TORONTO — It lasts just three minutes but a new video on toxic masculinity covers a boy's entire childhood, from his toddler days hearing phrases like "be brave," to being bullied in the schoolyard and roughhousing with teenage friends.
In conjunction with Anti-Bullying Day in Canada on Wednesday, advocacy group White Ribbon is releasing "Boys Don't Cry," a public service announcement by Oscar-nominated Toronto director Hubert Davis that paints a powerful picture of the origins of gender-based violence and aggressive behaviour.
"I didn't realize how volatile the conversation is," Davis, who directed the Toronto-shot film pro bono, said in a recent phone interview.
"Someone I know had read the script while we were developing it and he actually got quite angry. For a lot of men it's a real touchpoint, because it's something we don't talk about and I guess for some people, they do not want to talk about it. They really don't think it's a conversation, that this is just the way it is."
The short film, which will be shared on social media and at www.boysdontcry.ca, is narrated by the young protagonist as we see him from infancy to young adulthood.
He remarks on what boys "can be" and "can't be," according to societal expectations and gender stereotypes.
"It's such a polarizing topic, because I feel like we're in a time where I guess a lot of men feel threatened, maybe — threatened by the idea that we would even question what it means to be a man, which is crazy," said Davis, who got an Oscar nomination in 2005 for the short documentary "Hardwood."
Davis came to make the film through his wife, Kelly, a human resources manager who is on the board for White Ribbon, a movement of men and boys working to end violence against women and girls.
She introduced him to White Ribbon executive director Humberto Carolo, who suggested Davis make a short film and develop a script with ad agency Bensimon Byrne.
Davis said he wanted the story to connect with viewers on a personal level, get them simply thinking about the idea of toxic masculinity and emphasize that there isn't one root cause to the problem.
"I showed it to my mother-in-law and she said, 'Oh yeah, I said all those things to my son growing up' and it really resonated," he said. "In her mind, the way that you were supposed to raise a boy is that 'He's got to be strong, he's got to be tough.' I think it's generational."
The project had Davis looking back on his own childhood and how he's raised his two sons, ages 10 and seven — the things he's said to them, his reactions to certain situations, whether in the past he has shut down their feelings instead of exploring the source of them.
"There's not so much solution, it's not a call to action, like 'You have to do this,'" Davis said. "It's more awareness at a fundamental level: 'Maybe let's start to think about this in a different way.'"
Gillette recently sparked an online uproar with an ad for men that touched on a similar topic. The two-minute ad from the razor brand invoked the #MeToo movement and encouraged men to "say the right thing" and "act the right way."
Davis said he thinks some viewers were upset with the Gillette spot because they felt they were being told what to do.
While it's a tricky topic to tackle in just a few minutes, he feels it's important to at least raise questions and spark a conversation.
"I think any time this (topic) goes out, I think there will be pushback," Davis said. "I'm kind of bracing myself for the same responses.
"But hopefully what we were trying to do with the film is, it's not really trying to tell you what you should do, it's merely asking the question of: What are we teaching young men, what are young men hearing, and what is their feeling of what they can and can't be?"
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press