White Ribbon video explores roots of ‘toxic masculinity’

Anti violence group White Ribbon is marking Anti-Bullying Day in Canada with a powerful video short, “Boys Don’t Cry,” that shines a light on the causes of toxic masculinity.

The nearly three-minute video, from Oscar-nominated Canadian director Hubert Davis and agency Bensimon Byrne, tells the story of a boy from infancy through boyhood and into adolescence. Along the way, he experiences different situations that lead to him adopting some of the destructive traits increasingly associated with “toxic masculinity.” The film culminates with him taking a clearly vulnerable girl who has drank too much into a bedroom at a house party, and ominously closing the door.

The request from White Ribbon was to come up with ways to “educate as many people as possible about toxic masculinity and gender-based violence,” said Bensimon Byrne executive creative director Joseph Bonnici.

There has been a lot of talk and increased awareness about toxic masculinity, but people need a deeper understanding about the root causes if something is going to be done about it, he said.

“It’s a huge problem to solve,” he said. “So it required education and explanation; helping people make connections that most people currently aren’t making. For us, film was the way to do this.”

Bensimon Byrne arrived at the vision for the spot through strategic research that presented the range of emotions that males feel as different colours. “It was this kaleidoscope of colours that represented [the] emotions that young boys are allowed to feel, and then, as you get to teenagers, that spectrum was gone. There was very little colour left,” said Bonnici.

The video ends with a push to BoysDontCry.ca. “To create healthier masculinities, we need to encourage boys and men to express a full range of emotions and understand the positive difference they can make when they do,” the site states. “Efforts to eradicate gender inequality and all forms of gender-based violence require that we rethink harmful aspects of masculinity in order to promote healthier, peaceful and inclusive alternatives.”

The group is aware it might face backlash from some men who watch the film and incorrectly conclude its message is that all men are dangerous. But that is not the point of the film, nor is it to suggest there is one thing we need to do to put an end to toxic masculinity, said Bonnici.

“It’s a million things and we are just trying to show a believable story of one boy’s journey through life into adolescence that leads to that version of masculinity that is so toxic.”

Bonnici provided some insight about key moments in the film that shape the narrative:

:07 — “The colour in the beginning is much more vibrant, expressing the full spectrum of emotions that young boys are allowed to feel,” he said.

:41 — The boy shyly removes his shirt in a change room, hiding himself from peers. “He is still at the point where he allowed to be shy and show emotional vulnerability, but starting to feel the societal pressures with boys laughing at him.”

1:10 — “The whole script changes from boys can, to boys can’t. This is the point in a young boy’s life that he is starting to learn what men are supposed to feel and what they can’t, according to society.” The boy has just experienced an intense fight between his parents and his father comes and sits beside him. Instead of talking to the boy, he clenches his fists. “There is no discussion about what he saw or about the fight, there is nothing.”

1:45 — After seeing the boy doing pushups, we cut back to him in the change room. “You see him take his shirt off again and he is facing the other boys, he is not facing away from them. He has learned what a male should be, what he should look like. It’s a very purposeful moment to show the shift of that young boy to something very different.”

2:24 — The boy leads the intoxicated girl upstairs, closes the doors and it goes quiet. “In terms of showing an outright assault it just wasn’t necessary to have the film make its point,” said Bonnici. “Viewers have essentially seen 16 years of a young man’s life in rapid succession, so we went silent to let the message sink in.”



David Brown