The Masks Men Wear

by Brett & Kate McKay on August 8, 2010 · 21 comments

in A Man's Life, On Manhood

Anyone who has dressed up for Halloween knows the transforming effect donning a costume can have, and how exponentially stronger this effect is when it involves wearing a full mask. You feel mischievously free- free of self-consciousness, free to get in character and be someone or something else, free to get a little crazier than you normally would. There is a power in the donning of a mask and for thousands of years, tapping into this power was an essential part of the male experience. Putting on physical masks allowed men to drop the social, psychological “masks” they wore each day and express the more hidden sides of themselves. Now, with the tradition of physical masking having all but disappeared in civilized society, the false veneers of social masks have become permanently glued to the faces of many modern men.

The Tradition of Masking

Since prehistoric times and all across the world, making and wearing masks has been almost exclusively the domain of men. Men donned masks for many of the rituals and celebrations that marked a tribe’s most important celebrations and transitions. Men wore masks during rites-of-passage, to ensure a bountiful hunt and harvest, to escort recently deceased spirits into the afterlife, and to mark times of renewal like the new year.

Masks helped primitive tribes deal with change and danger. Transitions and crises could threaten the unity of the tribe. The unchanging face of the mask was a symbol of stability and continuity, and the masquerades were thus used to convey meaning, purpose, and structure during these shifts.

And of course, masks were and are not simply for symbolic use. They also serve as straightforward, functional headgear designed to protect the face. Ancient warriors like the samurai and medieval knights donned headgear and masks not only to protect their mugs, but to intimidate the enemy. Functional masks are the only type of mask to still enjoy widespread use today. From the helmets of football players and motorcycle riders to the masks of hockey goalies and doctors, these masks protect the face while also serving to get the wearer “in the zone.”

Of Masks and Men

Masking’s masculine nature likely arose from its ancient connection to the hunt. Males also often dominated the spiritual life of the tribe, and donning a mask was believed to allow a man to transform himself into the spirit or deity the mask represented.

But masking served a deeper purpose for the male psyche as well. Men have always had to put on a psychological or social mask-a front to hide weakness from their rivals and adhere to a culture’s standard of flinty manliness.

Researchers who study primates, like baboons,  have learned never to tranquilize a male in front of his rivals. Once the male goes down, his competitors see the opportunity to pounce on him and will viciously attack the helpless baboon. No such problem exists when researchers tranquilize female primates. One can see then why male primates that are sick or injured will put on displays of vitality and vigor when their rival is around, only to go back to licking their wounds when once again by themselves. Biologists theorize that perhaps our human ancestors dealt with same issue-they couldn’t appear vulnerable or their rivals would see an opening, an opportunity. So our male ancestors learned to hide weakness and act tough. But constantly putting up this front can be psychologically taxing.

By donning a physical mask, the men of old could drop the false facade and feel free to express the more hidden aspects of themselves. Masks were a way to connect with the wild man we’ve been talking about recently, to let loose without feeling fearful or self-conscious. Masks were avenues of transformation and self-discovery for men. They were empowering, allowing men to act out the drama of nature, spirit, and desire in a controlled environment.

The Social Masks of Modern Men

The male tradition of wearing physical masks has almost entirely disappeared in the developed world, with the exception of things like Halloween, Mardi Gras, and Carnival.

But the pressure for men to wear a social “mask” has not vanished. We are still generally expected to hide our weaknesses, on penalty of being labeled a sissy. We also sometimes wear masks of cynicism, coolness, aloofness, or of just generally being people we are not.

The tribal rituals of past times allowed men to drop these false social masks by donning a real mask. Without these reprieves, false social masks can become molded to our faces and become permanent parts of ourselves.

It is not that social masks do not have a healthy role to play in our lives. In Masks: Faces of Culture, the authors describe the transforming effect donning armor and a mask had on the warrior:

“fortified and impenetrable, he appeared ominous, daunting, and invincible, prepared to conquer the world. He exuded a look of rationality, domination, and control, totally disengaged from nature.”

Don’t we all want to feel and look like that from time to time?

Sometimes we need to be the rock of strength for those around us, even when we’re struggling ourselves. When you’re striding up to ask a girl out or sitting in a job interview, wearing a mask of self-assurance can help you come off better than your “normal” self. Putting on a social mask of certainty and strength gives confidence to those around you and makes you feel confident yourself. We see this when athletes put on their “game face,” or when a high-powered salesman takes on a different persona to make the hard sale.

The problem, however,  is that some men keep wearing their mask even when the game is over.

The Temptation of the Social Mask

Ancient warriors wore masks as part of their defense-to protect themselves from the blows of their enemies as they defended their territory. Modern men wear the false social mask for a very similar reason-to shield themselves from being wounded by others, to protect their emotional territory from invasion and assault. They use the social mask to intimidate, mystify, and prevent others from getting too close. Their mask keeps others asking,“Who is this person? Does he mean me harm or good?”

