It's weird, the things that will break you sometimes. The world is a giant toilet right now, but you're still paddling as best you can, and then something random and minuscule causes you to throw up your hands and say, "I give up - flush us all!" For me this week that thing was Dick Cheney launching the hashtag #RealMenWearMasks.
This came on the heels of dire coronavirus news. Florida set an ignominious record, with 9,000 new cases reported in a single day. The governor of Texas re-implemented restrictions on public spaces after 6,000 new cases were reported in his state. Doctors Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx were back on television for their first coronavirus task force briefing in two months. And shortly after, Cheney was on his daughter's Twitter account. He wore a navy fleece vest, a tan cowboy hat and, covering everything from his chin to the bridge of his nose, a standard pale blue surgical mask. Typed Liz Cheney, who is also a Wyoming congresswoman: "Dick Cheney says WEAR A MASK."
Have we gathered here today to mock Dick Cheney, the accidentally-shot-a-friend-in-the-face former Vice President of the United States? We have not. Cheney showed up this week demonstrating that he respected public health. He understood that masks are both the best way to protect other people from your germs, and also one of the few reliable means of slowing the spread of the virus. He was humble enough to do what doctors and epidemiologists recommend.
Thank you, Dick Cheney. Thank you, Mitch McConnell, who lofted a mask at a news conference Friday and declared, "These are really important."
The maddening aspect of #RealMenWearMasks isn't the message but what's behind it: We've reached the point of this polarized pandemic where our current plan for salvation is convincing certain recalcitrant men that wearing masks is the testosteroney thing to do.
"People need face coverings that make them feel stylish, cool, and - yes - even manly," a Harvard epidemiologist wrote in the Atlantic.
Men, otherwise, are less inclined to wear masks. A recent study, co-authored by professors at Berkeley and the U.K.'s Middlesex University, found that men resisted for several reasons: They were less likely to believe they'd get sick with the coronavirus (they are actually more likely to get sick), and "Men more than women agree that wearing a face covering is shameful, not cool, a sign of weakness, and a stigma."
As a result of this toxic mask-ulinity, we have a whole campaign dedicated to slipping men's faces into some sexy, sexy N95s.
"Mask shaming men won't work. Here's what will," read the headline of a Los Angeles Times article suggesting ways to "make masks and masculinity a better fit."
Do you have an unmasked man in your life? You could, the article suggests, make sure he had some "tough" looking masks, perhaps with "camouflage" or "shark teeth." Or, you could pull him in with a little "benevolent sexism," i.e. encouraging him to think of mask-wearing as a "paternalistic" and "chivalrous" act - a way for the mask-wearer to think, "I'm being a hero."
First, [screams out window for 12 whole seconds].
It's slightly worrisome that, in order for us to survive as a species, spouses and daughters or sons must scour Etsy for Venom-themed masks so that their 52-year-old packaging-engineer husbands and fathers can feel gender-secure when they pop out to Safeway for some milk.
Second, who knows if this will work? At the Alabama shore last month, a CNN reporter asked a sun-baked man at the beach whether he would consider wearing a mask. "I don't, my wife and kids do," he said, adding that he just didn't think he'd get sick. The reporter pointed out that the purpose of a mask wouldn't be to protect him, but to protect his wife and kids - benevolent sexism in the wild - and the guy shrugged. It just seemed like most people survived covid-19, he said, so he wasn't going to bother.
Third - look, we should do whatever works. If more recalcitrant men will wear masks if we convince them that doing so makes them look like Jason Momoa or one of the brothers Hemsworth, let's do that. Whatever. Sounds good. More than 123,000 Americans have died.
#RealMenWearMasks. Let's spray paint it on every sidewalk in the country, hire skywriters to scribble it up and down the Gulf coastline. Get Lee Greenwood to write a song. Let's hope other politicians get behind it, too. (Ahem, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence?)
But the messaging behind all of this is crap. It presents mask-wearing as something cool that men can individually do in order to be rugged heroes, deserving of accolades for their brave, manly choices.
What masks really are is a pain in the neck. Chafing, uncomfortable, uncool in every imaginable way. You don't wear them because Dick Cheney decided he can pull it off in a cowboy hat. You do it because nobody can make a mask look cool, but we're going to do it anyway: be chafed and dorky together, all of us, because doing that saves lives. You can call that being a hero, but you can also call it being a responsible adult.