Last month, I attended a screening and panel discussion of a “documentary,” The Mask You Live In, which claims to compassionately examine serious issues facing the male people in Western society. I arrived in my seat with no expectations of an unbiased examination; instead, I was aware of the trend of such analyses not to be done by neutral social scientists, but by feminists, hoping to incorporate into their patriarchal-society-ideology the seemingly contradictory facts and figures that indicate that the “privileged” men have some struggles, too. Nevertheless, my resolve to be unimpressed was tempered by the emcee’s opening remark that the issue of men’s well-being was woefully underrepresented in our public discourse. But the tempering of my temper was tempered as I watched the film, and discovered a 97 minute feminist editorial. If one squinted one’s eyes, the filmmakers seemed to care about their subjects, but, as they turned their gaze to solutions, it was clear that their answer was, as ever, feminism.
Now, I don’t object to applying one’s ideology to an issue, but I think it is disingenuous to claim to be a documentary, only to sneak in one’s entrenched philosophical perspective as the panacea. A simple subtitle such as, “A Feminist analysis of the struggles of men and boys” would have done the trick. As it was, neither the film nor the panel that discussed it acknowledged the feminist elephant in the room. In response, I sent the following letter to the organizers as well as the panelists of the screening.
Two of the panelists have replied to me, but since the organizing agency has not responded, and it has now been more than a month since I sent my letter, I offer it here for the record.
To whom it may concern at The UBC Men’s Depression and Suicide Network:
Thank you for putting on your free screening and subsequent discussion of the film The Mask You Live In, which purports to contemplate men’s and boys’ issues. I appreciated the enthusiasm with which the panelists were discussing this topic.
Nevertheless, I think the ideological makeup of both the film and your panel is an affront to intellectual fairness.
I think it should be noted that the film was written through a feminist lens. Many familiar feminist talking points are ever-present in the film’s narrative, from the wild and unproven assumption that gender is purely a social construct, to the further controversial claim that video games cause violence, to the startling assertion that we live in a “rape culture,” and the supporting myth that 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted (see philosopher Dr. Christina Hoff Sommers’s critical analysis of this specious statistic), to the notion that men are, by definition, privileged: “We must use our privilege [to forge change]…” was the common mantra of the male role models on screen, who seemed to have just taken language training from a gender studies course.
However, while anyone familiar with feminist theory would recognize that the film was written from a feminist perspective, neither the film nor those who presented it at UBC acknowledged its ideological bias. Instead, the film claims to be a documentary, an objective analysis of these issues. That is either intellectually dishonest or ignorant. If the filmmakers had said, “We’re feminists, and we see that men are struggling, too, so we’re going to try applying our feminist theories to men’s issues,” then so be it. I would still want to criticize their feminist conclusions, but they would have honestly represented their project as a partisan analysis, which may be smart and well-articulated, but which is by no means an objective investigation offered by a neutral party. The audience, who is perhaps unfamiliar with feminism’s dominance over most modern discussions of gender, would then be aware that they are witnessing an opinion piece from a particular philosophy that views the world through the lens of patriarchy theory and the notion that gender is entirely a social construct.
Moreover, each member of your expert panel seemed to be viewing the movie from either a feminist or, at best, neutral perspective, but there was no one up there to criticize the privileged feminist point of view. Indeed, when Dr. Jennifer Berdhal (a gender and diversity professor at the Sauder School of Business, who at least seemed to admit that that she was a feminist) explained that the phrase “Don’t be Mama’s boy” is one that tells boys that women shouldn’t be their bosses, there was no one to suggest that the expression might instead just be implying (and understood by most to mean) that male people are expected to be tough and not go metaphorically crying to their nurturing mothers when they’re struggling. (It’s not a nice expression, for sure, but from my perspective, it is much more misandrist than it is misogynist.)
There were some subtle criticisms from the audience of the feminist leanings of the film and panel, but the feminist panelists either intentionally or unintentionally reinterpreted those questions to fit their feminist narrative. And again there was no one on the panel willing or able to critically respond to that bias.
For troubling instance, consider the argument from Kyra Borland-Walker (of UBC Speakeasy) that the reason that males kill themselves significantly more often than females is because boys and men are socialized to use guns, and therefore, if girls played as much with guns, they would kill themselves just as frequently. This implied that the comparatively high rate of male suicide is not in any way related to men’s particular suffering, but instead is simply and solely the result of them having a greater kinship with a deadly weapon. No one in the panel pointed out that that there could be other reasons that men choose to use more lethal means. Perhaps, that is, men choose guns because they are more determined to kill themselves as they feel they have fewer options. Some suicide attempts are cries for help. And so maybe, in a society that seems to care more about women’s suffering than men’s*, men more often use guns because they don’t think anyone will help them if they do cry out.