But constantly donning a false mask is a cowardly way to deal with your fears. Instead of confronting them directly, you wall them off inside your true self, while allowing your alter ego to navigate the world. The mask acts as the buffer between you and others. This way people don’t insult or reject you, they don’t let you down, they simply deal with your false front while you’re hiding in the back. People can’t touch the real you. The mask puts distance between you and the world and allows you to spurn personal responsibility for your actions. Masks embolden people to do things they wouldn’t normally do-for good and ill. “It wasn’t me being a d-bag, that was The Situation!”

As discussed, the occasional use of a social mask can be healthy. But many men start to use it as a crutch and can’t take it off. Like Jim Carrey’s character in The Mask or the Green Goblin, the power of the mask becomes addicting. It’s easy to put on a mask to transform into someone else, but it’s harder to change who we really are. The mask becomes the source of our power and confidence instead of that power coming from within.

The problem with constantly putting on a false front is that the relationships we make while wearing it are inevitably inauthentic. People interact with your alter ego instead of the real you. Mad Men’s Don Draper is a perfect example of this. He tries to keep up a front of cool control and invulnerability in his relationships. His associate Harry Crane remarks, “Draper? Who knows anything about that guy? No one’s ever lifted that rock. He could be Batman for all we know.” The problem is not only that nobody knows Don, but that in pretending to be someone else (quite literally here) he doesn’t know himself either. He wants to change, but his real self and his false persona are so disconnected he doesn’t know how.

Taking Off the False Mask

Masks can both conceal and reveal. A mask can allow us to express a part of ourselves we would normally be too self-conscious to display. But they can also be a means of deceiving others and ourselves. The constant need to hide our true selves can be psychologically exhausting and takes its toll on our psyche and our relationships.

This is doesn’t mean we should be an entirely open book. Some men, spurning any kind of social mask, go in another extreme, what is often termed, “the overshare.” They spill their guts and emotions to anyone who shows them the least bit of attention. A man should always operate with a healthy sense of sprezzatura.

But we should be careful not to let the social mask so mold to our faces that we can’t take it off. We may no longer have the opportunity to drop our social masks by donning physical masks, but we can cultivate friendships and relationships that allow us to drop the pretense and be ourselves. These kinds of close relationships provide pockets of relief and sanity; they allow us to be open and vulnerable and are absolutely essential to our mental health and happiness. And we can work on cultivating our inner values; pride, confidence, and strength don’t come from a mask, they come from within.

Source: Masks: Faces of Culture

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Blake August 9, 2010 at 3:04 am

I’ve gone through several changes over the past year and many of these have resulted from my own desire to better myself. Specifically, I’ve read more about how to be more pleasant conversationally, how to approach others with more humility and how to dress better. I have a nicer car now and am in much better shape. Finally, I ended my co-dependent relationship of a year and am on my own path. My next step will be to move to a more nightlife-oriented part of town and try and meet and date more attractive women and put myself in more advanced and challenging social situations. Some people think I am a person who is wearing a mask now. Maybe I should have stuck with my old girlfriend and maybe my attempts at bettering myself socially just go skin deep. I think most of what has changed for me lately is natural. But what if I am a changeling? What if I’m just slouching towards Don Draper? What’s wrong with being more like Don Draper? :)

2 John M. August 9, 2010 at 7:46 am

Hmmm… I’m not sure the premise here, that it’s good to let our true, authentic selves take the fore, is necessarily true. Isn’t SOME form of mask ALWAYS necessary if we’re to live together in a civilized state? Even with family, we can’t just let all our opinions, biases, and urges just hang out there. Almost none of us would be tolerable…

3 Peter Samuel August 9, 2010 at 8:13 am

In a discussion about the “masks” people wear, sociologist Robert Ezra Park wrote;

“In a sense, and in so far as this mask represents the conception we have formed of ourselves—the role we are striving to live up to—this mask is our truer self, the self we would like to be. In the end, our conception of our role becomes second nature and an integral part of our personality. We come into the world as individuals, achieve character, and become persons.”

The study of the self from a sociological viewpoint (especially the work of Erving Goffman in the early 60s) leads us to the conclusion that we are constantly in a state of playing a role and that this is central to our identity. Without our masks, in a way, we loose the essence of who we are to society. Therefore, “masks” are not necessarily an evil we need to rid ourselves of; simply being conscious of the role we are playing is enough.

4 Kevin August 9, 2010 at 9:33 am

Billy Joel: The Stranger (excerpt)

“Well, we all have a face that we hide away forever
And we take them out and show ourselves when everyone has gone.
Some are satin, some are steel,
Some are silk and some are leather.
They’re the faces of a stranger,
But we’d love to try them on.

