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Clarence Fanto: Film fuels frank discussion on ingrained gender roles

posted Mar 26, 2015, 8:41 AM by Jv Hampton-VanSant
The Berkshire Eagle

LENOX >> Following a recent screening of Jennifer Siebel Newsom's trail-blazing documentary, "The Mask You Live In," the audience at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School sat for a moment in stunned silence.

Then, the floodgates opened for a sometimes tense but ultimately healthy discussion, moderated by JV Hampton VanSant, youth coordinator at Multicultural BRIDGE, which organized the event attended by about 100 students, parents and other community members.

As reported in this space last Sunday, the film exposes in provocative fashion the ill effects of our society's super-macho definition of masculinity. The price paid by boys and men cut off from their feelings and by women who are demeaned or exploited is unacceptably high.

The filmmakers see a connection to the upsurge of sexual assaults on female students at many college campuses. A U.S. Justice Department study at two large Midwestern and Southern universities several years ago found that one out of four young women had been subjected to some form of unwanted sexual activity. (Whether that alarming statistic can be applied to U.S. campuses overall remains unclear.)

Multicultural BRIDGE assembled a post-screening discussion panel at the high school. It quickly became clear that there was no consensus in the audience on how to change deeply ingrained standards of behavior.

"The biggest challenge here is how to bring this back into your home lives and school," said Stockbridge native Jonathan Aronoff, a clinical psychologist whose forthcoming book is titled "Lost Generation of Boys."

A woman in the audience complained that "my biggest problem with this film is that it protected men, it talked about embracing masculinity and making it positive. I'm afraid we need to say that an absolutely vital part of feminism is destroying masculinity; it's toxic and based largely on attacking women."

Panelist Bear McHugh, of the Berkshire Area Health Education Center, said "sometimes men are hard to get along with, sometimes women are hard to get along with, and that's what I've truly learned in this life. The whole thing goes back to that middle ground because we are human and we should treat each other that way ... to talk about what's good for everybody."

But the audience member asserted that "there's a huge social divide between genders in America; we have to talk about it in terms of the relationship between oppressed and oppressor. Yes, we are all human but we're not all treated like humans."

"So, are you saying we should also destroy femininity because it's actually the same concept?" asked a male high school student. "It's extremely harmful to say 'destroy masculinity,' because when you destroy something, you take away everything that's part of it, and you should just want to change it."

LMMHS Assistant Principal Brian Cogswell questioned whether "destroying is the right word, but there absolutely needs to be change. Maybe we should try to get our youth coaches involved to get that to our children when they're younger."

"Conversations like these and results that you're not even expecting help promote the change in society that we want to see," said Matthew Bitten, clinic director at South Bay Mental Health's Pittsfield office.

Another woman in the audience discussed how much chauvinism she had witnessed during more than eight years at a mostly male workplace. And the father of a 7-year-old boy acknowledged that "I'm guilty of all this and very focused on changing it, but without acknowledging it until I witnessed this film."

Another father pointed out that "the moment our children turn on their first TV set, the parents are already playing catchup. We only have our children so many hours a day, you teachers and students are the second defense for our kids. The main thing you can give to boys and girls is a safety net. They have to feel safe enough to tell you what they're feeling."

Aronoff suggested three key words — "compassion, empathy and critical thinking that lead to teamwork, family and, eventually, community. If you engage in a conversation with your family or your peers, be mindful, are you being empathic, simultaneously being able to hold on to your thoughts, feelings and actions, and to another person's."

"Critical thinking is being able to think about it objectively," he explained, "and then try to render an opinion that isn't knocking someone off, it's including everyone. If you practice those qualities, you'll find at least you have something to work with."

As demonstrated by the intense discussion, "The Mask You Live In" fuels constructive debates. More school showings are being scheduled by Multicultural BRIDGE. The next public screening is expected during the upcoming 10th anniversary Berkshire International Film Festival (BIFF) from May 28-31.

Thought-provoking and highly relevant to the times we live in, the documentary has the potential to affect attitudes and help create positive change in our too-often conflict-ridden society.

Contact Clarence Fanto at