From the president to stay-at-home protesters, a mask-less face has become a stand-in for manliness.
When reporter BrieAnna Frank showed up to a Honeywell plant last week in Arizona to cover President Donald Trump’s visit, she was sure to wear a mask.
Masks were the reason the president was there: The former aerospace plant in Phoenix has pivoted to producing them in recent months amid a nationwide shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE).
But the dozen or so people who had gathered outside the facility to cheer on the president were not there to support masks. They had their faces uncovered, Frank told Vox.
As she approached members of the crowd to interview them, the conversation quickly got heated. “They started to yell that me and the other journalists there were trying to incite fear and panic and paranoia” by wearing masks, said Frank, who works for the Arizona Republic.
One man in particular seemed to take issue with the male journalists wearing masks, she recalled. “It’s submission, it’s muzzling yourself, it looks weak,” he said, “especially for men.”
9:32 am – myself + other journalists here are being harassed for wearing masks.
One man says: “It’s submission, it’s muzzling yourself, it looks weak – especially for men.”
We’re being accused of fear-mongering, not knowing anything + being “pieces of shit.”
— BrieAnna J. Frank (@brieannafrank) May 5, 2020
“I felt that it was a statement that people should know about,” said Frank, whose tweets about the encounter went viral. To the crowd in front of the factory, she said, “Masks clearly symbolized something beyond, ‘I am trying to protect my health.’”
They’re not alone. Trump himself declined to wear a mask while being photographed at the plant, though he claims he wore one “backstage.” Vice President Mike Pence was criticized for failing to wear a mask during a tour of the Mayo Clinic in April. And when armed protesters showed up at the Michigan statehouse on April 30 to protest stay-at-home orders amid the coronavirus pandemic, many were mask-free. One shouting, bare-faced man who was photographed at the rally later said he was “not at all” worried about the virus and would never wear a mask — “ever.”
Since the pandemic began, the issue of wearing masks has further exposed America’s racial and gender prejudices. Earlier on, wearing masks was associated with Asian countries and often dismissed because of racist assumptions about those countries. Then, as many cities began to require residents to wear masks, police began targeting black men for covering their faces, profiling them as criminals rather than as people trying to abide by health guidelines. And for a certain subset of mostly white, conservative men, not wearing a mask seems to have become a hallmark of manliness.
For unmasked protesters like the ones in Michigan, “There’s an assumption of a kind of invincibility that is tied to this idea of white masculinity,” Jonathan Metzl, a professor of sociology and psychiatry at Vanderbilt University and the author of Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland, told Vox.
It’s not just men — Frank noticed many women among the unmasked Trump supporters gathered at the Honeywell plant. And, of course, many men are happy to follow the recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to cover their faces in public. Still, a narrative has emerged on the right that wearing a mask is weak and refusing to wear one is somehow strong. And that narrative could put everyone at risk.
“One thing about [being] macho is being fearless,” Melanye Price, a political science professor at Prairie View A&M University, told Vox. “But that fearlessness comes at a cost for every single person around you.”
The CDC recommends masks. Not everyone is listening.
Long before the pandemic hit, masks were common in East Asian countries, where they’re seen as a simple way to protect yourself (and others) from disease, as Refinery29’s Connie Wang wrote in March. Wuhan, China, where the coronavirus outbreak began, started requiring them in January. The US was much slower to recommend masks for the general public, but in early April — with confirmed coronavirus cases jumping by the day — the CDC recommended that everyone wear a cloth mask in certain public settings. Some cities, like New York and Los Angeles, began mandating the wearing of masks in certain settings as well.
Like much about the coronavirus, the impact of wearing masks on transmission isn’t entirely clear. But many experts believe that even cloth masks can offer some degree of protection for wearers — and perhaps greater protection for the people around them. The virus seems to spread “when germ-containing droplets make it into a person’s mouth, nose, or eyes,” as Vox’s German Lopez previously reported, and it’s true that “masks stop people from spreading their own droplets.” If everyone wears a mask — including those who are asymptomatic but may still be carrying the virus — it could help halt the spread of Covid-19.
Most Americans appear to be on board with the CDC’s recommendation. In a Morning Consult poll (conducted from April 7 to 9), 72 percent of respondents said they planned to start wearing a face mask in public places over the next two weeks.