Well, we all fall in love,
But we disregard the danger,
Though we share so many secrets,
There are some we never tell.
Why were you so surprised that you never saw the stranger?
Did you ever let your lover see the stranger in yourself?

Once I used to believe I was such a great romancer.
Then I came home to a woman that I could not recognize.
When I pressed her for a reason,
She refused to even answer.
It was then I felt the stranger kick me right between the eyes.

You may never understand how the stranger is inspired.
But he isn’t always evil and he is not always wrong.
Though you drown in good intentions,
You will never quench the fire.
You’ll give in to your desire when the stranger comes along

5 Travis August 9, 2010 at 9:37 am

I wore masks for as long as I can remember until one morning earlier this year. For some reason, I woke and it dawned on me that I had no idea who I really was, what I was really all about. At that point, I began a quest to get rid of all the masks, to discover the real me and, having done that, I’ve never been happier in my entire life. No, I don’t share everything about my life now. Some things are no one’s business. That doesn’t mean I’m wearing a mask….it’s called using wisdom

6 Jason August 9, 2010 at 9:56 am

Nothing valuable to add, but I KNEW Draper would be a part of this list when I saw it on my Art of Manliness RSS. Let me add that unless Draper ends up becoming a serial killer, then I see no problem with the way he’s conducted himself publicly.

7 D D August 9, 2010 at 10:02 am

This is a great article, Brett.

If the social mask is a form of emotional defense, I think a good follow-up article would be one geared toward emotional offense. I know so many people that wear masks to shield their lack of self-confidence, but most of them also complement this tactic by outwardly attacking the areas in which (I think) they feel deficient. They do this by cracking jokes and insults about these qualities in other people. So not only do they use a mask to defend themselves from emotional harm, but they also make preemptive strikes against their own deficiencies when they see them in other people.

I’ve heard it said before that one can tell a lot about a man’s fears by the tactics he employs to scare you. I think the same can be said of people who are outwardly critical of others. Outwardly they’re criticizing you or a third party, but really they’re just criticizing themselves.

8 Francisco August 9, 2010 at 10:20 am

Nice article!

I also wore a social mask for awhile and man was it hard to take off! I felt like this new persona was taking over my life a la fight club (Im surprised that was not mentioned), and had to take some time off from the world to realize that was not the real me and take the mask off.

9 Herr Doktor August 9, 2010 at 10:55 am

Herr Doktor is reminded of a quote by Nathaniel Hawthorne, “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.”

10 Alex Hulse August 9, 2010 at 11:08 am

It seems another reason for masks has been overlooked. Many tribes have ceremonies where masks are worn of ancestor or gods. When the “god” is seen in the performance, the people of the tribe believe that the god is actually in their presence. If you were to ask the person in the mask if they were there, they will tell you that they were not, maybe they were a town over, or just away that night. The point is that these men give their bodies to the gods to serve the ceremonial function, so that the gods can be present at the ceremony. It is an honor and a sacrifice to give up ones body.

11 Scotty P. August 9, 2010 at 12:00 pm

The issue is not whether it’s good or bad to wear masks-as the article states, wearing a mask is sometimes a healthy thing and something we all do. The issue is the where and when of wearing masks. There’s nothing wrong with the mask Don Draper puts up publicly, but until recently he also wore that mask in all his relationships, with his wife and family and friends. We can wear a mask publicly, but if we can’t take it off in private and can’t be vulnerable even with the people were supposed to be closest to, then that is a problem and a recipe for unhappiness.

12 Brucifer August 9, 2010 at 1:08 pm

On a T-shirt I own: “I stopped fighting my inner demons. We’re on the same side now.”

In our overly-therapeutic culture, we (males) are often encouraged to take-off these supposed ‘masks’ and to thus somehow reveal our “authentic” selves. Emasculating Balderdash! Masks *ARE* our authentic selves as men!

Let us not become like bleating women, obsessively peeling-off psycho-social layers “in search of ourselves.” Bah! Like in a previous post, this searching for “authentic selves” behavior is modeled solely so that women will approve of us. Bah! We must deal with their ever-changing moods. Let *them* deal with our Masks!

As mentioned in some of the previous comments, men actually *admire* each others masks! Like Shamans, we BRAVELY wear Masks to deal with the evils and demons of our existence. We sometimes wear them to not frighten women and children. We sometime wear them *to* frighten women and children!

To twist Bret’s summary contention back around; inner values; pride, confidence, and strength come from within, but they are expressed through our Masks!

