A Dark and Gripping PSA Shows How ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ Breeds Toxic Masculinity

White Ribbon's short film highlights Canada's Anti-Bullying Day

A young boy, urged to suppress his emotions and meet violence with violence, follows a dangerous path in this PSA.
White Ribbon

The roots of toxic masculinity and gender violence run deep in “Boys Don’t Cry,” an affecting short film from Canadian social-advocacy group White Ribbon, agencies Bensimon Byrne and Narrative, and Academy-award nominated documentary director Hubert Davis.

Told in gripping quick-cut style, the narrative packs plenty of punches—literally and figuratively—into its 3-minute runtime, taking us through key events in a boy’s life, from early childhood through his late teen years. This smart, shy, sensitive kid grows increasingly troubled against a backdrop domestic discord, as well as bullying by his classmates. Making matters worse, he’s repeatedly told that he must remain strong—and never cry.

Repressing a shy and awkward nature, he builds his body and eventually becomes a schoolyard terror. At one point, after he’s beaten one of his peers to a pulp, his father, called to a meeting in the principal’s office, dismisses the violence as “boys being boys.”

He’s detached, angry and prone to outbursts—a proverbial ticking time-bomb. Near the end, he makes advances toward a young woman in a scene that puts his development in chillingly stark perspective:

The point, of course, is that some abusers are created over the long term, with social inputs programming young minds in ways that lead to tragedy. It’s a message far more bluntly put than Gillette’s polarizing ad about toxic masculinity and one sure to elicit strong reactions from viewers.

Timed to coincide with today’s National Anti-Bullying Day in Canada, “Boys Don’t Cry” derives considerable power by presenting a highly relatable scenario. This kid’s no monster; in fact, he’s all too ordinary, a victim who fights back by victimizing others.

While hardly an original theme, it rings true thanks to Davis’ use of moody, downbeat visuals interrupted by sudden bursts of shocking action. Also of note is the stirring voiceover about the positive, nurturing traits boy are often taught to cast aside. It’s delivered by a 7-year-old boy, whose lines about shyness, intelligence and love provide a compelling counterpoint to the jarring images on screen.

“Toxic masculinity is a massive social issue,” Joseph Bonnici, executive creative director and partner at Bensimon Byrne, tells Adweek. “The only way we could do justice to it and educate people was by telling a story that was equally as big. But as big as the story needed to be, we also knew it had to reach people on a really personal level. I think many young men, parents and teachers will be able to relate to some of the scenes in the film. This is just one boy’s story, but pieces of it will represent the experience of men around the world.”

“It’s not an easy film to watch, and that was purposeful. We are trying to end gender-based violence, and that can only come when we highlight the scope of the problem.”
Joseph Bonnici, partner, Bensimon Byrne

Researchers in Canada report that one in five students get bullied, while half of all Canadian women have experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual assault since turning 16. White Ribbon hopes the film—streaming on Youtube, with shorter versions for Instagram and Twitter—sparks discussion and drives viewers to the group’s website for more information.

“If viewers could take away just one thing, it would be to start making the connections between some of the seemingly small things we teach young boys and men and toxic masculinity,” Bonnici says. “The other thing I’d want to have happen is for people to start to change those moments that are currently defining masculinity so narrowly.”

Davis, the director, got involved because his wife sits on White Ribbon’s board, and, having previously worked with Bensimon Byrne, he approached the agency with the project.

“Bensimon Byrne came back with a really great script that showed a boy’s life and all of the things that affect him and shape him as he grows into teenager, along with a voice-over that describes what we traditionally think boys can, and more importantly, cannot be,” Davis says. “I thought the approach was really smart in that it’s looking at the root of the pressures and issues boys and young men are facing. I thought it felt like a fresh approach to the subject matter.”

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