- © Ran Greiss | dreamstime.com
Perhaps you've seen this tableau: a family of four meandering down Church Street. The couple is straight and middle-aged; their teenage son and daughter trail a few feet behind, dissociating into their iPhones. The mother and daughter wear masks over their noses and mouths; the menfolk are barefaced.
Scenes like this one abound in the pandemic summer of 2020. Recently, a reader emailed Seven Days to complain about the prevalence of unmasked dudes around Burlington. "I wonder how gender and internalized gender roles/norms play into the choice to not wear a mask," she wrote. "Surely, a man cannot walk down the street with his masked family and not possess a strong rationalization about his own choice to not wear a mask."
And so I spent a couple of afternoons accosting barefaced men in the Church Street Marketplace, asking them why they weren't wearing masks. A sampling of their responses: "My beard is too big." "My girlfriend has it in her purse, and she just went to the bathroom." "I dunno."
The guy who said his beard was too big, Jimmy Day, is an electrical contractor from Virginia who came to Burlington for work. He was with another unmasked dude, who sported dark sunglasses and a T-shirt emblazoned with an American flag. In a thick drawl, Day said he had been in the Army. "I'm used to following stupid rules, just because," he said. "Indoors, I get it. But out here, just don't get close to me. You cough on me, I'll punch you in the mouth."
Earlier this summer, several municipalities, including Burlington and South Burlington, passed ordinances requiring masks in indoor public spaces. On August 1, Vermont became the 32nd state to implement a mask mandate, a response to rising COVID-19 cases across the country and growing evidence that masks significantly reduce transmission.
The order, signed by Gov. Phil Scott on July 24, requires that anyone over the age of 2 wear a mask indoors — and outdoors when social distancing is impossible. (The order exempts people who are exercising and those with a health condition that would be exacerbated by a face covering.) In New England, only New Hampshire hasn't issued a mask mandate.
In Vermont, especially in densely populated Chittenden County, flagrant mask delinquency seems to be the exception rather than the rule. But when it does occur, the culprit is usually a dude — which, for this inquiry, refers to the white, cisgender, heterosexual male of the species.
This phenomenon has received expert attention in recent months. A June study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, which examined attitudes and behaviors among men and women in eight countries, found that women were universally more likely than men to adhere to public health guidelines. Another study, published in May by researchers from Middlesex University London in the UK and the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley, Calif., found that men were more likely than women to experience negative emotions while wearing a mask — to feel, according to the authors, that "wearing a face covering is shameful, not cool, a sign of weakness, and a stigma."
Laurie Essig, director of Middlebury College's Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies Program, calls that sense of diminishment "insecure mask-ulinity," an unwilling abdication of the culturally enforced charade of male toughness. "Masculinity is so fragile that it has to constantly mark and police itself," Essig said. "To wear a mask is to acknowledge that you're susceptible to penetration — by a virus, another man, a woman."
Among President Donald Trump's supporters, particularly white males, eschewing masks signals solidarity with their fearless leader, who, until recently, refused to wear a face covering in public. As social scientist Peter Glick wrote this April in Scientific American, "President Trump, a germaphobe known to hate shaking hands even in the best of times, ostentatiously continued to press the flesh well into March. Why? It's the same reason that Trump, in 2017, courted danger from a different corona, making a show of staring at the sun during an eclipse. Defying experts' warnings about personal danger signals 'I'm a tough guy, bring it on.'"
In another Scientific American piece, Emily Willingham, author of Phallacy: Life Lessons From the Animal Penis, likened the male refusal to don a mask to resistance to wearing a condom, another effective, low-cost method of preventing infection. Comprehending this illogic, she wrote, requires understanding the male social investment in upholding the performance of masculinity.
"These men have made a deep commitment and probably engaged in some willful self-deception to remain loyal to Trump," Willingham wrote. "Donning a mask would mean wasting their investment and the perceived fruits of all that self-compromise."
But what vexes Essig is that in Chittenden County, where less than a quarter of the population voted for Trump in 2016, the odds are slim that an unmasked dude would be a MAGA acolyte. During a recent trip to the South End's City Market, Onion River Co-op, she saw a bearded, tattooed hipster approach the register with his mask hanging under his chin. The cashier asked him to pull it over his face; the hipster only submitted to covering his mouth. When the cashier asked him to pull it all the way up over his nose, recalled Essig, he griped: "What a stickler."
I ran this incident by a friend, a straight, white, politically progressive man in his mid-twenties who requested anonymity. "That behavior stems from a maladapted psyche," he said. "It comes from never learning how to express your emotions in a way that allows you to become a fully integrated person." In other words, the guy who casually forgets to put on his mask is staging a small, misguided revolution against a society that has forced him, at the expense of his emotional and psychological development, to suppress his feelings.
"I think what you're seeing here is a different white heteromasculinity that's attempting to not be macho or toxic but nonetheless needs to mark itself," Essig said. "And the way it manifests itself is more subtle, like walking across the street when there's no light, or not wearing a seat belt."
Even Gov. Scott, she noted, who has judiciously followed public health guidance, often sports a mask made of camouflage fabric, the ultimate emblem of masculinity. "It's an interesting sartorial move, aligning himself with something phallic and hard, even as he's telling us to respect our vulnerability," Essig mused. "Nobody could accuse him of being a pussy."