Masks: Good, Bad…Inconceivable?

In real life hand-to-hand combat, there is rarely any dialogue of consequence. Thankfully, that is not the case in movies. Some of my favorite movie combat-scene dialogue is from The Princess Bride.The great thing about the exchanges is that they are full of humor and profound statements- all highly quotable. Take the duel between Fezzik (Andre the Giant) and Wesley (the hero).

Fezzik:“Why do you wear a mask? Were your burned with acid or something like that?”

Wesley: “No, it’s just that they’re terribly comfortable. I imagine everyone will be wearing them in the future.”

Outstanding. I think a greater truth can be drawn from this exchange. Most human cultures have masks of some sort, although they usually aren’t for daily use. Perhaps that is why the metaphor of ‘wearing a mask’ is one that is so universal.

I’ve noticed that if a mask is not overly scary, young children will soon try to see the person behind it to identify them. No one likes being left out of a secret, even if we don’t care about the information.When one purposefully conceals something as identifying as a face, curiosity is natural. Our giant asks about the mask although he could presumably just remove it after victory. Notice that Fezzik offers a reason, although it is a bit far-fetched. Wesley responds with humor, but his comment is rather profound. Masks- and what they provide- often make us very comfortable.   We all wear a literal or figurative mask at some time. The term often has a negative connotation but there are excellent reasons for wearing masks. In the defense of masks, particularly at this season of costume-donning, I offer a few reasons why wearing a mask is common, if not beneficial.

Ceremony: Coming of age, new accomplishments, or rites of passage are often demonstrated by a mask or headdress in many cultures. (In ours, it is more likely to be a tie.)  The previous state is hidden under a new symbol that denotes title or significance which is much more noticeable. We wear titles, altered appearances, new wardrobes, and body art proudly to show something of importance. Often, putting on something new shows that we are no longer what we were.

Costumes: Costume mask are used to play a part or to hide one’s identity. Halloween and costume parties are popular because we can pretend to be something or someone else. Masquerade balls were once a common enjoyment as an escape from the predictable.  They can also help people identify stage characters from the cheap seats by projecting larger than life characterizations; devil horns, royal crowns, or monster costumes help the audience associate a personality with a character almost effortlessly.

Safety: Safety masks are important in many professions; workers face potentially dangerous and damaging hazards from their surroundings. Welding, construction, oil rigging, medical care, and baseball catchers all these benefit from safety masks, goggles, or other manner of protection because the face is full of vulnerability. These sensitive and important facial features must be protected; harmful materials must be kept away.

Self-protection. Many superheroes hide their identities for self-protection. They protect their mild-mannered alter egos so they can maintain a life that blends in, but don the mask when it is time to be invincible and rise above ‘ordinary.’ Especially when facing difficult odds and challenging feats, feeling larger than life can empower the mask-wearer. When we don’t want to be identified or want to seem super-human, masks often go up.

So are masks bad? Often they are beautiful, symbolic, and helpful. Often they frighten or keep people at a safe distance. Sometimes masks can offer a sense of secrecy and security. When we see a mask, it is natural to want to peer underneath and uncover the secrets. We wonder what is being hidden and why we aren’t privy to the information. When a mask is worn too long, it can leave an imprint on the face.  When one wears a figurative mask for too long, a real face gets lost. We lose the feeling of the wind and sun on our faces and true authenticity from those we encounter can be lost.

Sometimes the most natural mask we wear is a smile. Back in my younger days, I was part of teams that required smiling. Under red lipstick, we would grin and bear it… even as bugs crawled up our legs or athletes would heckle us. Some put Vaseline on the teeth to ensure a constant smile. Smiles can provide a needed boost of positivity, but forced smiles make the cheeks hurt. Masks can be fun and necessary, but at some point they must be removed. As Fezzik warns, “Be careful. People in masks are not to be trusted.”  Those whose identity has been lost to a mask are often very difficult to gauge or deal with. It’s tempting to mistrust ‘mask wearers’, but it’s important to remember that masks are not inherently bad. Today I saw a pint-sized Batman, Batgirl, Ironman, Spiderman, the Green Lantern,  Cookie Monster, butterfly princesses, the Phantom of the Opera, and Darth Vader- all wearing masks and having the time of their lives.

I’ve had a few masks on this week. I’ve slathered on make-up to mask the dark circles of motherhood. I’ve played with superhero costumes to amuse my son. I’ve put up emotional guards so that I can maintain some composure and deal with life’s challenges at my own pace. Still, these masks are temporary and part of life. Under the mask, Batman is Bruce Wayne, Spiderman is Peter Parker, and the Dread Pirate Roberts is Westley the farm boy. Part of mask-wearing is knowing what we are covering and who we really are. As we all know, the most important thing we can be is ourselves (or who we want to be)…unless we can be Batman. Always be Batman.

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