It is the pandemic’s defining symbol, a visual stand-in for the coronavirus itself. In America, the medical mask used to be confined to hospital dramas and operating rooms, but now the bare face is what registers as a choice. The mask is a public health device, but it has also revealed itself as a mask in the more traditional sense: a tool in a social ritual, a fetish object that signifies a person’s politics, gender expression and relationship to truth itself.
To its supporters, mask-wearing is a visual expression of civic duty, an affirmation of scientific authority and a show of respect. To its critics, it is a sign of weakness, emasculation and deceit. Most Americans accept the medical benefits of masks, but the ones who do not are, more often than not, Republican and male. Their rhetoric dovetails with racist ideas about Asian cultures, where wearing a mask in public has long been normalized. And it improvises on decades of work on the right to stitch the words “effete” and “liberal” together, painting a whole swath of the political spectrum as a feminine affectation.
Among their ranks is R.R. Reno, the editor of the conservative religious journal First Things (“Masks = enforced cowardice,” he wrote in a Twitter rant about the mask “regime”), and Donald Trump. (“Somehow, I don’t see it for myself,” he said, even as he announced the C.D.C. guideline urging people to wear masks in public.) Last month, as a maskless Trump toured an Arizona mask factory, his supporters heckled the masked reporter BrieAnna J. Frank outside. “It’s submission, it’s muzzling yourself, it looks weak — especially for men,” one man told her.
To these men, masking signals not just cowardice but hypocrisy. Mask-wearers stand accused of cowering in fear, but also of cynically exaggerating the virus’s threat. The mask is cast as both a defensive shield and an accessory in a masquerade of political correctness. A recent email from the Trump campaign called Joe Biden a “basement dweller and virtue signaler,” and accused him of colluding with “the media mask-shamers” to deceive the public by only covering up when the cameras were rolling.
The implication is that people who choose to wear masks aren’t just protecting themselves — they’re attacking the president and his supporters. Recently a sign appeared on the door of a Texas restaurant banning masks: “Due to our concern for our customers, if they FEEL (not think), that they need to wear a mask, they should stay home until they FEEL that it’s safe to be in public without one,” it read.
Even for those who believe in its health benefits, the mask has a symbolic role, and these two functions are related. The facts of transmission — masks are most effective when worn by infected people, many of whom have little to no symptoms — have required building a moral justification for otherwise healthy people to don them. The mask “signifies strength and compassion for others,” Roy Cooper, the Democratic governor of North Carolina, tweeted recently. Meanwhile, mask defenders suggest that those who refuse the mask are deceiving only themselves. A study of American attitudes toward masks found that men are less likely to believe they will be “seriously affected by the coronavirus,” though the opposite is true. “This macho stuff,” Biden said after Trump retweeted a jab at the candidate’s own mask. “It’s cost people’s lives.”
These battle lines were drawn long before modern medicine articulated a justification for the mask. The medical anthropologist Christos Lynteris, who has traced the cultural role of “plague masks” in previous pandemics, notes that early protective equipment was also conflated with fear and cowardice. The plague doctor costume, which featured a grotesque beak stuffed with aromatic herbs designed to ward off “bad air” from plague sufferers, was accused of stoking terror. “The imagination merely frightened by the plague is enough to bring on the disease,” wrote Geronimo Gastaldi, an Italian health official during Rome’s 1656 outbreak.
Later, Napoleon — whose soldiers were struck by plague as they invaded Syria — promoted the idea that bravery could cure the disease. In “Bonaparte Visiting the Victims of the Plague at Jaffa,” Antoine-Jean Gros’s 1804 painting of the event, Napoleon appears amid a pile of agonized soldiers. Behind him, a military officer holds a handkerchief over his mouth, but Napoleon, barefaced and Christlike, reaches out to touch a soldier’s open sore. “The principal seat of the plague was in the imagination,” Napoleon was attributed as saying. “The surest protection, the most efficacious remedy, was moral courage.”
Though Napoleon claimed to have visited soldiers to assuage their fears about disease, he had really arrived to burnish his own reputation. His regime had lied to soldiers about the plague’s threat, and according to the art history professor Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby, he knew that soldiers would conflate their fear of the disease with their “distrust of the military and government commanders who rendered them powerless.” Dispelling “fear” of the objectively horrifying plague was a tool for cementing Napoleon’s control.
Trump, too, seems less than willing to fight the coronavirus rationally, instead claiming it will disappear “like a miracle.” It is as if taking the disease seriously is an indictment of his presidency. By dismissing the threat and banishing its visual cues, Trump also shields his own reputation and protects his personal vanity. Inside the mask factory, when Trump wore protective goggles but no mask, he used the logic of the superhero mask — the ones that cover the eyes but reveal the mouth, a way of obscuring identity but accentuating rhetorical power. And few leaders use the mouth as acrobatically as Trump, whose expressions shift among the open-mouthed scream, the sarcastically jutted jaw, and the exaggerated, pinched pout.
In recent days, as protesters poured into the streets to protest the killing of George Floyd, the mask has taken on a new association. Wearing a mask to a protest used to signal that you were an anti-fascist or a cop suited up in anti-riot armor. But at these demonstrations, masks are ubiquitous, symbolizing civic action in more ways than one: Even as they protect the community from the virus, they protest the surveillance of the police.
No, Trump does not wear a mask. But as protesters have assembled in front of the White House in recent days, he has descended into an underground bunker and turned out the lights. He has tweeted about the Secret Service protecting him from the American people with “the most vicious dogs, most ominous weapons, I have ever seen.” The police have buzzed D.C. demonstrators with helicopters and fired on them with rubber bullets. The notion that these masked protesters could represent cowardice, and Trump strength, is absurd. “We are here to show that regardless of what is happening to our health we refuse to run,” one protester told The Cut. “We refuse to live in fear.”