Meet the men who are dismantling toxic masculinity from behind bars
One of the most evolved conversations about toxic masculinity, violence, and feminist theory in the United States is happening in what may seem like a very unlikely place: a men’s prison. The dialogue takes the form of a class called Success Stories at a prison in Soledad, California, led by Richard “Richie” Edmond Vargas, who was serving time for an armed robbery conviction at the time the film was made but has since been released. “The Feminist on Cellblock Y,” a documentary from CNN editor and co-producer of the film Emma Lacey-Bordeaux, and former CNN producer and founder of Cocomotion Pictures, Contessa Gayles, chronicles a classroom of male prisoners as they wrestle with vulnerability and the confines of masculine norms through the lens of theorists such as bell hooks. Lacey-Bordeaux and Gayles spoke with WMC Women Under Siege about their process, and what the broader public can learn at this critical moment from the men of Success Stories.
Rebecca McCray: How did you initially connect with this project? Why was it important to you to document these men, and this class?
Emma Lacey-Bordeaux: I first interviewed the leader of Success Stories, Richie, in 2008. At the time he was editor of his school newspaper and published an issue for Valentine’s Day with a diagram of a vagina on it. The administration freaked out, the Los Angeles Times wrote about it, and across the country in Atlanta I read about it and invited Richie for an interview on my college radio show. Many years later, I got back in touch while working on stories regarding the criminal justice system and he told me about this group he’d founded, Success Stories. I went out there, sat in on a session and knew there needed to be video to capture the group’s rich discussions. Contessa immediately saw what I saw in the group, plus more. She shot all the video and deftly found a narrative line through our hours of footage.
RM: How does your film fit (or not fit) with the broader #MeToo movement? Were these cultural revelations around masculinity growing alongside your filmmaking process?
Contessa Gayles: What we were able to document happening in the group discussions among these incarcerated men predates the viral #MeToo hashtag, though not the years of work done by the movement founder Tarana Burke and others. But it is applicable in every way to the national conversation we’ve been having about masculinity. What are boys taught about what it means to “be a man”? How do we as individuals and as a society reward and celebrate the objectification of women? How has that become a way to prove one’s manhood? How does that contribute to rape culture? These guys were asking each other these questions [in Success Stories] and, with the help of feminist authors like bell hooks, connecting the dots between patriarchal entitlement, abuse of power, and violence—sexual and otherwise.
RM: How did your storytelling and documentation process evolve as you began visiting the prison and observing/filming this class?
CG: These men were baring their souls in front of 60 plus other men in a place where any sign of vulnerability is often immediately preyed upon. We were asking them to do that—but now in front of a national and international audience—as well. So the approach was to be as fly-on-the-wall as we could manage in order to not interrupt the real work these men were doing, and the real-time struggles they were working through. We did this with an intentionally minimal crew of just three. Of course, you can never know how much your presence in the room influences what people say or don’t say, or what they do or don’t do. But the goal is that folks will, at least momentarily, forget you’re there. I wanted viewers to feel like they were immersed in this setting with the guys as much as possible, so that they could feel connected to the conversations taking place.
RM: This film, and the broader project of dismantling patriarchy, puts vulnerability front and center. Were you surprised by what participants in the class were willing to share?
ELB: Vulnerability is hard for many of us, myself included, in routine and safe settings. So to witness men, many of whom have committed violent crimes, share openly with each other in such a restrictive environment was incredible. Some of the prison staff we spoke with said that guys often keep up a facade in an attempt to keep themselves safe, but within the Success Stories space, they would share their fears, even really intimate ones. Guys would talk about how they worried their kids wouldn’t respect them if they couldn’t make money when they got out. They’d talk about the abuse they suffered as kids, or about how to respond to the routine insults they experience within prison while retaining their sense of masculinity.
RM: How do you think the experiences of these men reflect the broader cultural moment we are in, and the reckoning with toxic masculinity beyond prison walls?
ELB: In many ways, the guys of Success Stories are having a more elevated discussion than any I’ve witnessed among men on the outside. I thought about why that might be and part of it, I think, has to do with the fact that men in prison are faced with their worst mistakes on a daily basis, whereas those of us on the outside typically lead with our successes. This means that many of those behind bars seek to construct new ways of thinking to ensure they stay out [of prison]. But, beyond that, the men in this group really do hold each other accountable and always push each other to think. Some of the guys who participated in the group and have now gotten out have me told they would like to re-create that community on the outside.
CG: As Richie [Richard Edmond Vargas], said in the film, “Men who are not incarcerated are also living in a prison,” and because patriarchy and toxic masculinity deny and shame men out of feeling and expressing the full range of their human emotions, many men are going through life wearing chains that they do not have to. One of the most consistent things we’ve heard from folks who have watched the documentary is that what these men are learning and discussing in Success Stories needs to be taught outside of prison, to men and boys (and women and girls) everywhere.
RM: Why was it important for you to include Taina Vargas-Edmond, Richie’s wife, in the film—the only character we get to know who lives outside the prison, and the only woman?
ELB: Taina has been with Richie since he first got picked up by police at 19. They got married right before his sentencing in the county jail. She visits him every Saturday and they speak on the phone daily. Not only has she been a stable, loving presence in Richie’s life for the entire period of his incarceration, something many of the guys don’t have, but she played a central role in holding him accountable in terms of his feminist activism. You see that in their call near the end of the documentary, where Taina gives Richie a pep talk on how to discuss street harassment. Because of how foundational she has been in the group’s work, we felt she was central to the story.
CG: Richie himself was also very intentional throughout many of our conversations about crediting the women in his life for educating and mentoring him. He said that women figured this stuff out a long time ago and that he just decided to listen to them, and then act on what he had learned from them. Some of the women he gives props to are bell hooks, who wrote the books on which he formulated the curriculum, his mentor and Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors, and, of course, Taina.
RM: It might be easy for some viewers who haven’t come into contact with the criminal justice system to think the lessons these men are learning don’t apply to them if they haven’t been incarcerated, been gang-affiliated, etc. What would you say to those people? How does the prison classroom offer a microcosmic example of what we see in broader society?
CG: I think it’s important to point out that being incarcerated in this country is often the result of a confluence of socioeconomic factors, including systemic racism, and that there are plenty of folks who evade interactions with the criminal justice system despite engaging in criminal behavior because of their relative societal privilege. That being said, Richie expresses early on in the film that condemning illegal activity while still upholding patriarchal ideals misses the mark. This idea comes up throughout the film in different places, including the discussions around actually committing rape versus the ways in which we as individuals and as a society participate in and perpetuate rape culture. It shows up in the conversations that they have around feeling emasculated if they aren’t bringing home a certain amount of money. I think that’s familiar territory for many men, whether or not they decide to steal, or sell drugs, or create Ponzi schemes, or engage in insider trading to prove their manhood.
RM: What lessons can be gleaned from the framework of this class and its students for those of us wondering where to go from here, at a moment when the toxicity of masculinity and the power of patriarchy is so potent and omnipresent?
CG: What the men in the documentary are learning about and what some of them are attempting to dismantle is society’s role in constructing and perpetuating harmful gender norms—roles and stereotypes that people are then instructed to perform and live within, or else face ridicule and ostracization. I think the biggest lesson to learn from the work these men are doing is that questioning the society and systems and culture around us, rather than just throwing our hands up and saying, “Boys will be boys,” is uncomfortable but necessary work for every one of us to engage in.
(This interview has been edited and condensed.)
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