The Heroism and Anti-Heroism of the Mask

Masks have had cultural resonance for decades. For centuries. For millennia. Forever? Probably.

The oldest known mask is a 9000-year-old stone affair, housed in a museum in Paris. It bears an uncanny resemblance to a smiley face and seems pretty harmless, happy even. Masks have been used by ancient cultures on every continent to express emotion, to use in ceremonies, to ornament, to hide one’s identity or assume another, and to intimidate enemies and protect one’s face in battle. We wear them to celebrate holidays like Purim and Halloween. We wear them to protect us from smog, to give us oxygen, to allow us to see underwater.

If masks are so ubiquitous, why are they now so controversial? What explains the recent resistance to wearing a mask in the name of public health?

The obvious answer is as clear as the mask on my face: masks are uncomfortable. We don’t like things on our faces. Some masks make it harder to breathe. The straps are annoying. They are inconvenient and easy to lose. Let’s face it, nobody likes to wear a face mask.

Of course, there is a less obvious answer, and it has to do with the multiple meanings of masks in contemporary American culture.

Personally, I associate with heroes. If I ask you “Who was that masked man?” you will immediately picture the Lone Ranger. Men (almost always men) in masks are heroes: Zorro. Batman. Batgirl. The Dread Pirate Roberts (really Westley). The Masked Singer. (That may be a mask too far.) These men in masks (why almost always men?) rely on disguises to shield their identities, of course. Online fora will tell you that this protects the heroes’ families and loved ones from retribution.

That’s reasonable, but I think it is more notable that masks allow these characters to escape the constraints of societal norms. Because nobody knows who they are, they can act with impunity. They do not need to follow the rules because no repercussions can accrue to an unknown hero. And since they are acting in the public interest — saving maidens and children and putting bad guys in their place — we are willing to live with their flouting of the rules, living on the margins of polite society. We might do the same were we protected from consequence — if only we had a mask! Masks thus protect and empower our heroes.

Another class of mask-wearers is much less upstanding and borders on the nefarious. Think of the masked anti-heroes in our cannon: The Man in the Iron Mask. The Phantom of the Opera. V (as in “for Vendetta”). Rorschach. Catwoman. Darth Vader. These folks (again, mostly men) are far more ambiguous, harder to parse. V is Evey’s torturer and her savior. The Phantom of the Opera is manipulative but really just wants to be loved. Even Darth Vader, who is evil incarnate when we are introduced to him, has a backstory that gives him nuance, and his children are incontrovertibly good.

The uncertainty surrounding who these characters are, their essential natures, unsettles us. Their masks obscure their motives, intentions, and emotions in a way that catches us off guard. Like our masked heroes, these anti-heroes are protected and empowered by their anonymity, but we do not admire them. Rather we are skeptical, stemming from our recognition that they are unreliable interaction partners. It is difficult to build trust with people we cannot see.

If the masks worn by comic book heroes and anti-heroes connote freedom — from identification, from norms, from fear of retribution — why are people reacting so vehemently to the mandate to wear them? Particularly when doing so can benefit so many, including ourselves and our families?

Unsurprisingly, this aversion has something to do with the uniquely American resistance to being told what to do. Americans like to think of ourselves as entitled to freedom and being told to wear a mask impinges on our individual liberties. The American experiment privileges individual liberty and self-expression; no matter that those ideas have never been applied to all Americans, it is those ideas in their ideal forms that we treasure.

This is a canard, of course, because we submit to being told what to do on a regular basis, in America as in every other country. What’s more, Americans are particularly fond of telling others what they can and cannot do with their bodies even if we do not like the idea of others doing the same (see recent Supreme Court decisions on birth control, e.g.,).

Instead, I think some subconsciously associate anti-corona-virus measures with extreme deindividuation epitomized in the American consciousness by a slightly less obvious object: the Muslim veil. The past decade has witnessed highly politicized debates over women’s right to wear a veil, particularly the niqab, which covers the lower face but leaves the eyes uncovered, or the burqa, which obscures the whole face.

This association may seem far-fetched until one notes the resemblance of a COVID-era face mask to the niqab in particular. Both cover the bottom half of the face, in contrast to the hero’s mask, which more typically covers the eyes and leaves the lower face uncovered. We are much more comfortable with the latter, while the former seems to trigger too many.

While the debate over wearing the veil has not been that political in the United States — the separation of church and state makes it impossible for the government to get in the way of legitimate religious expression — it is certainly present in the public consciousness. Several European countries and parts of Canada have criminalized face coverings. When Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammad bin Salman announced that women in his country need not wear a headcover or abaya in 2018, around the same time women were given the right to drive, it was taken as a mark of liberalization under what Americans perceive to be an oppressive regime. Moreover, face coverings are part of the message promulgated by culture warriors warning us (falsely) of the dangers of sharia law.

The argument against allowing the niqab and burqa have typically focused on public safety and the risks of allowing people to move freely but unidentifiably through the world (and here the parallel to superheroes is supremely ironic). This false concern has been proven unfounded in the past three months when we have all been encouraged to wear masks in public and no lawlessness has ensued. Instead, lives have been saved.

Perhaps if we could interrogate the extreme reaction of some to the face mask mandate, we could both improve public health outcomes and build cultural awareness and tolerance.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all be heroes simply by putting on the mask?