By Pauline Kerr
Our culture has a love-hate relationship with masks.
The bad guy in the movies was always easy to recognize – black hat and a bandana across his lower face, or a creepy looking hockey mask. The good guy was usually clean-shaven, wearing a white hat and no face covering.
There were exceptions – Hollywood came up with a type of character who kind of looked like a bad guy, complete with mask, but was actually good. The perfect example was The Lone Ranger. Of course, there were others – Zorro, Batman, The Masked Man (a masked crime-fighting comic book detective).
The popularity of such heroes led to characters who were, at first glance, bad but turned out to be good – the bandit Robin Hood, who took from the rich and gave to the poor.
Now Hollywood seems enchanted with characters who are, for the most part, good, but with so many bad-guy traits it is hard to tell. They wear masks, though – Wolverine, Deadpool, the Phantom of the Opera. The latter just has a lot of facial hair, not a mask.
In our culture, the only people who routinely wear masks in real life are either very good – medical people – or very bad – bank robbers.
That was before COVID-19. Now we all have to wear them. Medical experts seem to have changed their view of masks as science learns more about COVID-19. Masks were initially deemed unnecessary, as long as you washed your hands 16 times a day and maintained a six-foot invisible bubble around yourself. Or unnecessary for members of the public, who should be at home. Or something to be worn only if you were contagious.
About the time masks became readily available after an initial shortage, medical experts began to voice suspicions there was less danger of catching the virus from objects, and more from it travelling through the air. As with many illnesses, people without symptoms can still be contagious.
Non-medical masks protect not the wearer but other people. I wear a mask to protect you; you wear a mask to protect me.
There are people who absolutely refuse to wear them. Some have medical conditions that make it hard to breathe even without a mask. Some people panic when their faces are covered. There may be a bit of xenophobia at work. Some of us seem to associate masks with China, where people have been wearing face coverings for years as protection from everything from air pollution to the common cold, or with certain countries in the Middle East, where covering one’s face is a cultural or religious practice.
We in North America routinely cover our faces outdoors in the winter, as protection from the cold, but not indoors. Try wearing a ski mask into your local bank. We like to see the faces of people we are talking to, so we can watch facial expressions. The person who conceals their face behind dark sunglasses and a hoodie is thought to be up to no good, or at least hiding something. It is part of our culture.
Cultural norms can and do change very quickly. The firm, confident handshake, long considered an absolute necessity, especially in the business world, became a thing of the past in a few short weeks of COVID. These days, grasping a stranger’s hand firmly and shaking it earns the same sort of reaction as if the person had spit on your shoes. You leap backwards in horror.
It is easy to predict that the present awkwardness some of us feel about putting on a mask to go shopping will soon disappear as more people wear them. The anti-maskers will eventually find it easier to leave their fake exemption cards at home and stop arguing with cashiers and clerks. Bring on the masks, the wackier and more colourful, the better.
Perhaps the time has come to take a lesson from Hollywood and stop assuming the person with the bare face is the hero. We can learn to judge whether the character is good or evil, not by their appearance, but by their deeds. Wearing a face covering to keep your neighbour, customer or patient safe is pretty heroic.