INTERVIEW: A DamStrong Documentary by Jarred Bierbrauer

With terms like “toxic masculinity” permeating our culture, where does simple masculinity stand? Oregon State University alum Jarred Bierbrauer took that quest to heart, making a documentary about diverse men throughout his university community.  

He spoke to four young men – a veteran, a cheerleader, a teacher, an athlete – and he found that the ways men see themselves is changing from what many of us were raised to expect, and that men today are simply looking for the best way to get through life.

TCA: I’m Sally Lehman and I’m with The Advocate. Today, we’re talking to Jarred Bierbrauer about his documentary film, DamStrong: Mental Health and Masculinity. Thank you for being here today, Jarred. 

Bierbrauer: Yeah, thanks for having me. 

TCA: Your film was produced through Dam Worth It Productions, which is associated with Oregon State University. How are you associated with the university? 

Bierbrauer: I was a student as of a couple of days ago, switching up to graduate, but originally about two years ago, I started working for CAPS – Counseling and Psychological Services. And at the same time, I got associated with Dam Worth It, which is Oregon State University’s mental health awareness campaign. And so I was kind of doing two of those things at once – one volunteer and one work, and just kind of being a bridge between the two campaigns, which was a pretty fun experience. 

TCA: Why did you end up making this documentary? Was it just to combine those two aspects of what you were doing with school and work? 

Bierbrauer: In terms of his overall mental health and masculinity, I’ve always kind of had a passion for that. My mom – a really sweet, caring lady – always raised me to be sweet and caring. Always [said], ‘hey, make sure you’re checking in on yourself, checking in on others, always read the room.’ You know, ‘always have consideration for others,’ – all that.  

But at the same time, I grew up and, like every other guy in this world, wanted to please my father by being tough and playing football and basketball and not showing emotion and stuff like that. And it was certainly an interesting dynamic being pulled in those two directions.  

And so when I got to OSU, and I learned about Dam Worth It, that was when things started to finally open up for me. I also thought at the same time thought, ‘hey, maybe I could make a documentary about something,’ because at the time I was doing a little bit of journalism with Orange Media Network, and I had just finished up my tenure as Sports Chief there. And video seemed like the next thing I wanted to explore.  

So when I got the job at CAPS, I was like, ‘what can I put on my application or my résumé that [would’ve] really helped me stand out?’ And I thought, maybe I could just make a documentary.  

At the time, it was like a total pipe dream. I just wanted to help myself stand out. But it’s interesting because that was the presentation. They [CAPS] were like, ‘come to the interview and do a presentation on something you’re passionate about’. And I did masculinity.  

And one of the things on [the application was] what would you do if you were to get the job, [my answer] was making a documentary. And like I said, it was a total pipe dream. At the time I [thought], there’s no way, I don’t have the resources. It’s a large project, especially one that’s longer than, you know, 30-40 minutes, whatever, a feature length film.  

TCA: You did a great job with that too. 

Bierbrauer: Thank you. 

TCA: You spoke with four very different men for this documentary. Did you find common themes between these diverse people? 

Bierbrauer: If you if you kind of listen to the initial ways that they talk about masculinity, a lot of it starts with [what] I was trying to do – please a male figure in my life, a male role model, or I didn’t have a male role model in my life at some point.  

And it’s interesting to see how both of those things can lead in the same direction in terms of mental health, whether it’s lacking a father figure or trying to please one. To say, ‘hey, like I want my dad to be proud of me’ And if I live up to these male ideologies of being super tough and have the really thick skin and not talking about emotions and not crying, my dad would be proud of me for that. Which too often isn’t true. 

TCA: Jason Dorsett mentions hegemonic masculinity. What do you define that as meaning? 

Bierbrauer: Hegemonic masculinity is basically the same thing as what a lot of people know as toxic masculinity, but it’s more of a professional, scholarly term for it. It’s how it’s written in textbooks and stuff like that.  

The reason why we sort of lean that direction in terms of defining masculinity and that specific form of masculinity is because if you approach someone and say, ‘hey, you are behaving like a toxic man, you have toxic masculinity.’ The word toxic in general is toxic. It’s not received well, calling someone a toxic person. They’re just going to go back into their turtle-shell more and say, ‘no, I’m not, I’m providing for a family or I have to be tough because of this and this,’ and it’s not productive.  

