Culture Shift

Books + Film + Music

So Many Masks To “Be a Man” Poet Terrance Hayes watches a documentary with his son about what it is to be masculine in America

YES! illustration by Christina Chung

YES! illustration by Christina Chung

[THE MASK YOU LIVE IN]

When I asked my 12-year-old son to watch a documentary with me, he declined politely even before I said the film’s name or theme. He declined more formally when I told him it was about masculinity, but I made him watch The Mask You Live In, anyway. I lay on my bed with a pen and notepad, while he lay in the opposite direction with a pillow mashed beneath his chin, presumably to keep his head propped up should he begin to nod off.

Terrance Hayes

Terrance Hayes is the Pittsburgh-based author of several books. His most recent, How To Be Drawn, was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award.

The YouTube trailer, viewed well over 4 million times, had knotted my heart. It showed boys intently staring into the camera, against an audio collage of men saying things like, “stop with the tears,” “stop with the emotions,” “don’t cry,” “man up.” A product of The Representation Project — the same filmmakers who created a 2011 documentary, Miss Representation, about the gender messages given to girls — The Mask You Live In appeared to have potential. I wanted to watch the film and talk to my son about it.

The Mask You Live In, it turns out, didn’t present many new ideas about manhood and masculinity, but it did stir up assorted memories, images, and opinions. I came away thinking of the masks I’ve experienced, myself — masks I’ve worn, and masks I’ve faced.


[THE MASCULINE]

Now that I am older, I can imagine the weakness my father saw in me. I was afraid of dogs of all sizes; I was afraid of deep water; I was afraid of girls; I was just as afraid of boys my own age as I was of boys who were older; and I was afraid of my father. When he carried me out to the deep end at the Fort Jackson resident pool, I knotted my ropy arms and legs around him and after a few attempts, he gave up trying to unknot them. My father wore a mask, but even as a small boy I believed he was a good man for wearing it. It was the mask of patience — a mask I sometimes read as disappointment. It was the mask of stoicism — a mask I sometimes read as detachment. When the dogs, big or small, came barking, he lifted me away from them. When I wept in his presence, he waited quietly until I ceased. Not once did he snap, “Be a man.” But I always thought he was thinking it.


[THE MASK]

I know some parents and grandparents let their children call them by their first names. One of my childhood friends still calls his father Daddy. When I am home, I still call my father Sir and my mother Ma’am. My father retired from the Army after 25 years, and has been a prison guard now for nearly 20. Before any visit home, I remind my son of how they are to be addressed.


[THE MASK YOU LIVE IN II]

Sometimes I imagine my son talking to his mother in long, textured sentences. My wife tells me he talks considerably more when I’m not around. The mothers in The Mask You Live In recall the gentleness of their sons and the various changes their sons underwent navigating the masculine world. The fathers are mostly absent. The one young black father who is raising his 5- or 6-year-old son alone smiles hard throughout his scenes. He seems filled with either oblivious joy or plain old obliviousness. The tough and/or distant and/or alcoholic and/or abusive fathers are absent but frequently recalled. I wonder if, when my son is a man, he will recall the various ways I was absent.


[THE MASK II]

Beneath the mask of machismo is the mask of expectation. Beneath the mask of athleticism is the mask of expectation. Beneath the mask of hunger is the mask of loneliness. Beneath the mask of depression is the mask of loneliness. Beneath the mask of peer pressure is the mask of expectation. Beneath the mask of bad decisions, beneath the mask of regret, beneath the mask of everything is a mask.


[THE MASCULINE II]

Now that I am older, I can imagine the weakness my father saw in me. Perhaps he overheard me singing softly to myself when I was a boy. I still do from time to time. I have tried getting my son to join me. I have never heard him singing to himself. Which is one of the ways I know we are different. I often think he will grow into a classic man. A man like his grandfather.


[THE MASK III]

Perhaps someday The Mask You Live In will help my son express his feelings about the ways I failed or damaged him. I think the fathers absent from the documentary would like to express themselves. How they failed because of the ways their fathers failed or damaged them, and how their fathers failed because of the ways their fathers failed or damaged them.

Landmarks cover

The Mask You Live In

Directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, 2015, 97 min.