Others, however, have chafed at the CDC’s advice. As people around the country protest their state’s shelter-in-place orders, many have appeared in public without masks. One example is the protesters in Michigan, which has become a hotbed of resistance to social distancing restrictions — a defiance Trump has encouraged via his tweets about “liberating” Michigan and other states. And on April 30, hundreds of protesters gathered at the state capitol in Lansing, some of them armed and many of them eschewing masks and standing close together in violation of social distancing guidelines, according to Reuters.Advertisement
One of the mask-less protesters was Brian Cash, who was photographed shouting during the event. He later told the Detroit Free Press he believes the coronavirus was “intentionally released” by the Chinese government and that the state’s stay-at-home order is useless because people still go to grocery stores and pharmacies. “So what is the point of staying at home?” he asked.
The resistance to masks has also found support within the Trump administration. Pence, the head of the federal government’s coronavirus response, said he did not wear a mask while touring the Mayo Clinic in April because he is tested for Covid-19 regularly. (He later backpedaled and said he “should have” worn one.) But a mask-less Pence attended two events in Iowa on May 8, the same day his press secretary tested positive for the virus, according to the Intercept. At one of those events, CEOs were reportedly asked to remove their masks before joining Pence onstage.
Trump, meanwhile, has consistently appeared in public without a mask. After he was photographed without one at the Honeywell plant in Arizona, he said he had worn one “backstage,” outside the view of cameras.
“But they said you didn’t need it, so, I didn’t need it,” he went on. “And by the way, if you noticed, nobody else had it on that was in the group.”
Aides tested positive for the virus days later, and staffers have since been asked to wear masks on White House grounds, according to the Washington Post. Trump, however, is still unlikely to wear a mask himself, aides say.
For Trump, not wearing a mask may be a way to project masculinity
The Trump administration’s behavior around masks has gendered overtones. For Trump and Pence, not wearing a mask may be a way to project a macho image, Metzl said, playing into “tropes of indestructibility.”
“Appearing to play it safe contradicts a core principle of masculinity: show no weakness,” wrote social sciences professor Peter Glick at Scientific American. “Defying experts’ warnings about personal danger signals ‘I’m a tough guy, bring it on.’”
Trump’s messaging has also helped promote the idea that ignoring the risks of coronavirus is the tough or strong thing to do. Despite warnings from public health experts about the dangers of reopening the country too early, he said at the Honeywell plant that “the people of our country should think of themselves as warriors” because “our country has to open.”
Such militaristic, tough-guy messaging, along with Trump’s refusal to wear a mask, may encourage ordinary people — especially men — to minimize the risk of coronavirus for the sake of appearing manly.
While the refusal to wear masks isn’t an exclusively male phenomenon — a Michigan woman was arrested last month after police said she attacked a grocery store employee who told her to leave because she wasn’t wearing a mask — there is some evidence that men may view mask recommendations with more skepticism than women. In the April Morning Consult poll, 76 percent of women said they planned to wear a face mask in public over the next two weeks, compared with 67 percent of men.
Though Trump’s narrative around the virus may be reinforcing gender stereotypes, the issue of masks is revealing Americans’ racial biases as well. While white men have been able to appear in public without masks — and with guns — as part of a protest, black men have been targeted by police, both for wearing and for not wearing masks. In Philadelphia, officers were caught on video forcibly removing a black man from a bus for not covering his face, just one day after the city began requiring it, Fabiola Cineas reported for Vox in April. And a police officer in Miami handcuffed and arrested Armen Henderson, a black doctor who tests homeless people for Covid-19, as he loaded equipment into a van in front of his home — while wearing a mask.
Black Americans often have to engage in “social signaling” to make white people feel comfortable in public spaces, said Price, the political science professor. “You say good morning first, you smile first,” she said. “None of that can be done with masks.”
White people often already perceive black people as dangerous or not belonging in public places, Price said. “But a black body with a mask is something that somehow expresses even more danger.”
Meanwhile, for white protesters like those in Michigan, not wearing a mask may signal a kind of immunity from danger — or at least a perceived immunity. As white Americans, they’re unlikely to encounter the same kind of police brutality that black people face when they engage in protest. “Imagine 10 black men and rifles walking up to any state capitol in the United States,” Price said. “They would be shot before they ever made it up the steps.”
