The strange conflation of masks and masculinity

Why even traditionalists should have no problem with the practice

The Wizard of Oz.

That the coronavirus pandemic would be shoehorned into our perpetual culture war was all but inevitable, but that masks would be a major point of contention has come as a surprise. That they would occasion a new discussion of masculinity is a stranger plot twist still.

The advice of wearing a mask in public to limit COVID-19's spread may be the most innocuous of the standard retinue of mitigation efforts: It doesn't interfere with our work or limit our movement, keep us from worship or separate us from extended family. In many places, you can get a mask for free. And as it reassures strangers we're acting responsibly, masking is a step, however counterintuitive, toward normalcy.

Yet since masks became widely used, they acquired symbolic meaning for their skeptics. Among those skeptics is R.R. Reno, the editor of the conservative religious journal First Things, who argued masking signals unmanly cowardice (in tweets that have since been deleted):

There are two grounds on which to reject Reno's framing, which lionized President Trump and a group of elderly World War II veterans who met with the president last week, none of them masked.

The first is a bare accounting of the real rationale behind masking: It is a precaution we take not for our own safety but because it eases others' minds and may help to keep them healthy. This allows us to avoid hysteria and return to more usual habits of life. Though some may be misinformed about this rationale, and though the evidence for the value of masking is not unassailable, the reason masking is being promoted is not about "terror" for oneself, the mask-wearer. It is an act of care for others. (It is also not expected in outdoor spaces where social distance can be maintained — like going for a run on an empty street, or the apparent arrangement of Trump's meeting with the vets.)

The more interesting conversation Reno raised is about masculinity: Is it unmanly to wear a mask?

Though he was more explicit and accusatory than some, Reno isn't the first to connect masks and masculinity. Trump's refusal to wear a mask has been widely read as a statement about manliness by his supporters and critics alike. Masking "looks weak — especially for men," an Arizona protester declared. One Federalist piece said Trump in a mask would be a "searing image of weakness," and another satirically derided the "fragile masculinity" of any public figure who isn't constantly masked.

The charge of "fragile masculinity" has been leveled sincerely as well. Trump's "warrior" rhetoric, his reported assertion that masking would "send the wrong message," and his long record of attention to the perceived manliness of himself and his political opponents all serve as suggestions he won't wear a mask because it doesn't feel macho. "[A]ppearing to play it safe contradicts a core principle of masculinity: Show no weakness," argued a social scientist in Scientific American. "In short, wearing a mask emasculates."

Does it? I do not pretend to be an expert on masculinity. I am not a man; I grew up with a largely absent father; I have no brothers; and I married my first boyfriend. But I do have two sons, just now emerging from infancy and turning unmistakably into mischievous little boys whose innocent rambunctiousness, I worry, could be unduly pathologized. Precisely because of my own (lack of) history with men, I think about what kind of men my sons will be and how they'll get there, about the nature of manliness and the traditional "masculine virtues": in ancient Rome, prudence, justice, temperance, courage. Today, shaped by Christianity's insistent call to follow Jesus in sacrifice and humility: strength, honesty, honor, kindness, the ability to protect and provide for loved ones.

The best men I know are not hemmed within these masculine lines — they model traditionally "feminine virtues," too, like compassion, endurance, and gentleness — nor would they suggest women cannot attain prudence, honor, and the like. Yet the link of certain virtues to masculinity is not meaningless, either. Whether it is a link of nurture, nature, or both, I can't and won't attempt to consider here, but masculinity is not an empty concept with no enfleshed reality. The aspiration toward courage in protection is especially strong. To protect, argues The Art of Manliness founder Brett McKay, is the most "distinctively masculine" role.

This is where Reno, Trump, and, if they accept the premise that "wearing a mask emasculates," their critics all go awry: No virtuous and healthy conception of masculinity — be it more traditional and gendered or modern and egalitarian — should see a choice to protect the vulnerable as unmanly.

It may be that masking is futile, though I find compelling the evidence for its value, especially data from Hong Kong and Austria vs. the Czech Republic. Still, the science isn't settled, and the CDC's reversal of its guidance on this point has muddled the efficacy conversation, which is a reasonable conversation to have. But that is not the conversation Reno raised or Trump inspired.

Reno spoke of masks revealing the cowards among us. What has truly been revealed is an aberrant masculinity which lets selfish conceit trample the duty to put others before ourselves.

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