Why Does Being a Man Require So Many Masks?

National Book Award-winning poet Terrance Hayes writes about fatherhood and his own struggle to negotiate Americans' narrow definition of masculinity.
CChung_Maskulinity650.gif

YES! Illustration by Christina Chung

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. 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.

[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.


Learn more about The Representation Project, including how to host a screening or access curriculum, at therepresentationproject.org.