Whereas, if you can put it in a more general term and say, ‘ hey, you know, these are these are the characteristics that you’re putting out.’ [Then] maybe we can work on that. It makes it a lot more calmative approach. 

TCA: Do you think that it is harder for young men to deal with the new experiences placed on them when they enter college? The new expectations? 

Bierbrauer: There’s so much that goes into that when you switch from high school to college. That transition is huge. There are so many moving parts.  

When you are living in an environment that for years you’ve been told you have to act this way, you can’t act that way. You know, it’s been thrown in your face your entire life. And then all of a sudden you go to a new environment like Oregon State University, where there’s so many different types of people, so many different groups. Different ways of thinking.  

And you’re actually providing for yourself now, and you’re actually thinking for yourself now. That’s a huge change. And a lot of times change can be hard, but it’s also a learning experience no matter where you go.  

So, that’s what I went through. I came to college, and I was able to find so many new, different passions, and one of those was masculinity and mental health.  

It’s tough, getting into that, it can seem hostile, it can seem toxic.  

TCA: The subject of alcohol has to come into play. How does alcohol fuel our concepts of masculinity? 

Bierbrauer: The first person we talked to on the film, Miles, he has a really great story that discusses this subject. College does tend to have a culture that is surrounded by alcoholism. And whether it’s a small kickback or huge parties, it’s sort of the expectation that when you get to college, you’re not having the full experience if you’re not kicking back and putting down beers left and right. 

TCA: Do you think that alcohol use possibly pushes the masculine ideal in our culture? 

Bierbrauer: There is definitely an overlap, and that can certainly be seen often through fraternities or maybe even military groups. That’s something that Miles talks about – how those all overlap.  

And so when you approach being a college student and then you are recruited into a fraternity or just a group of buddies in general who are every other day going to hit the bars or something, then that becomes sort of another layer of how negative forms of masculinity can be built on. And if it’s not addressed, it can certainly lead to mental health issues and it kind of fuels the masculinity. It’s a two way street. 

TCA: In the film, you talk about suicide. As of 2019, Oregon’s suicide rate was the ninth highest in the nation. Do you think there is a connection between stereotypical masculine expectations and suicide? 

Bierbrauer: There’s definitely a connection for sure. That’s one of the first things we pull up in the film, the gender difference between males and females in terms of suicide rates in this nation.  

And it’s hard being a man, especially in this culture where the expectations [are] put on you of not being able to cry or talk about emotion or see a therapist. And so we’re seeing certainly increased numbers in all categories, but specifically younger adults are seeing higher [suicide] rates as the years go on. And that’s something I definitely wanted to focus on with this film.  

College students [are] constantly having to fight uphill battles, whether it’s harder course workloads or having to get a job on top of that. Maybe you’re still an athlete and you have to take that on as well. There are so many layers to being a young adult and a male, and all of that feeds into not great mindsets. And if you don’t have an escape valve or an outlet to talk about these things – talk about these emotions, it gets bottled up. And that’s something that we don’t want to see very often. It’s tough when you don’t have an outlet. 

TCA: In the film, you discuss sexual orientation and masculinity.  

 Bierbrauer: It’s different for everybody and sexual orientation is definitely something that we see key differences in, but also some similarities.  

You know, we talked to Parker, who identifies as a gay man, [and] his friend Oliver, who pitches in and gives him really good quotes on how they are able to share experiences, Oliver is transgender. And so there’s certainly some differences and some similarities there.  

But overall, it’s tough because in general, in our society, when you show any amount of emotion or you have a soft voice or you don’t want to play football. [If] you want to do cheerleading, you immediately get tagged as, ‘oh, well, you must be gay.’ 

Which makes no sense. It really doesn’t. [It’s about] ‘I just want to do what I want to do and I want to be happy. I want to be happy in my skin. Why do you have to push this narrative on me?”  

And so that’s something that I definitely wanted to look deeper into. Talking with Parker and Oliver, as (A) cheerleader, but also (B) as members of the LGBTQ+ community, they have to go through so much. It’s unbelievable.  

