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Jennifer Siebel Newsom ’96 discusses ‘The Mask You Live In’ and masculinity in the U.S.

Scene from "The Mask You Live In," a documentary directed by Stanford alum Jennifer Siebel Newsom.

Scene from "The Mask You Live In," a documentary directed by Stanford alum Jennifer Siebel Newsom.
Scene from “The Mask You Live In,” a documentary directed by Stanford alum Jennifer Siebel Newsom.

In “The Mask You Live In,” the new Sundance documentary from Jennifer Siebel Newsom ’96, we meet boys and men from across ages, races and socio-economic backgrounds, all of whom have suffered from feeling like they had to conform to a hyper-masculine norm. The film is a natural follow-up to her first film, “Miss Representation,” which tackled how cultural messaging about female roles negatively affects women.

In America, boys are taught, at a young age, that to be ‘a man,’ they must suppress their emotions, become dominant and be superior to women. This toxic messaging in our culture has devastating effects, not just on the emotional lives of men, many of whom we meet in the film, but Newsom argues, it is also a huge contributor to violence in our culture, as well as our rape culture.

After the world premiere of Newsom’s film in the U.S. Documentary Competition of the Sundance Festival, Managing Editor Alexandra Heeney sat down with Newsom to discuss how her education at Stanford helped get her into filmmaking, her filmmaking process, and what healthy masculinity looks like.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): I understand you did both your undergrad at Stanford and you did an MBA at Stanford. Did you know at any point during that time that you were interested in making documentaries?

Jennifer Siebel Newsom (JSN): You know, when I was in business school, the drama department was right next door. As an undergrad, I’d injured my back playing soccer on the junior national team, but also at Stanford. So I had gotten back into arts and theatre. But when I was in business school, many years later, I saw the drama department. I was very shy in class, and every time I got called on, my face would turn bright red. I had anxiety [about it] so I started taking public speaking classes. And then I said, “Well, I need to get back into theatre, because I really love theatre.”

So I go back into theatre, and [the] Stanford Business [School] actually, ironically, propelled me into the entertainment industry, where I was a TV actress and did some films, but also produced a bit, as well. I’d been talking about [getting into documentary filmmaking] for a while, but when I met my husband, I was introduced to Senator Feinstein and Speaker Pelosi and, at the time, Senator Hilary Clinton and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. That’s where “Miss Representation” really spurred me forward, and that’s where I got hooked. I thought, “Ok, this is fantastic, I love filmmaking.”

TSD: The film does a really great job of calling out a lot of negative stereotypes related to masculinity, but there’s not a lot of the other side of things. Do you think that there are good examples out there?

JSN: Oh, totally. That’s why we really celebrate [former NFL defensive lineman and film subject] Joe Ehrmann and his whole belief that coaches should really be described as mentors, that they really have such a role to play in raising socially conscious and socially responsible boys and men of integrity.

Just to broadly describe healthy masculinity, it’s about being connected, connecting your heart and your head, having empathy — all the things that are natural to human beings: care, wanting to collaborate, being emotionally literate. And so many boys and men — I’m married to that man, we work with these men all the time — it’s natural to them. But unfortunately, one could argue — whether it’s corporate America and merchandisers or just media companies, whether it’s those that run video games — that we’ve unfortunately pressured boys and men to conform to this extreme, this hyper-masculine norm. And that’s so unnatural.

What’s so inspiring to me, from making this film, is that boys and men do feel like the messaging and the narrative they’ve been fed is limiting, and they want to break out of it. They want to stay true to themselves. They just need the support and the guidance and the mentorship. I think we can provide that, as a society. I’m very hopeful. And that’s what the film is going to do. The film is really going to be about sparking this national conversation about what it is to be a man: expanding the definition of masculinity to be healthy, and then, inspiring men to be healthier role models, whole human beings, for the boys and young men in their lives, and then really helping young men [to] have the courage and conviction to stay true to their whole selves.

TSD: You mentioned during the panel that you had written a screenplay for the documentary.  What exactly does that mean to write a screenplay for a documentary?

JSN: Somebody used that term, I think my husband may have, but Jessica [my editor] and I basically tried to craft an outline and write as much of, like, the concept of the film. But the one thing about documentaries, that is different than narrative features, is you’re rewriting as you’re editing. We officially had 47 versions of the film, but there are more versions of the film.

TSD: Like, the whole film?

JSN: Of the full film, yeah, yeah, yeah. So we’d start on paper, because that was easier for me, and then we would craft things and see what it looked like. You can make or break a film really in the editing room, but you’re constantly rewriting.

What we started with in the outline, really, was two films: “The Mask You Live In, Part I” and “The Mask You Live In, Part II.” As we were filming, we decided “The Mask You Live In, Part II” really needed to be our next film, “The Great American Lie,” which delves into the more sort of social, political, economic and legal ramifications of this dominator culture that we’ve so embraced and engendered into our boys, here in the United States. So that film became a little more separate. And then we delved deeper into looking at how we’re socializing our boys in “The Mask You Live In.”

TSD: You were able to get such a broad range of men and boys from across ages, races, and socio-economic backgrounds, to talk really quite openly and articulately about how what they’ve been taught about masculinity has negatively impacted them. How did you find people who were able to do that? And how did you get them to talk like that with you?

JSN: Thanks. I just take the approach of interviewing people by just being very real and direct and gentle and creating a safe space and ensuring that they understand the intentions of the film: that we’re not going to shame them, that we really want to celebrate them. But we need their whole story. So there’s just a real kind of delicate tact to the interview process that is really important to me, and we rely on references.

It was intentional, though, that we spoke to a wide spectrum of men and young men and boys. That process isn’t always perfect either. There’s so much that’s been left on the cutting room floor, and that’s always the case. But that’s why at the Representation Project, we’ll utilize some of that extra footage for not only the curriculum, but for these podcasts and other video pieces, that we’ll put online, that can be used for educational purposes.

“The Mask You Live In” will screen at Stanford on March 31, and the screening will be followed by a Q&A with director Jennifer Siebel Newsom.

Contact Alexandra Heeney at aheeney ‘at’

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