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The Gender Jar: One Mom’s Experience with “The Mask You Live In”

It’s hard to believe it has been three nights—and I am still inspired and on the verge of tears when I think about the powerful screening experience of Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s The Mask You Live In. The film is a 90-minute documentary focusing on “the mask” that boys are conditioned to wear to hide their feelings and vulnerabilities due to society’s conditioning on what it means to “Be A Man.” The film showed disturbing effects of this “mask” on childhood depression, substance use, and even violence.

As a mom of three little ones (gender/age: boy/8, girl/5, and boy/3), a professional working in support of high-risk youth, and a volunteer for programming in San Quentin Prison, this film spoke to EVERY aspect of my life. I could see clear linkages to the pain and isolation our boys begin to feel at early ages and the actions that can result from that pain—from sadness and despair to crime and even suicide.

Throughout the entire film, as tears kept rolling down my cheeks, I couldn’t help but picture my own relationship to my oldest son, Zayan. I realized I had been subtly reinforcing societal messages for the last year or so—cuddling him a little less so that he wouldn’t be too much of a “mama’s boy,” helping him “man-up” if he gets a small injury on the soccer field, or even just forgetting that he is still just a small kid. My husband, Kapil, shared similar thoughts and experiences and we debriefed the film the whole way home.

Monday morning was a whole new day and consisted of a whole new outlook for our family. I woke up extra early and climbed onto Zayan’s top, twin-sized bunk and cuddled him—without reservation and without guilt. That night at our family dinner, we talked all about the movie and gender “stereotypes.”

We created a family challenge—to find messages that suggest that boys and girls are different and HAVE to like different things. We started a “Gender Jar” at home where we are finding as many “weird” messages that talk about “stereotypes” (or how people have to “be”) during the day and then we talk about them. Last night, Zayan came up with three examples at dinner. One was when he overheard his friend saying that girls can’t play kickball. I already see a difference in the kids’ awareness and as Zayan put it, “we all have different talents” regardless of our gender.