Documentary filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom has an ability to pinpoint some of the most unsettling things about our society—the ones so many of us think are normal—and inspire us to change them. Her groundbreaking 2011 film Miss Representation put the spotlight on female stereotypes and how hard it is for young girls to not feel the pressure of being judged by their looks in a looks-obsessed culture. Newsom is also behind this year’s viral hashtag #AskHerMore which aimed to inspire the media to move beyond the superficial when talking to women on the red carpet.
Filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom at work. (Photo: The Representation Project)
In her new film The Mask You Live In, Newsom is turning her focus to boys, and how a very narrow definition of what it means to be a man, is hurting them. The film is powerful, exploring how common phrases like be a man, be tough, don’t be a pussy, a win-at-all-costs sports culture, violent video games, and lack of emotional vocabulary, is encouraging boys to repress their emotions. Newsom examines the frightening results of those messages. Boys are more likely to be prescribed prescription medications, commit suicide, drop out of school, or commit a violent crime. The movie aspires to change the way we raise boys, and change the messages we send them.
To take action the Mask You Live in is available for screenings at schools, along with educational curriculum for boys from Kindergarten through college. “It inspires boys to basically overcome stereotypes and to become their true authentic self,” says Newsom. For Father’s Day she is launching a #BuildConfidence Father’s Day movement to help fathers and caregivers model healthy body image and self-esteem. I had a chance to talk about her powerful film, how we can raise our children differently, and what we can do to help build confidence and authenticity in boys.
What impact do you hope The Mask You Live In will have on people?
I’m hopeful and pretty confident that The Mask You Live In is really a catalyst for a national conversation around healthy whole masculinity that we’re in dire need of having. Masculinity has increasingly been about aggression, dominance, control and power, and so many young boys find that unnatural and uncomfortable but feel this pressure to conform. The more we as adults model healthy masculinity, the healthier our boys can be. Ultimately we have to really support our boys and help them not to repress their emotions and help them to stay true to themselves. We’re all born sensitive and we’re all born empathic. Some studies indicate boys are born more sensitive slightly at birth than girls, but then we socialize that out of them. So it is critical that we not socialize our boys in a way that’s ultimately destructive or harmful to them being themselves.
How do we socialize boys differently?
We are all are guilty of being socialized in a culture that puts both our girls and boys into boxes. As parents we need to recognize that we’ve learned these behaviors, but because we create culture we have the opportunity to recreate culture. Peers clearly have a huge influence in boys’ lives, and unfortunately you become the company that you keep. So my recommendation to parents is that you just are very present, aware and conscious of the company that your kids are keeping—their values, their family’s values, and how engaged and present their parents are with the type of media that they are exposing their kids to. Whether it is violent video games or pornography at ages that are too young. It takes a village to raise children and so it is really critical that everyone is on board with your values as a parent and how you want to raise your kids.
What are some of the messages boys are getting from the media?
One thing is really critical, and sort of ignored, is the influence of violent video games and pornography on our young boys lives. I am surprised by how many parents don’t pay attention to the ratings, and don’t actually play the games with their kids. If they did they would see that what their kids are engaging in is horrible and frankly dangerous. People’s brains aren’t fully formed until they are in their late 20s, so to think that they have the same sort of intellectual and emotional capacity as an adult is completely absurd. We as parents have to still be parents and set boundaries for them, give them guidelines, communicate with them about what they are consuming. We have to monitor for their behavior and not ignore them, thinking they are up in their room alone playing a game and that that is O.K because they are not out on the streets. It might actually be worse. I also think so many studio films and TV series are quite violent. It is very negative messaging to our young boys if they only see themselves on the screen exhibiting violence or exhibiting aggressive behavior.
It seems like there really is a movement to empower young girls, but somehow we don’t seem to think that boys need that same encouragement. How do we help boys build their confidence?
What we’re trying to do is reconnect everyone with their true self. We want men look inwards and to model what it is to be a human being as compared to a stereotype. Part of building our boys confidence is really about knowing who they are and staying true to that. So if you’re an artist, if you’re a ball player, or both, staying true to that. I can’t tell you how many young boys we’ve interviewed who say: “I regret that I didn’t do drama. I regret that I didn’t sing in choir. I regret that I didn’t go take that painting class.” And they didn’t do it because they were afraid as being seen as feminine, or a sissy. We’re all a combination and all of these different traits and attributes. We need to kind of redefine or expand masculinity, reconnecting more with values associated with inner strength, integrity, courage and leadership.
What was the most surprising thing that you learned while making the film?
One of the most surprising things is how much our boys are trying to resist this pressure to conform, and how lonely they are when they do conform. It was almost as if they are two people. The boys are like, “That’s who I really am but I am doing this other thing over here that doesn’t feel natural and it doesn’t feel right. I don’t know why I am doing it, but I don’t really feel like I have a choice.” So what we want to do is say: “Boys you have a choice, and we’re going to support you and protect you.” Happier men are the ones who stay true to themselves. Unfortunately 79 percent of adult suicides are committed by men. Depression is heightened in young males as well. And why is this? It’s because they’ve lived their whole life of disconnection. If you can’t handle your emotions or don’t feel comfortable with your emotions, then unfortunately there are worse things that end up happening later in life.
How are middle-aged men and fathers responding to the film?
So many men, after seeing the film, say they go home and they tell their sons and daughters for that matter, that they love them. I thought that was really beautiful. The advice to adult men is that they’ve got to be present. We have way too many absentee fathers. I am not just talking about single parent households, working fathers need to find a way to be engaged and play a role in their kids lives. All of us need to reconnect with our families, our communities, and to re-engage the men in their most important job, and their legacy.
Is this changing how you are parenting your own children?
I am allowing Montana to be herself and find her own way. Montana is outside catching lizards all the time. I’m socializing her to be a leader, to use her voice. I am trying to expand her possibilities, and to be true to who she really is and not be a wallflower or a victim or someone who doesn’t think she has the ability to achieve her dreams. With my son it is a little bit harder because I am a woman and I was raised with all girls. He is only almost four, but he is learning how to communicate around his emotions. I’m trying to give him the language to say “I’m so frustrated”, versus him going and hitting a wall. I did give him a boy doll when our daughter was born to learn how to take care of. We have so many fathers playing a more active role in caregiving and yet we don’t teach boys out of the gate how to care for or nurture other things. I was like why am I giving my girls dolls, why can’t I give my boy a doll? I think we parents need to question that thinking, and be open to encouraging our boys to be caring, loving and nurturing. He’s also very active. My children both play sports. We just attune to their needs and try to encourage their wholeness versus stereotypes.