18 men opened up about what it's like being a man in rural America.

Brendan Stermer grew up in rural Minnesota. So when he studied abroad in South Korea during college, he found his world turned upside down.

All photos by Pioneer Public Television, used with permission.

A student at the University of Minnesota in Morris, Stermer spent a year learning about Confucian philosophy in South Korea. Then he came home and got a job at a local produce warehouse.


The two worlds couldn't have been more different, and neither could the people inhabiting them.

The men in Stermer's town and his coworkers drove pickup trucks. They lifted weights. They owned guns.

His male friends in South Korea had been sentimental and open about their feelings. They encouraged him to spruce up his wardrobe and buy expensive facial moisturizers.

As a 21-year-old guy just coming into his own, Stermer felt more than a little confused about what "being a man" really meant. So he decided to ask a few of the men he knew.

Armed with his iPhone, Stermer set out to interview the men who inhabited his rural stomping grounds about what being a man means to them.

"One defining characteristic of manhood in rural Minnesota is that people don't like to talk about themselves," he said. "I definitely got turned down a lot."

But slowly, Stermer was able to gather a motley crew of guys who were willing to open up on camera for the project, which would be turned into a five-episode web series for a local public television station.

Cops, cowboys, college students, you name it. The questions were simple and broad. And though many of the volunteers were a little reluctant once the camera started rolling, they eventually warmed up.

Stermer said it's hard to draw many conclusions from his survey since the sample size was so small, but he learned a few important things nonetheless:

1. There was a lot of confusion and disagreement on the "role" of men in a changing society.

The question that drew the widest range of responses from the men was: "What is the role of men in family and community life?"

Some felt strongly that men should be leaders, breadwinners, and providers. Others didn't think there was (or should be) any difference between how men and women were expected to behave.

Stermer said this debate continued during a public screening of his series of interviews.

"Some people were saying, 'Oh, that gives me so much hope that we've finally moved beyond this gender binary,'" Stermer said. "Which was contrasted by other people saying, 'That really causes me to feel grief because I feel like we're forgetting about the reality of the body.'"

He said he personally believes in moving beyond rigid and antiquated ideas about gender, but by listening to the different perspectives of those in his community, he at least has come to understand both points of view a bit more.

2. He noticed a lot of men in America are somewhat emotionally isolated.

In one of the episodes, Stermer asks the men, "Is there anything you don't talk to your male friends about?" The responses were striking.

One man said, "I don't share a whole lot of my private life or anything."

"Some of the softer side of the things that we do on the job," one of the police officers responded, "[like] breaking down in tears after you're at an accident scene involving minor children, infants."

It's no surprise that many men have trouble opening up, but Stermer says he was definitely affected by talking to so many men who didn't feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings with each other.

"I hope that we make space for emotional vulnerability and weakness in our perception of masculinity in our country," Stermer said. "And that more men will rediscover experiences like passion and grief and interdependence not as feminine experiences, but as fundamentally human."

3. Talking about themselves and about men's issues seemed to bring the men closer together.

It wasn't all heavy debate on gender roles and repressed feelings. In one of the more lighthearted episodes, the men share something about themselves that others might find "unmanly."

One guy joked about how he can't grow a beard. Two of the older men shared a laugh over their shared distaste for beer.

"Every group that I interviewed had a really good time," Stermer said. "I think they came out of the experience feeling closer to each other."

When all was said and done, Stermer wound up even more confused about what makes someone a man.

But that's OK, he said. In fact, maybe that's the whole point.

Stermer's goal was not to come away with clear answers, but to reflect on his own views of masculinity and to encourage others to do the same. In the end, he was encouraged to find so many different, flexible ideas of what manliness is all about.

"I think I have a more nuanced understanding of my identity as a man now," he said. "But it's definitely a topic I have a lot more questions about and I want to continue to explore."

Check out the first episode of Stermer's series, "Manhood in Rural America," or check out all the interviews online at Pioneer Public Television.

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Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

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Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

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Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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