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Brooks Brothers, Maria Shriver kick off a conversation about masculinity

Brooks Brothers hosts a screening of Jennifer Siebel Newsom's "The Mask You Live In" at the Paley Center

America is in the throes of a masculinity crisis.

That was the takeaway from an hour-long panel discussion moderated by Maria Shriver at the Paley Center for the Media in Beverly Hills on Thursday, which followed the local premiere screening of Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s documentary on masculinity, “The Mask You Live In.”

Hosted by Brooks Brothers, the event came the same day Shriver (one of the film’s executive producers) released the results of recent poll titled: “The Shriver Report Snapshot: An Insight Into the 21st Century Man.” Taken together, the screening, panel discussion and Shriver’s survey point to a daunting problem in American society today -- and offer a glimmer of hope that it can be solved.

The documentary starts with a George Orwell quote: “He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.” It goes on to present a sobering -- if at times simplistic -- look at the chaos caused by the narrow definition of masculinity in America today (which emphasizes athletic ability, sexual prowess, economic success and emotional detachment), some of its root causes and the myriad problems flowing from it, including drug abuse, violence, sexual assault and depression. The film includes interviews with dozens of professionals and turns the camera on many, many males of the species, from those barely past toddlerhood to white-haired retirees.

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For the Record

1:24 p.m., April 29: An earlier version of this post said panelists Tony Porter, Jackson Katz, Jerry Tello and Josh Levs all appeared in the documentary "The Mask You Live In." Porter and Katz appeared in the film, Tello and Levs did not.

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The film is filled with anecdotes of masculinity gone haywire, including a therapist’s anecdote about an 8-year-old boy who wants to be a venture capitalist when he grows up and a convict’s calm observance that the first time he felt truly powerful was right after he’d shot someone six times. It’s also chock full of troubling statistics that flash the screen (“31% of men feel addicted to video games,” “Suicide is the third leading cause of death for boys.”)

The documentary risks being nothing more than an extended PSA but for the appearance of former NFL player and current motivational speaker Joe Ehrmann, whose personal journey essentially bookends “The Mask You Live In.”  He distills its essence into a single sentence when he says: “’Be a man’ are the three most destructive words in the English language.”

The discussion at the Paley that followed included Shriver, Newsom (if the last name sounds  familiar it’s because she’s married to California’s Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom) and four professionals; educator-activist Tony Porter and gender violence prevention educator Jackson Katz (both of whom also appeared in the documentary), therapist-author Jerry Tello and Josh Levs (author of the upcoming book “All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families, and Business--And How We Can Fix It Together”). Though the discussion veered at times into race and spirituality, the most helpful part was a general consensus that changing the constrictive definition of masculinity was possible.

There were two specific suggestions from the panel. Katz said men need to find their voice. “We need to ask men to speak up,” he said. “Because whatever a father does with his son is masculine -- it can be cooking or fly-fishing.”  

Observing that the people who had invited him to participate in the movie and the panel discussion were both women, Porter pointed to the lack of men involved in teaching and mentoring. “We need more men involved in the process,” Porter told the crowd. “And not just fathers with boys -- all men.”

In short, there needs to be more “men” in “mentoring.”

But until and unless that starts to happen, Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s documentary “The Mask You Live In” may be the best hope we have of kick-starting an honest conversation about -- and a wholesale reshaping of -- what masculinity means in the 21st century.

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