Documentary Analysis


The Mask You Live In is a documentary about boys and young men who struggle to stay true to themselves while negotiating America’s narrow definition of masculinity.

The documentary attempts to analyze the narrow definition of masculinity we’ve socially constructed and confined boys to, and in doing so, the majority of the documentary follows the expository mode to elaborate on this definition and its contributing factors, while also using the cinematic techniques found in observational mode to further foment its claims. Most images in the film do have a direct relationship with the voice-over to give the audience a visual representation of the logic behind the contributing factors to our definition of masculinity, i.e.playground fights, partying, and prostitution. The film did have some scenes that used unobtrusive camera work  to make the recollections of the interviewees seem a bit more natural (observational mode) , thereby creating credibility, but the film still predominantly followed the expository mode in that all interviews in the films contributed to the film’s exploration of masculinity; the interviewees elaborated on their own views of how a male should behave in society and proved that these views are pitfalls to creating a “mask” that boys hide behind to conceal their true emotions, which are basic factors the film elaborated on.

There are multiple times throughout the documentary where Ethos is demonstrated: for example in the beginning of the film when the title is shown, it is actually taken from the quote of George Orwell: “He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.” This is the followed by a picture of a former defensive lineman Joe Ehrmann, to further emphasize the idea that Ehrmann as a football player in a well-known and dominating sport, must show his masculinity in order to fit into this character as a football player or a sportsman. In addition to scenes like the one stated, there are various times when the language of the people in the documentary are stating for the boys and young men to ‘man up’ or ‘be a man’; this emphasis and repetition shows society’s expectations of males to have masculine characteristics such as strength and toughness, but also indifference and ignorance.

There are multiple times throughout the documentary where there are counterarguments that can be made and further supported with analysis and statistics. But the majority of these opportunities are not utilized, and so the documentary shows the film crew’s belief that humanity will follow nurture, as in letting males in society accept emotional and psychological pain, rather than nature, as in letting males become the typical dominant and tough men they have been so far. Because the documentary fails to acknowledge and counter the possible arguments against the purpose of the film, there were little to no strong counter-arguments made.

The documentary does a particularly well job of convincing the audience that the logic behind its analysis of the social factors that contribute to our narrow definition of masculinity has some credibility. Some of its explanations come from sources of authority, particularly social psychologists who have the observed that gender differences build up early on in life and these differences are strengthened by a boys need to avoid being associated with girls, that boys need to conform to society’s definition of masculinity to combat the consequences of being unable to release their emotions, and that the phrase “be a man” has been particularly influential in contributing to the gender difference that seems to be at the core of our masculinity problem. The documentary provides useful statistics on sexual abuse, drug usage, and bullying to further foment the logic behind its reasoning with concrete evidence of their presence in society. Such flawless reasoning combined with concrete evidence gives the documentary strong credibility and a strong appeal to logos.

Naturally the documentary consists of many rhetorical devices, however, one of its highly used is pathos. The film opens with a personal anecdote which the director uses to appeal to the empathy of the audience as a young boy is emotionally abused by his father. This use of anecdotes is a continuous and very consistent technique throughout the piece almost to the point of overuse mainly because while some anecdotes appealed to the viewer’s emotion very successfully such as one in which a highschool teacher discussed masculinity with a group of trouble-making students and another in which prison inmates discussed the same topic, others were very much unnecessary. Since the film is centered around a topic that carries so much emotion and weight in our society it is very natural that the film contained a high level of pathos, however so in general the personal anecdotes were valuable to the work’s thesis. As for visual and audio elements, the documentary used a more downplayed audio track that, while generally subtle, matched well in tone to the movie. The visual aspects to the piece were, in my opinion, highly appropriate as they were mainly more minimalist, but also consisted of many, many cultural references to well known movies, video games, and etc that were shown as the narration continued, created a very intense and emotional mood because it made the impact of the issues very clear.

Although the audience is meant to be the general American populace, the overall context of the documentary along with its following arguments supported by evidence taken from statistics, interviews, and others is more focused on a more mature and literate audience including adults and more specifically teachers and professors. Because this film revolves around the development of males from birth to adulthood, teachers have a major influence on the characteristics of these male students; which is ironic in the sense that in The Mask You Live In, there are multiple times where it is stated that males are more likely to drop out or flunk out of high school in comparison to female students. Furthermore, the video clips the documentary uses from other films are meant to show that media and entertainment also have a prominent factor in the improper development of males; however this evidence is improperly used due to the fact that these clips have no connections and no context to the purpose of the documentary. For example, when a scene is played from ParaNorman with the jock in view, the point of this stereotype existence in ParaNorman is as a form of satire and humor. But in The Mask You Live In, this perspective is unnaturally changed and fitted into being evidence for the argument of the documentary.

