by Marsha Rakestraw

“Strength is about adapting to change, not about retreating from it and lashing back with violence out of fear. And it’s high time we had a definition of manhood capable of meeting that challenge.” ~ Jackson Katz, anti-violence educator

Look at films, video games, sports, the news, music, ads, politics, and pretty much anywhere in US culture, and we often see a very particular definition of what it means to be “a man.” That definition usually involves violence, aggression, and power.

It also usually means objectifying and devaluing women and girls.

Conversations about the influence of culture on women and girls are beginning to grow, but there’s a frightening lack of discussion about the cultural messages that our society surrounds men and boys with.

Here are five films valuable for launching such a conversation. Note that they all contain mature content.

  1. The Bro Code: How Contemporary Culture Creates Sexist Men (2011, 58 min)
    The film looks at the cultural forces that help shape young men to dehumanize and disrespect women. Filmmaker Thomas Keith dissects a range of media that glamorize and promote sexism, violence against women, and certain very specific definitions of “American manhood.”
  2. The Empathy Gap: Masculinity and the Courage to Change (2015, 70 min)
    Another film by Thomas Keith, this documentary examines the sexist and misogynistic messages with which US culture inundates men (and women) and how the strict and narrow definitions of masculinity prevent men and boys from realizing their whole selves as caring, empathetic human beings.
  3. Hip Hop: Beats and Rhymes (2006, 60 min)
    In his exploration of hip-hop music and culture, Byron Hurt raises questions about several issues, from perceptions of masculinity, to the prevalence of sexism, misogyny, and the objectification of women, to the existence of homophobia and homoeroticism in lyrics and images. He also explores the roots of hip-hop and the exploitation and domination of hip-hop by the major music industry, which is primarily controlled by white men.
  4. The Mask You Live In (2015, 97 min)
    Boys get messages early on about what it means to be a man in today’s society. As the film notes: “We’ve constructed an idea of masculinity in the United States that doesn’t give young boys a way to feel secure in their masculinity, so we make them go prove it all the time. … We have to give boys permission to experience a wide range of feelings. Masculinity is not never feeling scared; it’s feeling scared, and then to know you can also surmount it.” The film includes interviews with boys and men discussing their own experiences, as well as with experts, educators, and others working to help shift the messages boys are raised to internalize.
  5. Tough Guise 2: Violence, Manhood & American Culture (2013, 80 min)
    This updated film explores the ongoing and escalating epidemic of men’s violence in America and how it’s “rooted in our inability as a society to move beyond outmoded ideals of manhood.” Using numerous examples from gun violence, violence against women, bullying, video games and other popular culture formats, sports culture, and politics, anti-violence educator Jackson Katz illuminates a culture “that has normalized violent and regressive forms of masculinity in the face of challenges to traditional male power and authority.”

Films like these offer an important opportunity for exploring an often-ignored cultural reality that globally affects people, animals, and the earth, as well as for honing critical thinking skills and seeking solutions for transforming systems and the ways we think about and interact with boys and young men.

Exploring these films also helps empower both young men and women to take more control of what they do with the messages that inundate them about what it means to be a “man” or “woman.”


Image courtesy of pneedham/Flickr.