*By the evolutionary necessity of sending our boys into dangerous terrain (from fighting lions to going to war to working in coal mines), it is hard to deny that humans have come to value male life less than female life. How often do we hear news reports referring to victims of war, “including women and children” as opposed to civilians in general? Why are calls to “stop violence against women” ubiquitous, even though (according to men’s rights activists*) men are equally if not more often the victims of violent crime? (Why not just, “stop violence”?) Why is more medical research spent on women than men even though women tend to live longer?
*SETHBLOGS NOTE: I now believe this conclusion that men are more likely to be victims of violence than women is generally understood by reserachers to be true.
Perhaps the men’s rights’ notion of “male disposability” is inaccurate, but a panel discussing men’s issues ought to be aware of it, and equipped to discuss it from a neutral perspective, instead of one that assumes that men are universally privileged. As it was, Borland-Walker was able to reach for her unsubstantiated claim that women would kill themselves as much as men if they had the weapons, and thus protect the notion that men are privileged, without a single counter argument from her fellow panelists.
The imbalanced discussion is not Dr. Berdhal or Ms. Borland-Walker’s fault. They have their perspectives, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t provide them when invited. But it is once again intellectually egregious to have a panel, claiming to speak about men’s issues, without anyone there to criticize the feminist orthodoxy, which has a lot of misandry on its resume to answer for.
“Man-splaining,” “Man-spreading,” “male privilege,” “male gaze,” “male entitlement,” “male violence against women,” “teach men not to rape”: these are all gendered insults brought to you by feminism. The same feminism whose perspective dominated this “documentary” that claimed to want to help boys be themselves. I’m not saying that the film was all bad: there was some interesting exploration of the pressures that many boys feel to be tough and aggressive, and to neatly fit into gender roles. However, the film’s biased interpretations of the cause and effect of these troubles demanded a sober response. There is research, for instance, that suggests that children who grow up with single fathers tend to be more empathetic than children who grow up with single mothers. Researchers don’t know why that is, but psychologist and meta-researcher Dr. Warren Farrell offers a compelling argument that men’s tendency to safely roughhouse with their children actually helps children better understand limits, and the distinction between assertiveness and violence. Another common hypothesis is that, because fathers tend to comfort children when they fall less than mothers do, and instead tend more often to encourage their offspring to get up and try again, children with significant fatherly involvement tend to be less self-involved, and in turn more empathetic.
I don’t know if those hypotheses are correct, and by pointing them out, I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t also emotionally nurture our children in the ways that mothers seem to more often, but the notion that the sole solution to boy troubles is for traditional dads to be more like traditional moms is simplistic. (More likely, I suspect that children do best with a healthy dose of both comforting when they fall and encouragement to get back up and try again.) Moreover, as Dr. Christina Hoff Sommers argues in The War Against Boys, part of the problem may be that we demonize common boy behaviour and pathologize their generally more rambunctious play from a young age: maybe that’s part of the reason that boys seem to be losing interest in school much more often than girls (because “they are treated like defective girls”).
Again, perhaps Dr. Hoff Sommers is wrong in this assessment, but it would have been nice if the film and/or just one of your expert panelists had discussed her significant research on this subject.
The film, I noticed, was written, directed, and produced exclusively by women (at least their names were traditionally female). I don’t have a problem with that in theory: if they were the best people to create a movie about men’s issues, then so be it. But I wonder: would a movie about an alleged problem of “toxic femininity” (that discussed how women needed to use their “privilege” to influence girls to be better people and treat boys better) that was written, directed, and produced solely by men have inspired such a supportive panel to convene at UBC? Or would such a film have been dismissed as sexist propaganda?
I can understand the motivation, when looking at men’s issues, to utilize a feminist perspective in doing so. After all, when men’s issues clubs have attempted to form in other universities, they have been denied ratification on the grounds that they “do not centre female voices” in their discussions. However, I think we must resist such an autocratic notion that men’s issues can only be seen through a feminist lens, or not at all.
11 thoughts on “THE MASK BEHIND THE MASK”
Interesting…I’m curious what the replies were that you received from the 2 panelists. Can you post them, please & thanks?
Thanks for your interest, V. Since they were private emails to me, I would rather not publish them without the senders’ permission.
