Much has already been written about the link between masculinity and anti-mask wearing beliefs. In an interview for Mother Jones, political scientist Christina Wolbrecht remarks, for instance, that traditional masculinity and American manhood is built upon an identity and performance of strength, vigor, and health, and a rejection of weakness; it glorifies independence, individual freedom, and disavows inter-dependence and emotional attachment. One study suggests that there is a correlation between men ascribing to sexist ideology, not taking the COVID pandemic seriously, and not wearing masks:
“Those who had more sexist attitudes were far less likely to report feeling concerned about the pandemic, less likely to support state and local coronavirus policies, less likely to take precautions like washing their hands or wearing masks, and more likely to get sick than those with less sexist attitudes“
It seems that the more men ascribe to values associated with traditional masculinity, the more likely they are to perceive mask-wearing as an infringement on their freedom and as emasculating. The refusal to wear a mask in rejection of solid advice that masks protect against COVID-19 aligns with public health research that shows that masculine socialization plays a large role in why men, as a group, are less likely to go to the doctor and die earlier than women.
Self-reliance over self-care, or as Wolbrecht puts it, mask wearing “in some sense falls into ‘Real men don’t eat salads, real men don’t watch their blood pressure, real men don’t do all these things that we probably want to do if we’re trying to maintain our health.’ It’s a sign of weakness.” Masculine ideology has also been linked with the refusal by some men to wear condoms as protection during the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
In Scientific America, Emily Wililngham discusses the “condoms of the face” framing, stating that “[i]n today’s refusal to wear a mask, we see echoes of this condom rejection embedded in white masculine ideology. Led by the Masculinity Performer in Chief, these men are making what increasingly looks like the last stand for that celluloid masculinity. As in another infamous “last stand,” they risk ending up dead on the battlefield they insisted on creating, along with the casualties they take with them.”
Since masculinity is, in part, a performance of gender, not wearing a mask becomes a performance by which some men signal to other men that they are “real men.” Joe Bidan was famously mocked for wearing a mask by a conservative commentator who suggested that he might as well get a pursue with that mask.
Masculinity obsessed leaders and those who idealize them perform a mask machismo. Joe Rogan, currently in trouble over spreading misinformation about COVID, remarked, for instance, that wearing masks is “for bitches“, to which Bill Burr, with whom he was in conversation, responded, “Why is it for bitches? … Oh God you’re so tough with your f*cking open nose and throat…and your five o’clock shadow. This is a man right here!” In other words, wearing a mask is performing weakness, not wearing it is performing virility.
According to a study published by Cambridge University Press: “it is not about sex: it is about gender, specifically masculinity among men. As has often been noted, masculine gender identities are fragile, and men are often looking for ways to assert their gender identities to both themselves and to those around them. Signaling that they are unconcerned about the prospect of getting sick may be working as a masculinity display for these men—one that potentially endangers those around them.” The disregard for others as foundational to your gender identity is one example of how “toxic masculinity” manifests.
Wearing masks, interpreted through masculinity, becomes a matter of identity and “when opinions [about masks] become identities, they warp our understanding and make it harder to change one’s mind as the situation changes.”
Masculinity as an identity that you perform requires constant maintenance. The term “precarious manhood” attempts to capture this constant need to shore up one’s masculinity credentials and to defend it against the daily slights and insults that are perceived as making you less of a man. This anxiety over masculinity can lead some men to engage in risky behaviours. Capitalism, in recognition of this anxiety, has readily provided “man-plifying objects” to “bro-up” objects that some men may otherwise not use, including COVID masks.
The symbolism of the mask in relation to masculinity can also be understood in terms of the fears that underpin masculinity and the threat of emasculation. For instance, as Ellie Anderson, co-host of the OverThink Podcast, points out, masculinity has been tied to the freedom to express oneself however one wishes in public spaces; being “legible on your own terms is something coded masculine in our society. Women don’t even expect that to begin with. And in fact, when we demand it, there’s something transgressive about it.” Masks undermine the radical individualism that many white men take for granted.
David M. Peña-Guzmán, in conversation with Ellie, added that from a Judeo-Christian perspective, speech is how we make ourselves legible. Men may push against the mask as a symbol for muffling their speech–their voice–and infringing on their right to control their self-expression. Some women, on the other hand, have commented that wearing a mask provides some respite from men demanding that they “smile baby” and “to be publicly available objects of sexual consumption”.
David points out that “toxic masculinity … is also homophobic. And it’s a masculinity that simply cannot entertain the possibility of a muffled mouth with all that this signifies.” In contrast, Ellie notes that “there is so much in the heterosexual imaginary that eroticizes the obstruction of airways for women.” Ellie references, for instance, Katherine MacKinnon’s remarks on the film “Deep Throat”. This movie, which depicts a woman whose “clitoris is magically in her throat” becomes for MacKinnon an expression of how, for a heterosexual sexual imagery, “having an obstructed throat through deep penetration is literally the condition for the possibility of [the woman’s] sexual desire.” For MacKinnon, this highlights something more general about “misogyny under conditions of patriarchy, which is the way in which female sexuality itself is constructed not only along the lines of passivity … or penetrability, which becomes obvious in the film, but also around this concept of the muffled mouth, the mouthful that prevents women from expressing themselves.”
Finally, Ellie points out that in many domestic violence cases, men “frequently exert their power over women, literally by strangling them.” Constraining “women’s breath” from this perspective “is a tool of misogyny.”
Men who resent wearing masks may react from this symbolism, rejecting the image of being metaphorically “gagged”, a stand-in for “being constrained and expected to adhere to certain norms in public” against their will. Hence, anti-mask protests being framed in terms of “freedom”. Freedom here being understood in the limited sense of the entitlement to do as I damn well please.
Yet, what kind of freedom is the freedom not to wear a mask?