But congregating in crowds without masks is also a statement of perceived immunity from the virus, Metzl said. The unmasked protesters seemed to be sending the message that “nothing’s going to happen to me because of my whiteness,” he explained. “If you thought you were really going to get the coronavirus, you wouldn’t act like that.”
The fact that black and Latinx Americans in many communities are disproportionately likely to become infected and die of Covid-19 may be influencing such attitudes. “I think for a lot of the country, people feel like this is something that’s happening to someone else,” Metzl said.
But people who refuse to wear masks may be putting others, not just themselves, at risk
Obviously, the feeling of invincibility that leads protesters to avoid masks could backfire if they get sick. Pence and Trump may also find themselves rethinking their stance in the coming days since White House officials tested positive — Pence himself is reportedly keeping his distance from Trump and other staffers to avoid potentially exposing them.
But the especially disturbing thing about refusing to wear a mask is that, while it may seem like an expression of toughness, it actually increases the risk to others more than yourself, Metzl said. While some may feel that not wearing a mask expresses their own invincibility, “You could also think about this in terms of all the other people you’re putting at risk by not wearing a mask,” he added — your family, friends, colleagues, the rest of society. The failure to wear one is “symbolic of a kind of loss of a bigger common sense of responsibility to each other.”
Remedying that loss is not going to be as simple as sending the message that “tough guys wear masks,” Metzl said. (Washington Post humor columnist Alexandra Petri has suggested a tagline for a potential “Masks For Him” line of accessories: “We put the ‘mask’ in ‘toxic maskulinity.’”) Rather, the country has to look at what the current mask debate says about racism and other prejudices. “What we need is a much more concerted effort to address the bigger issues that are represented by masks,” Metzl said.
For the Arizona Republic’s Frank, the confrontation over masks outside the Honeywell plant is part of a wider narrative around the virus. She recalled another incident in which a female reporter was accosted, this time by a woman, for wearing a mask. “I do think that what happened to all of us out there in the field on Tuesday is indicative of a larger issue” with how masks are viewed in the US, Frank said.
But for her, wearing a mask is about one thing: public health. Frank lives with her mother, a nurse who treats Covid-19 patients. “I try to be really careful,” she told the people gathered outside the plant. “I try to protect myself and those around me.”
The embrace of a more fluid form of masculinity shows that many Chinese are frustrated with the traditional ideas pushed by the establishment.
Mr. Cai belongs to the tribe of “little fresh meat,” a nickname, coined by fans, for young, delicate-featured, makeup-clad male entertainers. These well-groomed celebrities star in blockbuster movies, and advertise for cosmetic brands and top music charts. Their rise has been one of the biggest cultural trends of the past decade. Their image — antithetical to the patriarchal and stoic qualities traditionally associated with Chinese men — is changing the face of masculinity in China.
Innocent as they may seem, the little fresh meat have powerful critics. The state news agency Xinhua denounces what it calls “niangpao,” or “sissy pants,” culture as “pathological” and said in an editorial last September that its popularity is eroding social order. The Beijing newspaper’s decision to include Mr. Cai in its profiles apparently prompted the Communist Youth League to release its own list of young icons: patriotic athletes and scientists, whom it called the “true embodiment” of the spirit of Communist youth.
The government attacks on this evolving idea of masculinity have triggered a strong counter-backlash from fans of the celebrities. And in online essays and posts, defenders of the young men make clear that their preference is more than a youthful countercultural fad. At its heart, the embrace of a more modern, less rigid form of masculinity represents frustration with traditional ideas of manhood.
“The ridiculous condemnation of ‘sissy pants’ men shows the gender ideology of a patriarchal society that equates toughness with men and fragility with women,” a journalist who goes by the name Wusi wrote in an online essay in September, voicing a widely shared opinion.
The official push of traditional masculinity — including reinvented school curriculums and the sponsorship of boys-only clubs — is motivated in part by worries that the decades-long one-child policy produced a generation of timid and self-centered male youth ill equipped to fulfill their social responsibilities.
And in the context of China’s increasing power, the establishment’s preoccupation with promoting old-fashioned, Hollywood-style manliness also has a political message. Just as patriotic intellectuals a century ago argued that national strength derives from the virile energy of the youth, present-day Chinese nationalists see their ambitions take the shape of a macho willingness to fight for righteous causes.