The documentary opens with a dark, shadowy, scene, of a man failing to live up to his father’s definition of what it means to be a “man” in society, and uses the dark and dam attitude created by the scene to convey how serious of a problem our definition of masculinity has become. Most camera angles are fixed because a large part of the film involves victims of this definition sharing their thoughts and emotions on society’s perception of masculinity, and for the same reason almost all shots are close-up and still to maintain the seriousness of some of the interviews. While most of the film is a montage of interviews that attempt to analyze both the contributing factors to our definition of masculinity and the destructive effect it’s had on character development, other significant editing elements like the background music had a subconscious effect on our emotions when listening to the interviewees, an effect I came to realize towards the end of the film.

With the nature and topic of the documentary, it is inherently something that one relates to and understands (both men and women) because of the universality of gender roles (specifically hyper-masculinity and hyper-femininity). However, this was not only a natural benefit of the topic itself as the film did a very effective job in using this aspect of its theme to its advantage in using personal anecdotes from many men and women throughout the “plot” of the piece, choosing to center the piece on the shared/more common experiences that all or most humans would understand such as athletics, father/son and mother/son relationships, video game violence, and etc. In addition the film not only used highly relatable but powerful examples, its huge variety of examples/influences discussed was astoundingly in-depth and unexpected for a 90 minute film that called itself a film concerning masculinity. The work perused hyper-masculinity causes such as sexism, racism, homophobia, media, video games, mental illness, sex education, and other not only briefly but extensively and with expertise as it felt neither overly rushed nor endless during any of those delves. Overall the documentary discussed a huge variety of different types, influences, and situations, many of which were directly relatable, easily recognizable references to pop culture, or highly effective personal accounts.

Despite the film’s overall effectiveness and success (in fulfilling its purpose) several times its use of emotional appeal was forced and simply overused. For the first 30-40 minutes or so much of what the documentary said was the same thing only repeated several times with slightly different personal anecdotes in support of this. There was once during this time where the film began to explore biology and our definition of sex/gender when it became extremely interesting however this topic was pushed back once again to return to the status quo of anecdote after anecdote. In short, this use of anecdote and argument was not completely unnecessary it was simply too long and created a style in which it felt as if the first third of the documentary was only a very long introduction where the director finally realized what to talk about and then moved into her points 40 minutes into the movie. Once these 40 minutes were over I was surprised to see the film really take off and become extremely in depth (see comments in question 8) so this juxtaposition of extremely exceptional exploration of themes as compared to the “intro” made the first third of the film even more bizarre. Finally while the soundtrack was very enjoyable as a whole, there was one particular instance in which the director chose to play “Glory and Gore” by Lorde which was not only very out of place but was extremely distracting as it took the viewer out of the film to hear a jarringly inappropriate pop song.

Director Jennifer Siebel Newsom, in her documentary “The Mask You Life In”, argues that society wrongly creates a role of hyper-masculinity and rejection of femininity for males as a result of a variety of cultural influences present and increasing in the modern day. She supports this claim by first opening the film with a personal anecdote concerning masculinity from a football coach in which his father emotionally abused him, then highlighting the huge impact of the problem through a collection of news clips related to consequences of the masculine gender role, then continuing with consistent anecdotes similar to the first, utilizing appropriate statistics throughout the film such as the higher suicide rate for males than females, discussing interviews with many professionals (mainly in the fields of psychiatry and child development), and exploring the many, many different influences on the problem of masculine gender roles such as systemic, ingrained sexism and stigma against mental illness. Newsom’s purpose is to highlight the extent of the problem and its presence in the modern society in order to convince viewers to become activists and work to discontinue gender roles for the future. She adopts an emotive and very serious but informative tone for her likely progressive and young adult to adult audience.

What’s your stance on gender-defined roles? Do you believe that these stereotypes benefit the mental and physical health of not only men but women? If so, why and how do these stereotypes give benefits?

What do you think?


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