[THE MASK YOU LIVE IN III]

The documentary opens with a George Orwell quote: “He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.” If the boy’s face does not grow to fit the mask, can he be said to have grown at all? Where does the mask come from? Is the mask the same for every male? Such questions are what compelled me to watch the film with my son. How did he and his friends handle some of the documentary’s concerns, I asked him. Bullying, peer pressure, anger? His answer was, “We talk it out.” I couldn’t tell whether he and his friends did in fact talk through their problems or whether my son was unwilling to share those concerns with me. But it’s why I watched the film with him: to talk it out. He didn’t have much to say. He may recall the evening I forced him to watch The Mask You Live In. I wonder if he will remember any details of the documentary. What is said about sex, alpha males, athleticism, alcoholism, video games, violence, sports culture, drug culture, rape culture, peer pressure, depression, bad decisions, regret, and everything else a boy encounters navigating the masculine world is familiar, and broadly true.

My notepad in hand, I began to feel like one of the adults in the documentary; my son seemed both patient and masked.


[THE MASCULINE III]

My son can be so serious with me sometimes. The half of me that has my father’s last name is proud of his manliness. Sometimes I am proud of his patience, his tolerance, his poise. Other times when I consider his manliness, I wonder if it masks apathy or reticence or even rage. I fear he will never talk to me. When I look at him, he looks away. It can feel like a look of shyness, indifference, and apprehension all at once.

In a poem called “Horizontal Cosmology,” poet Christopher Gilbert writes, “My face is a mask. Everyone wears it./ When I take it off there’s another face.” This, it seems to me, gets at the true complexity of the masks we wear. There are more than 40 muscles in the human face working to reveal as well as conceal the nooks and chambers of the heart. Beneath each mask, there is another mask; beneath each face, there is another face.

Terrance Hayes

Terrance Hayes is the Pittsburgh-based author of several books. His most recent, How To Be Drawn, was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award.

Books + Film + Music

Music Inspiring Us

Tuff Ruff

Tuff Ruff

Mikael Seifu

Unless you live in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where you can listen to Mikael Seifu DJing weekly, only an EP and a limited number of singles are available to mesmerize you with Seifu’s sound. He occupies a unique place in electronic music, a genre dominated by American and European artists, fusing the spirit of traditional Ethiopian music with Western underground-electronic sound qualities. Seifu hopes to stretch the global reach of electronic music by inserting East Africa into the mix. Listen to his single “Tuff Ruff” for a sample of what Seifu brings to global ears.


Split

Split

Tashi Dorji and Marisa Anderson

Listening to Split is like hearing two sides of the same American landscape. On the album, Tashi Dorji, a Bhutanese guitarist who lives in Asheville, North Carolina, and Marisa Anderson, of Portland, Oregon, each play a 16-minute side of solo guitar. Dorji’s tranquil rhythms are overlaid with offbeat, spontaneous strumming and quick slides up and down the strings, while Anderson’s musings are contemplative and melodic, accompanied by soothing fuzz from her electric guitar. A sequential listen offers a yin-and-yang perspective and a fresh take on the resonant power of the guitar’s place in American musical history.


Books + Film + Music

What’s Wrong With This Picture? To tell the real story of female friendship, we must leave behind familiar areas of Western history and literature.

photo by chippix / shutterstock

Photo by chippix / Shutterstock

I have long been fascinated by female friendship. My favorite authors are those who embrace the subject in all its unwieldy, precious complexity: Charlotte Brontë, Audre Lorde, Elena Ferrante. But — perhaps as a means of self-preservation — I am chronically slow to understand how my passions are fundamentally self-interested. Loving women, I realize, has never merely been for me a natural inclination, but rather an urge tied up in life-sustaining necessity. I define myself through my love of women, and yet I’ve never been capable of grasping why this is the case.

Rachel Vorona Cote

Rachel Vorona Cote is a writer in Washington, D.C. She contributes regularly at Jezebel and has also written for a variety of other venues like Pacific Standard, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Rumpus. She is currently working on a book about women’s mental health and its connection with emotional “excess.”