This vision is on display in the 2017 action thriller “Wolf Warrior 2.” The movie, featuring a former People’s Liberation Army soldier caught in an African civil war, showed him putting the lives of local civilians above his own while single-handedly beating American-led mercenaries. The goal of the story, said Wu Jing, its director and lead actor, in media interviews, is to “inspire men to be real men.” The movie went on to become China’s top-grossing film in history.
There is little question about who in real life is meant to best personify the masculine chauvinism characterizing the official line today: Take a stroll down a city street or switch on the television at news hour — and you are greeted by the face of President Xi Jinping with a perennial look of self-assurance and determination.
The Trumps have often been compared to a mob family. Certainly, in the White House, they have created a dark alternative universe with an inverted ethical code, where the main value is loyalty to the godfather above all else.
An anti-Trump group called Mad Dog PAC has a billboard reading: “MAGA, Mobsters Are Governing America.”
.. As Michael Daly noted in The Daily Beast, “Traditionally, rats begin wearing a wire after they get jammed up.”
.. In the taped call, Cohen tells Trump that he has talked to the mogul’s trusted money manager and “Apprentice” guest star, Allen Weisselberg, about how to set up a company to reimburse David Pecker, the National Enquirer owner, for buying off Trump goomah Karen McDougal. Federal investigators in Manhattan now want to interview Weisselberg.
“Long term, this could be the most damaging,” Trump biographer Tim O’Brien told me, “because it gets into Trump’s wallet.”
.. Cohen the Fixer claims Trump knew about the Russian meeting during the campaign with his son and Paul Manafort. The president hit the mattresses on Twitter, denying it all.
.. Rudy Giuliani has somersaulted from a RICO-happy prosecutor to a man acting like a Mafia lawyer, telling Chris Cuomo that Cohen is an “incredible liar” when only three months ago he pronounced him “an honest, honorable lawyer.”
.. If the White House seems more and more like “Goodfellas,” it is not an accident.
“Trump has a very cinematic sense of himself,” O’Brien said. Like many on social media, he is driven to be the star of his own movie. He even considered going to film school in L.A. before he settled into his father’s business.
.. O’Brien recalled that Trump told him that he thought Clint Eastwood was the greatest movie star. “He and Melania model their squints on Eastwood,” the biographer noted. Trump also remarked, while they were watching “Sunset Boulevard” on the Trump plane, that a particular scene was amazing: the one where Norma Desmond obsessively watches her silent films and cries: “Have they forgotten what a star looks like? I’ll show them!”
.. Trump is drawn to people who know how to dominate a room and exaggerated displays of macho, citing three of his top five movies as
- “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,”
- “Goodfellas” and
- “The Godfather.”
.. As a young real estate developer, he would hang out at Yankee Stadium and study the larger-than-life figures in the V.I.P. box:
- George Steinbrenner,
- Lee Iacocca,
- Frank Sinatra,
- Roy Cohn,
- Rupert Murdoch,
- Cary Grant.
He was intent on learning how they grabbed the limelight.
.. “In his first big apartment project, Trump’s father had a partner connected to the Genovese and Gambino crime families,” said Michael D’Antonio, another Trump biographer. “He dealt with mobbed-up suppliers and union guys for decades.
.. “When Trump was a little boy, wandering around job sites with his dad — which was the only time he got to spend with him — he saw a lot of guys with broken noses and rough accents. And I think he is really enchanted by base male displays of strength. Think about ‘Goodfellas’ — people who prevail by cheating and fixing and lying. Trump doesn’t have the baseline intellect and experience to be proficient at governing. His proficiency is this mob style of bullying and tough-guy talk.”
As Steve Bannon noted approvingly, Trump has a Rat Pack air, and as O’Brien said, Trump was the sort of guy who kept gold bullion in his office.
.. Trump’s like a mobster, D’Antonio said, in the sense that he “does not believe that anyone is honest. He doesn’t believe that your motivations have anything to do with right and wrong and public service. It’s all about self-interest and a war of all against all. He’s turning America into Mulberry Street in the ’20s, where you meet your co-conspirators in the back of the candy store.”
He did not come to the White House with any moral authority. And unlike some other presidents, such as J.F.K. and Ronald Reagan, he did not embody our aspirations.
He was simply a rough instrument to smash the capital. Republican nihilism and Democratic neglect and arrogance had bred a virulent strain of nihilism in the electorate. Many voters wanted to tear down the house.