13 Leon August 9, 2010 at 2:31 pm

Brucifer, the concept of self debate, whether we have one or don’t have one, what it is and other questions has been an ongoing issue that goes back to Buddhist’s Sidartha(sp?) and ancient Greek Philosophers(and certainly a lot more i just can’t think off the top of my head) so i really doubt it’s a “woman’s” conspiracy to emasculate men! lol though i can definatley see how that can be thought to be the reason since the media tends to put that scenario out there a lot with sitcoms showing the nagging wife or girlfriend trying to get the man to “open up” or something.

But i do agree that sometimes we need the mask to defend against the evils of the world. There are different situations that a mask helps to navigate through but i personally don’t like the idea of masks all the time or using them as an expression. I guess i prefer to think of them as different forms of ourselves that we choose to exercise or not and not necessarily masks. But i am not entirely certain on the issue here yet, i mean there are a lot of people who either like the “mask” idea and a lot who don’t. i can only speak for myself.

Brucifer, what do you mean by we use the mask sometimes to “frighten women and children”?

14 Brucifer August 9, 2010 at 4:10 pm

@ Leon -

Hyperbole R’Us to make a counter-point, yes.

Yet, do not get me started upon the portrayal of men in TV programs and in advertising as bumbling idiots in need of female supervision. And if you don’t think there is ‘conspiracy’ afoot to emasculate men, read Christina Sommers book “The War Against Boys” and then get back to me, ok.

We should use our ‘mask’ to “frighten women and children” in the same way the dancing Shamans used the masks of gods or demons …. to help inculcate proper behavior in the tribe. It’s funny though. The ‘mask’ indeed frightens women, but sometimes also draws then in to a man, like a moth to the flame.

All’s I’m saying is that masks are socially useful …. like Shamanistic manifestations of the gods and spirits, only in this case, manifestations of masculine drive and power.

Who controls things, the mask or the man, is the critical point.

Meh, the little-known fact is that Siddhartha developed piles from too much meditating under the Bodhi tree.

15 Kevin August 9, 2010 at 4:56 pm

@ Brucifer

“The ‘mask’ indeed frightens women, but sometimes also draws then in to a man, like a moth to the flame. ”

Good point. And I can guarantee from experience that some women actually WANT the mask and desire it over whatever may lie inside a man. The mask is protection and strength. And this isn’t to say that women are drawn to the bad boy image. They also need the humble father who isn’t afraid to carry a bat downstairs at night when there’s a bump.

As Brett alludes, we need to master the mask. It has its place.

16 Bela August 11, 2010 at 1:17 am

I would agree, the mask has its place. As a gather of information from sources, I’ve had to toss on a few mask from time to time. I have not experienced the inability to remove the mask, though. What has bothered me the most is the ability I have to put the appropriate mask on like the flip of a mental switch.

17 Barry August 11, 2010 at 7:00 pm

I don’t think that the article implies that masks are inherently bad or good. It seems to me that the distinction is between the deliberate donning of masks for certain occasions (which is entirely appropriate) and the over-reliance on a mask or masks that obfuscate true interactions.

There are times when donning that mask is the best way to drop into the state that we need at any given moment and there are times when we need to drop the mask if we’re going to connect with others in a meaningful way.

Like most things in life, the question is one of balance. It seems to me that there is value in knowing ourselves and the masks we employ and even more value in using that awareness to choose when we wear them instead of allowing them to dominate and become a misrepresentation of what and who we really are.

There is nothing inherently manly in donning or eschewing our masks – but there is in wearing them appropriately.

18 Mick August 25, 2010 at 12:25 am

How about a follow-up article about the great masked wrestlers of yesteryear, like the Sensational, Intelligent Destroyer and Mr. Wrestling #2?

19 Wayne Levine August 26, 2010 at 3:21 pm

Great article, Brett. Recommending it to the men in my circle. We’re trying each day to rip off that mask.

20 Tim September 2, 2010 at 1:47 am

How do you get rid of your social mask?
I feel like all my relationships at college are built on the mask I wear around them and I would freak them out if they saw the real me. I’m naturally a really outgoing person but for some reason once I went to college I put on a mask of introversion and now its into my sophomore year and I can’t take it off and I hate it so much people don’t know the real me and they never will!

21 Jeffrey Kaplan January 8, 2014 at 6:33 pm

Interesting article, and especially the comments following it. @ Brucifer had an interesting point, but I wonder if the deliniation between what is beneficial to men is not whether or not to wear masks, but rather are you aware of the masks you wear. Awareness and choice are so closely linked, that opting to wear a mask in a particular scenario or situation can be incredibly beneficial. I don’t think that is the “over-therapeutic culture”, but rather men engaging in knowledge of self. Men (and women) who cannot recognize the difference between how they feel and who they really are in differing social climates become fused with the masks they create, losing a sense of self. That was more of what the article spoke of to me – an enlightened man can portray himself as whatever he needs to be, ranging from warrior to shamen to father, while also continuing to remain mindful of all that is truly is.

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