Last week, our social media feeds were flooded by the image of Dr Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease expert, telling US senators that the country was “going in the wrong direction”. The image had a vivid, layered power. Not only did it feel like a national death knell, but Fauci’s appearance – in an imperial-red face mask emblazoned with the insignia of baseball’s Washington Nationals – seemed to signal another culture war. Fauci was making a comment about how to maintain one’s masculinity while wearing a face mask.
Fauci apparently isn’t the only one anxious about face masks impeding his masculinity. The shock jock Joe Rogan, known for his massive following of male listeners, recently suggested that only “bitches” wear masks. Donald Trump Jr was photographed at a packed party in the Hamptons, like a baddie from a John Hughes film, conspicuously sans mask.
It seems that in certain circles, wearing a mask has been conflated with the kind of archaic, knuckle-dragging rhetoric that casts wearing pink or having a cat on a dating app as effeminate. The LA Times gave some well-meaning but ultimately depressing tips to make masks more appealing to the “alphas”. Among its suggestions: “appeal to patriotism”! Maga masks! Masks printed with shark teeth! Can masculinity be so glacially unmovable and paper-thin fragile?
Apparently, yes – which is unfortunate, because the danger from Covid-19 remains very, very real. This week Scientific American called masks the “condoms of the face”, arguing that the struggle to get men to wear masks during this pandemic has parallels in the struggle to get men to wear condoms during the rise of HIV. While it seems strange to compare something you’d wear so visibly in public to something worn privately in intimate moments, the analogy underscores how some men’s notions of masculinity are intertwined with a corrosive mix of petulance, indestructibility and, ultimately, privilege. The article cited research showing that “masculine ideology” is associated with rejection of condom use.
Similar research by Middlesex University and the Mathematical Science Research Institute in Berkeley has found that men are less likely than women to wear face masks because they view the masks as embarrassing. According to the study, men are more likely than women to agree with the idea that wearing a mask is “shameful, not cool, a sign of weakness and a stigma”. The study also found that men have higher levels of “negative emotion” while actively wearing a mask.
It gets worse: not wearing a mask hasn’t just become toxic masculinity, it has become a form of weaponised masculinity. Donald Trump has said he is “choosing not to” wear a mask. When Mike Pence visited the Mayo Clinic, he ignored the safety protocols asking that he wear a face mask. And former pro baseball player and self-described “protector of toxic masculinity” Aubrey Huff tweeted: “I will no longer wear a mask inside any business. It’s unconstitutional to enforce. Let’s make this bullshit stop now! Who’s with me?”
This superspreader mindset seems to overlap with the eyeroll-inducing “OK, boomer” attitude epitomized by Boris Johnson’s decision to continue shaking hands as coronavirus spread, and the Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s claim that his athleticism would prevent him from getting a virus. For men like this, ego itself has become a figurative – and, they seem to believe, literal – shield.
That’s unfortunate, because the wearing of masks has already been politicised to a dangerous extent. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey, 70% of Democrats report regularly wearing a mask, compared with only 37% of Republicans. The image of Democratic political rising star Jamaal Bowman, photographed sporting a Wu-Tang Clan mask, suggests that some progressives have figured out how to make their masks politically charged fashion items. That is a welcome contrast with the stodgy masculinity of the opposition.
Bowman’s mask-wearing style offers a way forward that is both progressive and potentially life-saving. But the truth is that mask-wearing shouldn’t have to be complicated. It should just be common sense.
Who’s with me?
- Priya Elan is the Guardian’s deputy fashion editor