives to collaborate and work on their respective projects.
— Jorden P. Hales is a multimedia journalist based in Southern California. Follow him on twitter: @JayPGatsby.