And so I have turned to books in hopes that I would locate my impulses within them. Why have I always needed not just to cultivate relationships with other women but to actively love them, to seek the deep intimacy that I do? When I learned of The Social Sex: A History of Female Friendship, I was hopeful that the book might serve up the answers to these self-involved inquiries. But as I read, I found myself less and less invested in this question.

The Social Sex: A History of Female Friendship

The Social Sex: A History of Female Friendship

Marilyn Yalom and Theresa Donovan Brown Harper Perennial, 400 pages

It is true that authors Marilyn Yalom and Theresa Donovan Brown deliver precisely the narrative of female intimacy that I should, as a middle-class white woman, find comfortably relatable. The book provides a Western-focused survey of familiar plot points from history and literature: the Bible and the Greeks (i.e., honorary white people) and then a warm amble through cozy tales of middle- and upper-class feminine comradeship, with a long linger in the 19th century. The circumstances surrounding the friendships Yalom and Brown explore often called to mind my own, historical differences notwithstanding. Even the book’s cover — four comely white ladies, bobbed and well-dressed — beamed at me with welcoming sameness. My blinkered expectations were confirmed; I had found a narrative mirror. But I was not satiated so much as unsettled.

About a year ago, I began an essay series exploring different fictional female friendships, ones that have lingered in the cultural consciousness or are especially popular now. And each time I contemplate the subjects of the next installment, I am struck, though not necessarily surprised, by the overwhelming white heteronormativity of our most cherished fictional companions: Anne Shirley and Diana Barry from Anne of Green Gables; Angela Chase and Rayanne Graff from My So-Called Life; Daria Morgendorffer and Jane Lane from MTV’s Daria. For the sake of page views, I have more than once chosen to write my column on white cis women like the ones I have mentioned (indeed, I launched my column with an essay about Daria and Jane). It is not so much that I assume my readership is white and middle class — indeed, I hope not — but I am making a dangerous and biased assumption that people would rather read essays about more widely known fictional female friends regardless of their skin color. Though I may sigh, hem, and haw, my resignation nonetheless signals complicity.

Yalom and Brown yield similarly in the face of a white-dominant archive. The book’s most glaring issue, as other reviewers have noted, is the near-erasure of nonwhite experience from its study. I have no room to condemn them, and indeed I do not. But the expansiveness of their study casts in sharp relief the injustice committed by those of us who write about female friendship when we seek only to understand ourselves as echoes of a white, middle-class past.

Throughout the book, Yalom and Brown implicitly yearn for coherence in female relationships and, through demonstrating that coherence, seek to posit female friendship as an institution of its own. But it does so at the expense of women who lacked the privilege to make themselves heard. “Look at the many ways we have always been the same,” they seem to remind us throughout the text. And so it’s true: Women have loved one another, held one another for thousands of years. But in 2016, and in our current sociopolitical climate, is it productive to focus on white women’s sameness across history? I argue no. We have tarried too long on this path, and the impact has been pernicious.

Of course there is comfort in understanding one’s tendencies as knit into a long historical or literary tapestry. As a girl, my mentors in female companionship were authors Lucy Maud Montgomery and Charlotte Brontë. I relished the way Montgomery’s Anne Shirley and Diana Barry created a world of their own through the passionate fusion of their imaginations. I longed to love and be loved like Jane Eyre and Helen Burns and was inconsolable when death wedged itself between them.

In 2016, and in our current sociopolitical climate, is it productive to focus on white women’s sameness across history? I argue no. We have tarried too long on this path, and the impact has been pernicious.

Yalom and Brown seek to conjure a kinship of this sort between their readers and the women whose stories they chronicle and, as both a reader and writer, I understand that desire. After all, literature offers the wondrous palliative capacity to soothe; of course we should avail ourselves of its emotional sustenance. After all, I began reading and writing about female intimacy as a means of exploring my own drive for closeness with women. Launching an essay series on the subject seemed to me a way not only to scratch this itch but also to engage other women in this conversation — for all of us, together, to contemplate what it means to be friends by examining relationships similar to our own. I remain committed to this endeavor, but I want to push myself beyond this urge for relatability. What I — we — must not do is cower in familiar corners, appeased by the reflection that so much of Western history and literature provides to privileged white American women.

