There is a great documentary on Netflix that I believe every person in America should watch. The movie, called the “Mask You Live In,” addresses the concept of hyper-masculinity in our culture and sheds light on the challenges that boys go through on their way to becoming men. The first time I watched the video I found myself choked up with emotion as they interviewed boys and young men, asking them to talk about some of their struggles in regard to trying to live up to the standard of masculinity that they found impossible.
These boys expressed a deep feeling of loneliness that began to affect them as they entered middle school, around the age of puberty, when the expectations begin to change in regard to what is acceptable male behavior. The boys talked about craving both male and female friendships, but feeling like they would be bullied or made fun of if they showed this vulnerable side of themselves. They also spoke about the expectations that begin to be placed on them, especially in the realm of athletics and sexuality.
I do not believe that men are inherently given to atrocious behavior when it comes to their treatment of women in the workplace, at home, or among other men. Men quickly learn from our culture that the way you get respect from other men is to become an alpha male who takes no shit, parties like a rock star, dominates other men athletically, solves problems with violence, and views women as sexual objects. Think about the archetypal heroes from modern movies, television, and video games. The primary message is that men reject in themselves that which is viewed as feminine, especially emotions such as fear, sadness, pain, compassion and empathy.
Usually, when a male client comes to my office for counseling the first time, they are so out of touch with their emotions that even asking them to identify a feeling leaves them speechless, as if you’d just asked them to interpret Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. As it states in the documentary, men are taught to “lock down their feelings” at all cost, to never let anyone see a weakness or it will be used against them. When people are cut off from their own internal lives, they cannot put themselves in the shoes of another, which results in viewing others as lacking their own vital emotions. Thus, some men believe they can treat others anyway they wish, because the victims of abuse don’t feel anything just like them.
When I was twenty-seven, I took stock of the person I was and decided that I didn’t like anything about myself. One of the things I had to address was the way that I viewed and treated women. At that time I made a conscious decision to never refer to a woman in any type of derogatory term or slur, and seventeen years later I’ve kept that promise to myself. I also decided that I needed to become more aware of how the objectification of women (especially pornography) creates a mindset that can dehumanize the vulnerable and turn some men into predators. About the same time I made this decision, I met my wife who I have been with for seventeen years. It is no coincidence that when I decided to overhaul my attitude toward women, I became capable of having a deep and meaningful relationship with the woman of my dreams, one that gives me the intimacy and closeness that I always craved.
It is my view that underneath all the bravado and persona that most men project to the world, there is a little boy who once had an open heart, a sense of innocence and wonder. The hardest part of being a man in our society, is that most of us don’t only wear a mask at Halloween, we wear one everyday. We think it keeps us safe, but it really makes us deeply unhappy, and unfortunately, sometimes dangerous. I’m an advocate for the men that I counsel, because I see the goodness and the pain that they feel like they have to hide from a society they are afraid will reject them.
I challenge all men who read this to watch the documentary on Netflix and ask yourself if there are aspects of the deadly and abusive culture of hyper-masculinity that are familiar to you. As with most problems in our society, the solution begins with awareness, introspection, and honesty.