I’m really upset that I had to limit each person’s section to 10 to 15 minutes because I had hours upon hours of beautiful stories and beautiful quotes, not just from Parker and Oliver, but from everybody. It was [hard]. Maybe I’ll do like an extended edition and go to six hours of just talking 

TCA: What is the importance of a male centric support system to the development of positive masculinity? 

Bierbrauer: So it is so important that we talk, just talk. Whether you’re a dad or a brother or an uncle, whatever position you’re in, teacher, coach, it doesn’t matter. You have to talk to the people that you’re working with, the kids that you’re working with, because it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, a part of this community, that community. Everybody is going through something. 

Into this [is the] expectation of, ‘oh, he’s a guy, he’ll figure it out, he’ll work it.’ It’s not true.  

And you need to talk to people. Just say, ‘Hey, have to sit down with me. How are you doing? You know, really, how are you doing?’  

Because the first time you ask, they’re going to say, ‘Oh, well, I’m fine. Right? I’m cool. I’m good.’  

You have to get through that. That’s the important discussion that we have to have with people in terms of mental health in general. And [with] guys, it’s even harder because they’ve built up these years worth of, ‘oh, you’re a guy, you don’t talk about it, you don’t cry about it.’ You have to get through that barrier, that wall. And when you do, it’s a beautiful thing because you can share a moment with somebody. You can become closer as a father, son, brother to brother, brother to sister.  

You have to talk to these people, because I guarantee you that no matter how old they are, no matter what sport they play, whatever they’re going through, they are yearning to have an outlet. And if you don’t feel like you can do that, maybe say, ‘hey, let’s just go see a counselor real quick, and maybe you’ll get something from that.’ Or talk to the school counselor. There’s always somebody that these people can talk to, these kids can talk to. The earlier you do it, the better.  

You know, I have a little brother, nine years old, and that’s one of the most important things I’m trying to emphasize. I’m working on it myself. It’s an ongoing process. It’s never 100%. It’s never something that you’re perfect at. But I’m doing everything I can to make sure that he understands that he can talk to me about anything, any time, and I will never shame him. I’ll never judge him. And I’ll never give him those expectations of ‘yeah, you’re a man, and you can do whatever you like.’ I just want to be there for him.  

I do the same thing with my parents. You know, I talked with my dad all the time about stuff. And our relationship has grown so close now, closer than it ever has been, because he knows now that he can ask the tough questions. And it goes both ways. 

TCA: Those are great ways to embrace positive masculinity. Can you give us any other examples of ways to do that, to embrace masculinity in today’s society? 

Bierbrauer: No matter what you’re talking about, never pass judgment. I don’t actually understand why people do that, because what do you get from putting people down? When it comes to masculinity, you don’t benefit from putting other guys in that box.  

Maybe you have been put in a position to where you think it feels better. It’s a tough thing to talk about for sure, and if I could just get one person to think differently about ‘okay, one day maybe I’ll ask my kid about how he’s really doing, or whatever he’s going through, [maybe] I can help him.’  

Masculinity is a complex thing. It’s like something that we say at CAPS – ‘self care is not a one time bubble bath that fixes everything. It’s an ongoing thing.’  

And so, every month, maybe every two weeks, you have a sit down and maybe get some ice cream or something. ‘Well, hey, how’re you doing? How’s practice going?’ It can go both ways. ‘How are you and Mom doing? How’s your work going, Dad?’  

Be honest! There’s nothing bad about honesty. It can feel tough at first, but I’ll say it again and again and again, the more honest you are with that person sitting across from you, no matter what relationship you share, no matter what background they have, if you’ve known them for one day or one lifetime, you will grow closer every single time the more honest you are with them. 

TCA: Thank you and thank you for your time. Our thanks to the four men who stepped up to speak so honestly during your film – Miles Dodge, Parker Eggiman, Jason Dorsette, and Caleb Etter. And the title of this documentary, again, is DamStrong: Mental Health and Masculinity. Thanks for your time, Jarred. 

Bierbrauer: Thank you all. 

By Sally K Lehman