Indeed, there are so many histories of female intimacy that demand visibility in America alone. I think not only of Audre Lorde’s biomythography Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, but also of other women writers of color whose stories were suppressed until archival research made it possible for us to learn about them. “Just like the rest of us,” we might be inclined to say — and here is where we must pause. To seek commonalities with others can be a productive exercise in empathy, but empathy can also function as the mask of fear and self-centeredness. I wish Yalom and Brown had challenged us more to dwell in differences, had placated us less with antiseptic comparisons. I wish they had written about women whose lives and cultures are not respected and celebrated within a Western context.

For in a globe half-populated by women, we must be willing to encounter interpersonal relationships that are not immediately legible to us — that, in my case, will not necessarily draw nods of recognition from my readers. Even the history of the Western world offers far more opportunities for engagement with difference than we are typically willing to pursue. Yalom and Brown might have undertaken a more intersectional approach: writing about the relationships of slave women, say, rather than casually making reference to them. American Indians are only referenced as eroticized (male) threats who appeared unannounced in pioneer women’s kitchens. To so bluntly whitewash a history when we are every day confronted with heterogeneity suggests to me something desperate and fearful, a yearning for tidiness where there can and should be none.

Instead, let’s seek out the narratives that make us squirm without revising them to be more palatable. Let’s honor the so-frequent frustrations of history: its incoherence, its multitude of bodies that still do not understand how to share a planet. Histories of the Western world tell us nothing if they serve only to reassure us of imaginary homogeneity and the joys found in mutuality.

So then, what sorts of histories of female friendship do we need? To some degree, the answer is simple: histories far more self-aware of their dark underbellies and willing to lay them bare. If we are to continue writing Western histories, we must forgo the desire for pleasurable, predictable narratives. Indeed, better we cease writing them altogether and rigorously revise the ones that have skewed our vision for too long.

Rachel Vorona Cote

Rachel Vorona Cote is a writer in Washington, D.C. She contributes regularly at Jezebel and has also written for a variety of other venues like Pacific Standard, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Rumpus. She is currently working on a book about women’s mental health and its connection with emotional “excess.”

Yes! But How?

DIY Ways to Live Sustainably Eat to Boost Immunity

Illustration by Jennifer Luxton

Keeping a healthy immune system is always important, especially during colder months when we’re often indoors, in closer contact with germs.The link between strong immunity and nutritional intake is clear: More whole foods, fewer processed foods, and a balanced intake of essential vitamins and minerals can keep you, and the people around you, from getting sick. Find these micronutrients in a food near you:

Vitamin D

What it is: A nutrient that fosters production of the proteins that break down the cell membranes of bacteria and strengthens cells that maintain immunity for the body. Deficiency can increase infection, while healthy doses are believed to prevent autoimmune diseases.

Where to get it: Sunshine, milk, mushrooms, and oily fish such as salmon, tuna, and herring.

Did you know? Vitamin D is the only vitamin with its own Twitter account: @VitaminDCouncil.

Vitamin A

What it is: Fat-soluble compounds vital to the normal functioning of many immune cells including antibody generation and cellular reproduction; plays a crucial role in maintaining the health of your skin and mucous membranes, which act as the first lines of defense against infections.

Where to get it: Animal livers, dark greens, and orange and yellow vegetables such as carrots and sweet potatoes.

Did you know? It is possible to get too much vitamin A. Overdose, known as hypervitaminosis A, can cause nausea, vomiting, and dry skin. This was a common problem for Arctic explorers whose subsistence diet included seal and polar bear livers.

Zinc
Zinc

What it is: A mineral required for essential proteins and antioxidants that play a major role in maintaining immunity. Zinc also enhances the function of T cells, which detect and eliminate infectious and abnormal cells in the body.

Where to get it: Oysters, dairy products such as yogurt, and dark meats.

Did you know? Two oysters contain the full daily requirement of zinc.

Vitamin C

What it is: A powerful antioxidant that aids in the production and function of white blood cells, helps prevent cell damage, and is needed for the function of essential enzymes.

Where to get it: Citrus fruits and drinks, as well as sauerkraut.

Did you know? Vitamin C is a water-soluble nutrient, meaning it is not stored in cells. Excess amounts pass through the body, so vitamin C can be consumed throughout the day.

