Updated: Sep 15, 2021
Not that long ago, a student told me about his experiences traveling the country during the summer of COVID-19. While we in Southern California had accepted (for the most part) the fact that we would be required to wear masks in public spaces like grocery stores, the student mentioned an incident when he needed to buy groceries in the rural Midwest. A sign outside the small store proclaimed, “Unless you’re the Lone Ranger, you shouldn’t be wearing a mask.” Ignoring the sign, my student donned his face mask and proceeded to shop inside. For the duration of his experience there, the shopkeeper—sans mask—suspiciously eyed him while he eyed her with equal wariness. “It was clear,” he said to me with a laugh, “that we both thought the other person was crazy.” Days later, Halloween arrived along with unexpected visitors at my front door as I had not believed I would receive any kids that evening. “Trick or treat!” they screamed from behind the rubber images of Batman and the Joker. To me, it seemed likely that these same children—masked as their favorite hero and villain—had parents who believed that masking against COVID was unnecessary. After I conveyed the unfortunate news that I had no candy that night, I closed the door in thought. Obviously, my conclusion regarding the parents was related to my perception and stance on mask wearing, which is an unfortunate byproduct of a political climate that has polarized our perception of the act. But when you look deeper into what the mask symbolizes—the various layers of meaning—one could almost argue that this polarization has been embedded in our culture for decades.
In American culture, the mask has traditionally represented polar opposites: both the hero and the villain. Whether the hero is Batman or the Lone Ranger, the mask is intended to hide the true identity of the hero so that he can perform his good deeds for the world while still maintaining a somewhat normal life when the mask has been removed. “Who was that masked man?” is the common question used to end an episode of The Lone Ranger. The idea behind it is that the hero deserves the mask, deserves to keep his identity a secret as compensation for the risks he takes protecting society as a whole. Conversely, the villain also masks his identity, though the reasons behind it are more complex. While the villain wishes to sew discord through his masked actions, the removal of his mask allows him to keep his second (and more insidious) identity—that of the upright and moral citizen. This, too, is a mask because his hidden actions do not match his public persona. For the villain, this hidden identity allows him the freedom to create chaos, to indulge in the darker aspects of his soul. Two sets of masks. Two different purposes. This is a dual nature that we, the audience, understand.
Our reaction to masks is also tied to context. The same mask in different situations will elicit very different responses on the side of the viewer: a masked doctor walking out of surgery to inform a family of a successful operation is seen as harmless. Again, we have the masked hero, whose decision to wear facial covering is a reflection of her desire to protect a patient vulnerable to infection during surgery. This same scene—the masked doctor ready to operate—is also the subject of nightmares. Horror films and haunted houses play on the vulnerability one feels when undergoing surgery: the idea that, as we succumb to the anesthesia, our last image is of the masked doctors standing above us who (hopefully) have our best interests at heart. If that trust is misplaced, then the doctor intended to help us transforms into the evil scientist hell-bent on intending harm. It’s the facelessness that contributes to this fear. The idea that something is being kept from us and, ultimately, we have to trust that the intentions of the mask wearer are to do good.
All of this translates into the polarized reaction to mask-wearing in our country. Depending on context, to wear a mask either symbolizes heroic self-sacrifice or villainous repression. This polarized response was unfortunately exasperated by the sitting president during the height of COVID-19 in 2020. His defiance of mask wearing even as prominent doctors begged Americans to cover up contributed to the mixed messages of masks, but it would be unwise to blame him solely for this divide. All one has to do is look back at the mixed reactions to the Spanish Flu in 1918 to see that we, as Americans, would not have united in the mask movement. This touches on our identity as a country. This touches on what the mask represents. But it is also tied to several important difference between us and our comic book icons. In contrast to the masks of our superheroes and villains, which often hide the upper part of the face while leaving the lower part in view, the masks we wear today do the opposite: draw focus to the eyes while covering the mouth. It’s an unexpected vulnerability, for the eyes are much less adept at lying than the mouth and the mouth wants the freedom to speak, shout, scream without filter. “I can’t breathe!” proclaim the protestors of masks, ignoring the fact that doctors and nurses can spend entire shifts masked, their ability to receive oxygen unhampered by the covering. So what is it, then, that the protestors are really saying?
Masks have shifted from hiding our identities to revealing our true selves. Or, at least, that is what we believe, and it’s the main reason why our reactions to the masked and unmasked are so visceral. Even as these masks are used for protection, they are still incredibly symbolic. For those who align with the scientifically and medically based consensus, the image of a person wandering mask-less in public spaces generates frustration. To them, the lack of a mask reveals ignorance, contempt of others, and a willingness to believe a political figure over scientific consensus. The underlying message they receive is: You do not matter, the virus isn’t real or has been overblown, and I have clear political leanings. From the perspective of these same mask wearers, the decision to willingly wear masks is equally symbolic. To wear a mask reveals that one wishes to contribute to a universal sense of protection, which is underscored by a belief that we’re all in this together and doing our part to protect one another. For these people, to defy the mask is selfish, revealing a desire to put one’s own comfort above the needs of our country. Yet, for the unmasked individual, the intended message of choosing to wear the mask could be different. To those who see mask-wearing as an infringement on their rights, the decision to wear a mask represents repression, conformity, fear, a willingness to let the government control your life, and possibly a symbol of censorship as the mask is intended to cover the mouth. For these people, the danger of the coronavirus is all in our heads.
When a small piece of cloth can have such contrasting messages, when an entire country is filled with stress and anxiety, perhaps the polarization is inevitable. We have been indoctrinated into the dual nature of the mask for so long that it’s easy to ascribe both monikers to the object: hero and villain. This is an aspect of real life for which the comic books have left us unprepared. In fiction, good and evil are neatly delineated, and one rarely needs to question the intentions of the man behind the mask. In real life, the mask’s symbolism becomes muddled, ultimately predetermined by the perspective of the viewer so that we all live in contrasting states regardless of personal intention. In the end, and until our country can settle on a clear direction in relation to the mask-wearing issue, the potential to be both hero and villain dwells in us all.
Published June 2021 in Lessons From the Transition to Pandemic Education in the US