As Hollywood works to better reflect a diverse America, who would have thought 2019 would see a side step into secrecy? From Disney+’s new show The Mandalorian and Fox’s bizarre furry fest The Masked Singer to HBO’s latest hit Watchmen and even country music, overly macho men (and women) are covering their faces — and often their asses, too — with disguises.
We’ve gone fully Masc 4 Mask.
Masks are nothing new in the cultural lexicon. Superheroes have always hidden their identities behind veils and hoods. Athletes and warriors wear helmets as safety padding, while horror-movie villains like Ghostface and Hannibal Lecter don masks to enact evil.
Rarely, however, are masks worn unwaveringly by the good guys (or those we perceive to be on our side). But why not? If Chris Daughtry’s Rottweiler cosplay (come on, we know that’s him) proves anything, it’s that there’s something alluring about a masked man.
In Watchmen, police in Tulsa, Oklahoma, wear masks to hide their identities from a militant white supremacist group dressed in hoods. But the perceived anonymity allows police like Sister Night (Regina King) and the bizarrely sexy Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson) to torture suspects without accountability. The series takes a cynical look at masks, posing the comic book’s age-old question: Who watches the Watchmen?
“People who wear masks are driven by trauma,” FBI agent Laurie Blake (Jean Smart) says in an early episode. “They’re obsessed with justice because of some injustice they suffered.” Her backstory provides some clues on why Blake is one of few characters not to hide her face. Yet she’s also one of the most guarded. Conversely, cloaked faces in Prestige Mask Media are likely to open up; anonymity fosters their best and worst (but truest) selves.
Take Orville Peck, a folk singer who’s always clad in a leather Lone Ranger mask with rich fringe obscuring his face. He’s veiled at every concert, in every Instagram post and even at the skate park. Peck’s masks are luxurious, beautiful and artistic; they’re often paired with a cowboy hat and a punk-band tee. “My mask helps eliminate pretense and this idea of having to go on stage and perform as someone or something I’m not,” he told country news site the Boot.
Peck is also openly gay, which adds another layer to his hidden identity. Does the mask complicate his message of pride? To me, there’s beauty in his mystery. It’s anonymous eroticism. Nothing could be more queer than that.
To lesser success, The Masked Singer uses the costumes to build hype and notoriety around its anonymous celebrity contestants, many of whom have been out of the limelight for years, if not decades. Former Destiny’s Child member Michelle Williams can sing without the constant Beyoncé comparisons, just as Chris Daughtry hopes people will say, “Whose great voice is that?” instead of, “Is that the American Idol guy?” On this game show, however, the costumes are more temporary cover than extensions of the cast’s vulnerability and honesty (despite Joey Fatone’s commitment to his “damaged rabbit” bit).
Finally, some masks serve as real physical protection. On the Disney+ Star Wars show The Mandalorian, the lead character — Game of Thrones‘ Pedro Pascal — never takes off his helmet. Sure, canonically, all the Mandalorians are masked. But a static metal shield makes for rather boring viewing. “Without a backstory or facial expressions, how do you build an audience rapport with a character?” asks Vanity Fair critic Sonia Saraiya. You can’t! Without Pascal’s beautiful mug on display, all that’s left to engage with are battle scenes. That’s hardly worth the Disney+ subscription. (Fortunately, the new High School Musical series is.)
Still, some find the masked Mandalorian erotic. “If anything, it adds charm, mystery and — dare I say — sexiness because of the modulated voice,” Kesha Lariesa, a 22-year-old Star Wars enthusiast, tells MEL. Maybe Mr. Mandalorian is simply 2019’s Phantom of the Opera. Seeing Pedro Pascal sing Andrew Lloyd Webber? Now that would make Disney+ worth it.
If you ask me, the renewed affinity for masked men in pop culture is simply because we’re all helplessly exposed in our daily lives. Tech giants are vacuuming up and selling our data, Facebook is spying on us through our iPhone cameras, police are assaulting low-income straphangers and women’s lives are ruined by revenge porn. In our new era of ultra-surveillance, a mask might be the last true mystery alive — the only chance to control our own narrative.