On Masks and Masculinity

Creative Commons photo.

The United States is not a mask culture. We never have been, as far as I can tell. Nonetheless, when COVID-19 came, I was still optimistic that, mandated or not, people even if out of their own self-interest and that of their families, would wear a mask.

According to Pew Research, 85 percent of Americans in August 2020 said that in the past month, they’ve worn a mask or face covering when in stores or other businesses all or most of the time (most of the time seems to be doing a lot of work there, but I digress.) That’s a good percentage of the population! To get 85 percent of Americans to agree on doing something is rather extraordinary. Even among partisan lines, the gap narrowed from June, where 92 percent of Democrats said they wear a mask and 76 percent of Republicans said they did, too, which is up for the Republicans by 23 percent.

But the problem with a pandemic and a virus is that the other 15 percent can mess it up for the 85 percent doing the right thing. Those neglecting to wear a mask can continue spreading the virus.

As Robert Redfield, the director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said, if everyone wore a mask for a month, we’d be able to tamper down this pandemic. Instead, we’re still seeing record numbers of cases more than nine months into a pandemic, and nearly 1,000 dead Americans day. It’s unconscionable.

Aside from the United States not being a mask culture, there’s another explanation others have pointed toward for why the United States has trouble getting closer to 100 percent compliance on mask-wearing: masculinity.

There’s something to that: A June Gallup poll (wish I could find an August one since attitudes, at least according to the Pew Research poll, shifted in that month, even among Republicans, so maybe there’s some shift among men, too) found that women “always” wore a mask 44 percent of the time, “sometimes” 31 percent of the time and “never” 25 percent of the time. On the other hand, men were 29 percent, 34 percent and 38 percent, respectively.

Why aren’t men wearing masks as much as women? Could it be our pseudo-macho society that says showing any sign of weakness — in this case, literally showing a “sign” by wearing a mask — is to be avoided?

But there’s more going on here and I see it as a feedback loop: Our society is steeped in masculinity and violence. We’re a violent country, all things considered, albeit, it’s important to point out that we’re less violent than we were 20 or 30 or 40 years ago. But we regularly engage in land and air wars (so much so, that most Americans don’t even pay attention to the wars still going on and that are reaching 20 years), and domestically, we have violence unlike other parts of the developed world.

On top of that, our culture reveres the rugged masculine man who can figure out his own problems, takes care of his women, and shows no weakness. Real men don’t cry. Real men don’t show emotions. Real mean don’t show pain. The 1990s were supposed to be a harbinger of a new kind of man, but if anything, we’ve backslid since.

Real men “man up,” right? As part of all of that, our society has a weird way of talking about illness, be they cancer, a virus like COVID-19, mental illness and so on. Stay strong, be tough, fight through it, so-and-so is “battling cancer,” etc. etc. Our language reflects our culture, and our language is riddled with war and violence analogies.

And they make no sense. You don’t battle cancer. You don’t tough it out through a virus. These are things happening to your body, sometimes in predictable but also unpredictable ways, and someone who dies of cancer wasn’t “weak.” Someone who dies of COVID-19 wasn’t “weak.” But also,it’s true that “weak” isn’t bad. It’s okay to be weak, vulnerable (another disdainful word in our culture), and let your guard down, as it were (another analogy that seems carved out of our war-like culture). You don’t have to “smile” through your bout with cancer. You can cry. You can hate it. You can be angry. These are all acceptable reactions to a potentially deadly disease.

That’s the feedback loop. We are a culture seeped in war and violence, which already describes dealing with deadly illnesses as if it’s a war, and that also influences how our men act and think. Wearing a mask is part and parcel with all of this. It’s a billboard for weakness, in the eyes of some men.

But it’s not. It’s quite literally the least we can do through this pandemic, but the most effective thing to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. It’s a sign of thinking for others, not a reflection of your weakness. In other words, it’s actually a sign of strength.

If you think this is strawman, here is one example from a “conservative” commentator:

But there are multiple examples of the president of the United States himself constantly mocking Joe Biden for wearing a mask.

Here’s another example from someone who once used to be a lauded journalist:

Even after the president himself contracted the coronavirus for not taking proper precautions and repeatedly disdaining mask use, he made a show of taking off his mask upon returning to the White House after being hospitalized.

It’s mass masculine madness — maskless masculine madness, if you will.

Imagine a world where a president showed strength through vulnerability, not faux-masculinity, and imagine how much different the COVID-19 outcome would have been. Even if we’re talking at the margins, given we’re well over 210,000 dead Americans and still going, that still means thousands of lives saved.

Alas. Wear a mask.

5 thoughts

  1. I’ve watched a ton of viral videos of people throwing fits for having to wear a mask. This includes plenty of white mention. They always talk about their rights, their freedom. They are anti-government control. Masculinity probably plays a role as well, but to not mention the freedom angle in a post about masks seems short-sighted. Just one man’s opinion.,


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