Probiotics
Yogurt

What it is: Bacteria for your digestive tract that stimulate the production of antibodies and T cells and help cells communicate as they fight off infections.

Where to get it: Yogurt. Check labels for “contains active/live cultures.” Also kimchi, kombucha, and other fermented foods.

Did you know? In contrast to antibiotics, which means “life-killing” in the Greek etymology, probiotics means “for life” because they are organisms that stimulate growth for other substances.

Vitamin E

What it is: An essential antioxidant helping protect cell membranes from atoms that damage cells.

Where to get it: Fatty foods such as seeds, nuts, and oils. Add sunflower seeds — one of the best sources — to salads, yogurt, or stir-fries.

Did you know? Studies show that 90 percent of Americans don’t meet the recommended daily value for vitamin E.

Commentary

How to Carry Forward Lessons From the Civil Rights Past

Last September, at the 75th anniversary alumni reunion for the late Thurgood Marshall’s NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), former Director-Counsel Elaine Jones asked the gathering of civil rights attorneys if they were up to the task of building a new racial justice movement. Her call moved me — a lawyer turned writer and NGO consultant who had once turned down an internship at LDF to focus on repaying school debt.

Nyasha Laing

Nyasha Laing is a lawyer, writer, and champion of social inclusion. She lives in New Rochelle, New York.

Later in the evening, Jones told me one of her many stories. Once, in 1973, she found herself locked in a jail room for two hours with more than 40 male inmates whom she had come to counsel on resentencing. Jones feared for her safety but averted panic by focusing on what the prisoners had to say. This experience cemented her role of helping clients most in need. It reminded her that her calling was also a choice.

Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, had learned this a decade before when tapped by LDF to run its Mississippi office. Days after winning her first desegregation case, her plaintiffs’ names were tacked up on a telegraph pole. They were forced off their plantation with no income, said Edelman.

Edelman and Jones were part of the vanguard of a quest for justice­ — one that a newer, younger cadre continues today. Since the 1970s, “critical race theory” scholars such as Derrick Bell and Michelle Alexander have inspired a generation seeking to dismantle systemic racial bias and navigate an increasingly sophisticated architecture of political and judicial opposition. Their writings inspired Justin Hansford to become a law professor.

But it was not until his arrest during protests in Ferguson, Missouri, that Hansford felt truly connected to a broader movement. “Ferguson was a moment,” he said. “As a young lawyer of color, you want to fight for this community.”

By working directly with organizers, lawyers “can actually be a part of the avenue of that movement,” said Hansford. Still, there is a void in leadership, meager training in social justice lawyering, and not much passing of the baton. Other young attorneys agree, saying that this and the adversarial nature of litigation turned them away. But with a resurgence of protest, there is hope for what Edelman calls “a new transforming movement” that is broader and more strategic than before.

This movement will require elite professionals to fit within a broader paradigm for social change, said Purvi Shah, director of the Bertha Justice Institute. To lead well, she added, we must explore how to work collaboratively, along with how the law relates to “social movements, the emotion and trauma of what’s happening.”

Colette Pichon Battle learned this on the ground. A New Orleans native, she was working a corporate job in Washington, D.C., when Hurricane Katrina hit. Her return home to work for the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy radicalized her and brought her closer to understanding the lawyer’s role in the community. Battle described herself as a “child of the civil rights era” who studied how its leaders perfected the strategic art of litigation, but this foundation was not enough to prepare her, she said. Her work to achieve justice exposed her to “some real political education.” Later, in environmental lawsuits to recover damages after the BP oil spill, Battle learned through a human rights lens to place the interests of poor black Louisianans at the forefront.

Leading well, it seems, requires a personal resolve and a selflessness that brings Elaine Jones to mind. As leaders, “we need you to actually love it and put your body on the line,” said Battle.

Battle’s mentor, Jaribu Hill, echoed this message when she appeared on a panel at a Law for Black Lives conference last July. “Take your sheepskins off!” she commanded, as the room erupted into cheers. I felt more ready than ever when I rose to my feet, in solidarity with the sum of our different paths.

Nyasha Laing

Nyasha Laing is a lawyer, writer, and champion of social inclusion. She lives in New Rochelle, New York.

IN DEPTH