There will be a lot of pain while this president is in office and the clock will turn back on many things. But we will come out stronger, once this last shriek of white supremacy and grievance and fear of the future is out of the system. Every day, President Trump teaches us what values we cherish — and they’re the opposite of his.
.. When Trump buoyed the Ku Klux Klan and the neo-Nazis who had marched in Charlottesville with Tiki torches, Confederate flags, Nazi slogans, swastikas and banners reading “Jews will not replace us” — even as one of their leaders told a Vice News reporter how disgusting it was that Trump’s “beautiful” blond daughter was married to a Jewish man— the president made it clear which category he is in.
.. For all the things he thinks make him a tough guy — his macho posturing, his Twitter bullying, his swaggering and leering talk, his vulgar references to his anatomy — he’s no tough guy if he can’t stand up to the scum of the earth.
In his total absence of dignity and decorum, his violence and his vulgarity, he was the emblem par excellence of the Trump White House. That reports of his wife filing for divorce surfaced during his brief apotheosis completed the picture. Fast-talking and fatuous, self-important and servile, he embodied the “commedia dell’arte” of Trump’s dysfunctional crew.
.. Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant to Trump, who recently told the BBC that, “The military is not a microcosm of civilian society. They are not there to reflect America. They are there to kill people and blow stuff up.”
.. The Scaramouch was just a stand-in for the president he professed to love. The real “braggart and poltroon” sits in the Oval Office.
.. What but some profound sense of inadequacy could explain the neediness and the nastiness, the pout and the pettiness, the vanity and the vulgarity, the anger and the aggression? This president gets off on the humiliation of others. He is inhabited by some deep violence to which self-control is a stranger. It is almost painful to watch the degree to which he pursues self-aggrandizement. He confounds masculinity with machismo. As J.K. Rowling put it in a tweet: “You tiny, tiny, tiny little man.”
.. The transgender decision .. was, in the words of Stephen Burbank, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, “an engine of malice.” It illustrated how, “In the realm of moral leadership, President Trump is leading a race to the bottom.”
.. The police department in Suffolk County also pushed back; it would not tolerate brutality.
.. But this is the president we have: turbulent, chaotic, boastful, cowardly and violent.
White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci was brought in purportedly to grease the wheels of the WH comms operation and to put the president’s agenda and achievements into the spotlight. Instead, a series of outbursts — including an unhinged late-night rant to a liberal reporter — means the only thing he has put into the spotlight so far is himself.
.. However by Thursday night, the words “calm” and “in control” were on no-one’s list of phrases to describe “Mooch.”
.. Mooch deleted a bunch of tweets after journalists quickly skimmed through his past tweets and statements and found a series of awkward comments, including when he called Trump a “hack politician” making “anti-American” statements
.. “You’re an inherited money dude from Queens County. Bring it, Donald. Bring it,” he said on Fox Business in 2015. Just two years later, he would be drooling over that same “money dude from Queens County” tweeting: “I serve @POTUS agenda & that’s all that matters.”
.. Scaramucci’s first major mistake was to overreact to a piece in Politico Wednesday night that reported on his financial filings and said that he still stands to profit from an ownership stake in his investment firm SkyBridge Capital. Despite the story mentioning in the third paragraph that the record was “publicly available upon request,” it triggered a meltdown from the new comms director, who suddenly believed he was the victim of a leak.
.. But Scaramucci wasn’t done. On Thursday morning he called into CNN’s “New Day” in which he engaged in a rambling interview replete with macho, tough guy filibustering as well as a few wild swings at Priebus.
.. Scaramucci dominated the day’s news cycle, turning his boss and his agenda into a sideshow to the Scaramucci Show. What did Trump do late Wednesday and Thursday? The public could be forgiven for remaining uninformed as the media was understandably drawn to Mooch’s Machiavellian maneuverings.
.. On Thursday night, the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza dropped the news that Mooch had called him late Wednesday and unleashed a verbal tirade at his colleagues of the kind that would be a sacking offence for most American workers.
.. Scaramucci has already become arguably the worst White House communications director in modern American history — and he’s only been in the job a week.
.. Trump has long admired Scaramucci’s performance on cable news, but as his own agenda and achievements get drowned out by his scatterbrained comms man, Trump may be wondering if being a tough guy on cable news is a strong enough qualification to lead the White House communications office.