Was there any true scientific analysis presented at all? I think I would find this far more interesting that what sounds purely like pet theories and anecdotal evidence.
I agree the the definition of ‘Mama’s Boy’ presented doesn’t jibe with what I’ve always thought it to be.
Yeah, a worthy question, Tarrin. As I recall, there were a couple of psychologists interviewed, but they seemed to match your description of presenting subjective analysis as opposed to concrete research. As well, there were grand statistics displayed on the screen to support various opinions, but I don’t recall source studies being provided to verify their numbers. And, given one of the stats was the discredited “one in five” myth, I don’t have faith they were quoting reliable sources in general.
Yes, Dr. Berdahl’s strange interpretation of “Mama’s Boy” nearly led my palm to reach up and smack my forehead.
I mentioned in the post that two of the panelists had replied to my message. Commenter V then requested that I post those replies. So I sent both of them a note asking if it would be okay to do so. I have received approval so far from one of those panelists, Douglas Todd (of the Vancouver Sun) who was scheduled to be on the panel, but wasn’t able to make it. Here is his reply to my email (he replied all to the panelists and organizers that I had included on my email):
Thanks for including me in your response to the documentary and panel.
I regret I did not make it. Unfortunately, Sept. 29th turned out to be one of those journalistic days when events overtook me and a same-day 5 p.m. deadline suddenly loomed.
Thanks for your lengthy and articulate note. I previewed about half the film before Sept. 29th and was going to watch the rest during the actual screening at UBC.
I can’t respond to your many points, but I was probably going to speak at least to the idea presented in the doc that gender is purely a social construct.
Obviously, gender is partly a social construct. But smarter people than me have been recently pointing out that the pure “social construct” argument is, at the least, anthropomorphic.
It doesn’t take into account the behaviour of animals, nor of organisms, which do what they do partly because of sex biology.
I was also concerned that the documentary, at least the half I saw, was treating masculinity “as a problem to be solved.” Rather than something far more complex; partly negative but partly positive too.
So many other worthwhile points to discuss, but, alas, I can’t give them the time here.
I don’t know who you are, but maybe you should have been on the panel. 🙂
Thanks for your interest. I hope these kinds of discussions are only beginning.
All the best,
Thanks for this, Seth. It’s excellent, as always. I’ve heard somebody explain phrases like ‘Don’t be a mama’s boy’ (it might have been the brilliant Karen Straughan, probably was) as a simple recognition that our society expects men to be tough and that it will treat ‘weak’ and emotional boys/men far more harshly than it treats ‘weak’ and emotional girls/women. The phrase is a straightforward (and accurate) recognition of the double standards that are so widely at play in our society, and which your analysis elegantly captures. I’m really glad you wrote to the agency that organized the screening and discussion. It’s hard to know whether our few voices can stop or even slow the feminist juggernaut and its indoctrination machine, but we have to try anyway.
Thanks Janice. Yes, “Don’t be a Mama’s boy” seems so obviously not to mean what Dr. Berdahl claimed for it that I have trouble comprehending how she could state her interpretation so confidently. But then I recall that such feminist perspectives are so rarely challenged in our mainstream conversations (as it wasn’t in this case) that I imagine she has little reason to question her wildest contemplations.
Yes, resistance to the feminist Borg may be futile, but I’d feel even worse if I didn’t try.
Another update. As previously stated, I mentioned in the post that two of the panelists had replied to my letter, and so commenter V requested that I post those replies here. Consequently, I sent both of them a note asking if it would be okay to do so. I have already received approval from Douglas Todd (see above), and I have now received permission from panelist, Dr. David Kuhl (of Men’s Health Research at UBC), to publish his reply to my post. (He explained that his delay in sending approval was the result of him being out out of town.) His reply is now below. (So all of the replies I received from panelists are now included in this comment thread.)
Thank you for your thoughtful response to the screening and the response of the panel. I appreciate your points and will take them to heart with regard to subsequent opportunities to participate in panels such as the one created for the screening. I’m sorry you didn’t have the opportunity to express your opinion more fully at the event. I’m pleased to learn about groups such as the one you described and would also be pleased to learn more about the group at some time, if that would be of interest to you.
Update #3: Douglas Todd has now written an article on this topic on his “religion, ethnicity, politics, sex, and ethics” blog for The Vancouver Sun. He uses a quote from this post, which is gratifying, but also hurts my case that the media is always biased in favour of feminism. 😉
Awww….hurts when you can’t feel superior anymore. – hee hee
Yeah, I’m not sure what I’ll do now. 😉