Jennifer Siebel Newsom: The Woman Behind the Iron Mask

To be a “real man” is to have economic success, conquer women and have athletic prowess. Boys are taught this right out of the gate via hyper-masculine toys and admonitions from parents, peers and the media against appearing weak. But where has all this gotten us? The veritable “boy crisis,” which Jennifer Siebel Newsom (Miss Representation) confronts head on in The Mask You Live In, a feature-length documentary that not only delineates this devastating calamity but also offers tactics to combat it — if we're only willing to listen. 

San Franciscans will get their opportunity when the film screens at the Castro Theatre on Wednesday at 8 p.m., followed by a Q&A with Jennifer Siebel Newsom and featuring special guest, her husband and California's Lt. Governor, Gavin Newsom. SF Weekly spoke to the award-winning filmmaker and founder of The Representation Project, a nonprofit that uses film and media to create cultural change, who also happens to be married to Gavin Newsom, about the mask that males are forced to hide behind, how this knowledge has changed her parenting style and why her husband is her number one fan.

[jump] Some people are going to wonder why a woman would make a documentary about men and boys. 

When I premiered Miss Representation at Sundance, I was pregnant with a son and I ended up, as a result of Miss Representation premiering at Sundance and selling to the Oprah Winfrey Network, traveling the world with the film, speaking in places as far away as London, Singapore and Abu Dhabi and as close as neighborhood schools. Inevitably there'd be one or two women in the audience, who'd ask, 'What about our boys? There's a boy crisis going on, and how can we help our boys be a part of the larger gender equity solution?' When I heard the words 'boy crisis,' because I was pregnant with a son, it really captivated my attention. I decided that we really needed to delve into the research. What we found was that compared to girls, boys are more likely to need prescribed meds, more likely to be diagnosed with a behavioral disorder, more likely to binge drink, more likely to flunk out of school, more likely to commit a violent crime and more likely to take their own lives. As a mother with a son and actually another one on the way, I didn't want my son to be another one of these statistics, but I also wanted to inspire a generation to be part of the solution. So The Mask You Live In was born.

There were so many disturbing facts about boys and men that I learned, watching the film. Which of them disturbed you the most?

The violence and suicide statistics are the most horrifying. Our boys are suffering, and they're suffering in silence, and society has not paid attention to this limiting straight jacket, this narrow definition of masculinity that we've put them in. So anything that has to do with men acting out on their suffering, shame and humiliation and then perpetuating violence against others was the most alarming. 

Is the root of the problem that kids have to wear these masculinity masks in order to fit in?

You could definitely simplify the theme to be that we're socializing our boys to don a mask of masculinity to conform to an extreme, a stereotype, their value being in power, dominance, control and aggression at the expense of care and collaboration. In the early stages, we're telling our boys to disconnect from their true selves, to repress their emotions, and ultimately that's dehumanizing. That's not good for the boys or for any of us. In that disconnecting, the boys are ultimately disconnected from themselves, and that's why you see different phases of men's lives where they indulge in drinking, drugs or pornography, or you see heightened depression, violent acts against others or suicidal acts. So we're basically connecting the dots for the public about this really limiting narrative that we're feeding our boys right out of the gate.

One of the side themes in the film is how women suffer at the hands of masked men. Is that something that you ever experienced firsthand?

I've experienced certain forms of assault, violence and oppression as a woman. And yet I'm a privileged woman, so if I've experienced suffering and struggling, I can't imagine what it's like for other women who haven't had the opportunities I've had. That's one of the reasons I do the work that I do is that I don't believe anyone should suffer from this narrow socialization process that we're putting our boys and girls through.

Has making this film given you pause about how you're raising your own children?

For sure. I can say that both Miss Representation and The Mask You Live In have influenced the way my husband and I have raised our kids. We're raising them to be human beings, and we're trying to listen to who they are and allow them to stay true to that and encourage all parts of themselves, whether it's encouraging my daughters to keep running around in nature, capturing lizards and climbing trees and building forts, or my son learning to care about animals or babies or his younger sister or cooking and expressing himself and his creativity through these creative pursuits. It's about not forcing them into boxes.

Some politicians expect their wives to make them and their family their focus. Yet you are directing and executive producing films and speaking around the world. How supportive is your husband of your career?

So Gavin's been my biggest supporter and fan. He kept me focused on Miss Representation when truthfully it was quite painful finishing the film, and I wanted to take a break. He said, 'You've got to finish it.' He's an incredible champion who's passionate about this issue. He, himself, was really moved by The Mask You Live In. He thinks everyone can benefit from it, and he, himself, from the policy side is connecting the dots with prison reform and our incarceration issues and gun violence. Why is it that boys and men commit the majority of mass homicides? That's an important question to keep asking ourselves, and I think that's why this film so resonates with him. 

Between the Sundance Film Festival premiere and the upcoming Castro Theatre screening, you're preaching your message to the choir. Are vulnerable youth and incarcerated populations seeing The Mask You Live In, too?

We're to date in 50 states and 15 countries. In terms of vulnerable youth, the educational curriculum, the teachers, coaches and mentors are using some of the tools The Representation Project is putting out to further deconstruct the living narratives and reconstruct what it means to be a whole human being.  
What would you like viewers to take away from the film?

Even if someone sees the film and learns one new thing, that's a win for me, because I want to challenge the boys and men to comprehend the limited narrative they've been fed and trigger something in them, so hopefully they'll speak out against it.

The Mask You Live In, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 8 p.m., $10, at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, 415-621-6350.

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