Men and women wearing masks

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic—when there’s overwhelming scientific evidence that masks can help slow the spread of this virus—we continue to see examples of people not wearing masks, even some behaving badly after being asked to do so. Although many in the States are wearing masks, the number of holdouts remains significant. In an April Gallup/Knight Foundation poll, 29% of men and 44% of women said that they “always” wore a mask or face covering when outside the home.

Three months later, in a July poll conducted by Gallup, those numbers increased to 34% of men and 54% of women. That same poll, however, found 20% of men saying they “never” wore a mask compared to just 8% of women. So, although the mask-wearing percentages in this country have gone up, the numbers overall are still low; especially among men. As someone who studies male socialization and its effects, I want to dig deeper into why this might be the case.

Why Do Men Wear Masks?

Most men are not averse to wearing masks as customary protection or protection that will help them battle adversaries. Masks are often considered part of the uniform for professional athletes, medical professionals, and industrial workers. Firefighters, police, and soldiers wear masks. Why is it then, that many otherwise decent, hardworking men balk at the idea of wearing a mask in order to combat this adversary? Perhaps it’s because it doesn’t yet make sense to those men who rely on appearance to display their masculinity.

In a country that’s become increasingly splintered—and where some in society still cling to an outdated gender binary—it seems mask-wearing has become emblematic of being on one side or the other: and for men, you’re either part of the “man-pack” or you’re not. Throughout history, man-packs have created values, rules, and practices to solidify identities, create inclusivity, and produce symbols that exhibit a sense of inclusion while simultaneously identifying those who are excluded—not “man enough.” Certainly, today, men are increasingly safer in manifesting feminine (passive) characteristics, but there are still frequently ugly sanctions and serious reprisals when a man’s masculine (active) characteristics appear inadequate.

Do Masks Define Masculinity?

Men who are confident of themselves and in their masculinity seem to have embraced the significance of passive care-taking during this pandemic and are more apt to wear a mask regardless of discomfort or politics. Some wear masks like they might an earring or the color pink; from a secure and grounded sense of their masculine identity. They easily brush off criticism from the man-pack. In fact, their inner dialogue likely resembles something like: “Relax, this is not a testament to my lack of masculinity. In fact, your castigation of anything appearing feminine, along with your rigid reliance on symbols of masculinity, probably says more about your insecure masculinity than anything.”

Unfortunately, the men who limit their sense of care to active care-taking can find their masculine identity threatened when they’re required to care for others in a passive or avoidant way such as social distancing, quarantining, and wearing a mask. For these men, in particular, sporting a mask to combat the virus is viewed more as a sign of weakness and fear than strength and care. They feel emasculated. Not just because it’s a passive action, but because they don’t want to be viewed as not strong enough or man enough to face down a tiny, invisible adversary. For some, it feels like a binary choice: either wear a mask and project vulnerability or wear masculine bravado and hide vulnerability.

And who can blame them when the leader of the free world and his administration model behavior making anti-masking emblematic of how “real,” fearless men “stare down” a deadly enemy virus. The anti-mask movement—with the leadership of President Trump—has become a new symbol of manhood, an opportunity to perform masculinity.

What is Masculine Care-Taking?

Imagine if President George W. Bush had been told in predictive models how he could prevent 30 9/11s simply by increasing security practices at airports but he refused to lead federal departments to implement and enforce policies and American citizens to follow the same? (We lost 2,977 individuals on September 11, 2001. According to a new model by Washington State’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation—a source frequently cited by the White House—if 95% of Americans wore masks in public spaces, it’s predicted 66,000 lives could be saved by this December.)

I remember grumbling about the increased security process after 9/11: walking barefoot, having my water dumped out, losing my shampoo and straight razor, and indignantly watching my rule-following wife get frisked. But, eventually, I adjusted and complied—much to my wife’s cajoling and my chagrin. And, unlike those restrictions ongoing since 9/11, I’m confident that public mask-wearing orders will be temporary.

In contrast to his orders for heightened airport security procedures—what could be considered passive or avoidant actions—President Bush also promoted the invasion of Afghanistan. That, and the subsequent invasion of Iraq, exemplify what happens when compulsory active care-taking is presented as one of the only ways or a required way for a male leader to perform heroism. Unfortunately, the fall-out from that decision continues to this day. And history has weighed in and largely concludes that the invasion was inappropriate and unnecessary.

What Defines Leadership?

The world needs great leaders in times of trouble. Leaders who will listen to real fears and face enemies motivated to attack our public safety and personal freedoms. Leaders who possess the courage and wisdom to enact unpopular policies that may feel restrictive to individual freedoms. Leaders who can motivate citizens to comply by offering a compelling sense of meaning so that they can experience individual acts as purposeful and helpful to the greater good. Through wars and natural disasters, men have shown their capacity to perform individual acts of altruism without jeopardizing their masculinity. Good leaders know how to tap into this inner strength and the honor culture that motivates men.

Today, Angela Merkel of Germany, Justin Trudeau of Canada, Jacinda Arden of New Zealand, and Governor Cuomo of New York state have shown us the public health benefits of leading their citizens in passive and avoidant care-taking. And while it may seem counter-intuitive to the idea of masculine-style leadership, the simple, most effective way we can conquer this pandemic is by wearing a mask and social-distancing. Ironically, it’s become the “active” way to look out for others.

Beer-drinking and Mask-Wearing

Consider what would happen if President Trump and the leaders in his party were to start extolling the benefits of mask-wearing? When Miller Lite was first put on the market as a product to capture calorie-counting female beer-drinkers, it failed miserably. Not only did women not drink it but men were turned off by a “diet” beer. Then, the marketers came up with a brilliant idea. They hired masculine football players, the likes of Dick Butkis and Bubba Smith, to perform masculinity by arguing over whether their lite beer tastes great or is less filling.

What happened? Sales flourished to beer-drinking males. Why? Because powerful, masculine men led and gave the man-pack permission: “If we can drink lite beer and still be manly, so can you.” How many men today would be drinking up the practice of mask-wearing had President Trump and Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley argued over whose mask was more manly? Would those men who currently refuse to wear masks jump on board? Perhaps. There was a bump in the percentage of men wearing masks after the president was seen wearing one. His embrace of mask-wearing, however, was short-lived so we’ll never know the long-term effect he could have had.

21st Century Leadership

During the course of this pandemic, we can re-define and expand what successful leadership looks like. Intractable, one-dimensional, hyper-masculine styles of leadership are not really leadership at all. They are compulsory, serving worn out tropes of an outdated masculinity more than the interests of public health and safety. Moving forward we need 21st century male leaders who can model and teach men that being a man can include both active and passive strategies for care-taking. Leaders who care enough to wear a mask, reveal true courage and strength.