Year of the mask

5 Comments

 

2020 has been the year of the mask. The masks worn during the smoke of bushfires, during the threat of COVID-19, and during the Black Lives Matter protests. Masks are a powerful and complex symbol.

Man in mask (taiscaptures/Unsplash)

Culturally, masks are a symbol of concealment, and as such are ambivalent. In comics, bushrangers and criminals were represented wearing masks that both concealed their identity and identified their lawlessness. In the same comics, however, such heroes as Batman and The Phantom also wore masks to conceal the vulnerability of their ordinary selves. Sidney Nolan’s image of Ned Kelly represents both his threat and his inner vulnerability. 

People also wear masks to conceal their identity in the face of overbearing state power. The dominant image of the Hong Kong protests is of students wearing masks to avoid identification and reprisal. They were a symbol of public resistance and of inner rebellion. The government responded by making it illegal to wear masks. In fearful societies, too, members of minority groups who conceal their faces arouse alarm. Pressure then grows, for example, to prevent impoverished young people from wearing hoodies and Muslim women from wearing the niqab. 

People subject to discriminatory laws, social exclusion and oppressive policing commonly wear an inner mask. They keep their heads down, do not complain about ill treatment nor become involved in public life. They feel safest when they are neither seen nor heard, or behave like their comic stereotypes. They are much more likely to be regarded with suspicion in shops and on the streets, are much more likely to be stopped by police, and much more likely to be remanded and sentenced than other citizens. To be safe they must wear an inner mask.

In Australia, the experience of Adam Goodes showed the cost of throwing away the subservient, compliant mask and responding forcefully and honestly to provocation and belittlement. In this context the Black Lives Matter protests were an act of self-assertion by people who no longer accept being silenced and disregarded. 

In the time of COVID-19 the mask has become a symbol of moral seriousness — of considered generosity and of intimacy in a time of distance. It stood for the nursing staff and other workers who had weighed the risks of infection and decided to offer both their professional skills and personal warmth to people who had fallen ill.

 

'Ultimately the masks that people wear invite us to look into one another’s eyes and to see ourselves, what matters, and who matters to us, reflected in them.'

 

Among people decided whether to participate in the Black Lives Matter rallies, too, masks were a symbol of the moral seriousness that informed their decision. Many people spent much time discussing whether the need to address the moral illness shown by the tolerance of racist discrimination in the justice system outweighed the risk of contracting and helping spread physical illness. Some thought hard about the matter and decided to join the protest. Others reflected equally seriously, and decided not to join it. At the protest the care of the organisers to ensure that everybody wore a mask emphasised its seriousness.

Because a mask inhibits many of the ways in which we communicate feelings, it might seem to be an odd symbol of intimacy. Precisely by excluding the other signs by which we acknowledge people, however, masks impel to look into the eyes of other people and to make our own eyes speak to them. In the Black Lives Protest Matter protests the paradoxical intimacy of the masks strengthened the emotional bonds between the participants themselves and with the people whose deaths and incarceration they protested.

At the protests, too, masks were also a tangible symbol of solidarity with the Bla(c)k people in the United States and and Australia who had suffered unjustly at the hands of police or in custody. Masks make breathing a little uncomfortable. They could not but remind their wearers of the dying words of George Floyd and David Dungay ‘I can’t breathe’. Masks made personal the suffering of the people remembered.                   

This form of solidarity embodied the double focus needed if the situation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is to change for the better — the focus on the personal suffering they endure and on the need for the political will to change those conditions. Too often non-Indigenous Australians speak in generalities about Indigenous people without seeking the license of personal relationships with them.

The wearing of masks also plays into a rich and suggestive cultural background, beginning with the identifying masks worn by the actors in ancient Greek plays. In literature attention is often focused less on the mask than on the unmasking of its wearer. In classic detective stories, for example, the face initially shown by each character often proves to be a mask. In the course of the book the real face of each is revealed until finally the murderer is unmasked. This device is also central to Verdi’s opera, A Masked Ball, in which finally the affair between Gustavo and Amelia and Anckarstrom’s violence are all unmasked in the climactic scene at the ball. 

For readers in 2020, the most topical masked ball of literature may be Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, Masque of the Red Death, in which a rich prince gathers the nobles in his castle to escape the lethal plague affecting his people. He entertains them with a lavish masked ball, at which he notices a scruffy person, masked and dressed in red. He draws his sword and chases the man through the palace. When he seizes his cloak to unmask him, he immediately dies. His friends in turn seize the man, and on stripping of his mask find there is no face behind it. The uninvited guest was the plague, and all die. Both the plague and the privileged nobility that protected itself so unfairly are alike unmasked. 

Ultimately the masks that people wear invite us to look into one another’s eyes and to see ourselves, what matters, and who matters to us, reflected in them. If 2020 comes to be known as the Year of the Mask because that invitation was accepted, it will have been a good year.

 

 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Main image: Man in mask (taiscaptures/Unsplash)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, mask, Black Lives Matter, COVID-19

 

 

submit a comment

Existing comments

This is a brilliant unmasking of hidden agendas and identities. I'll try to find a copy of Edgar Allan Poe's The Masque of the Red Death.
Pam | 19 June 2020


The slogan "black lives matter", taken literally, has an irresistible moral appeal to the fair-minded. However, in the context of the much-publicised, sympathetically and generically described "Black Lives Matter Movement", it also serves the agenda of organisations such as "Black Lives Matter Foundation Inc", globally organised in its "mission to eradicate white supremacy." This organisation, whose mission statement also commits it to gender-identity activism for "all Black lives along the gender spectrum", curiously makes no mention of a commitment on its part to address, let alone protest against, the fact that since the 1973 Roe v Wade Supreme Court Ruling the USA has seen the destruction of over 19 million lives of the unborn among African-Americans. Evidently, some black lives don't matter - in fact, a whole demography - to this organisation that wears the borrowed robes of the Black Lives Matter Movement as a mask, and source of self-promotion and fundraising. In any "Year of the Mask", I suggest, some unmasking will be necessary.
John RD | 20 June 2020


https://www.ibiblio.org/ebooks/Poe/Red_Death.pdf
roy chen yee | 22 June 2020


Thanks roy.
Pam | 25 June 2020


Wow. What a stunning essay! I wish I could write like you, Andy!
Michael Furtado | 17 July 2020


x

Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up