Akanksha Mishra, Geetanjali Sharma, Insha Bisht, Rishabh Chawda
This essay looks at the anti-masker protests in the United States in 2020 during the COVID pandemic, and the state’s response to the protests. It argues that the protests stemmed from a toxic masculine understanding of personal freedom, and the response of the state was also rooted in its protectionist masculinity towards its citizens. The essay also explores the underlying white supremacy in the interaction of both the masculinities.
The anti-mask protests in the US that occurred during several periods of lockdown in 2020 highlight an interesting case of a clash of the masculinities of the state and of the right-wing protestors. In this essay, we will be exploring the case of the state’s protectionist masculinity that seeks to protect its citizens in the context of the COVID pandemic on the one hand, and the resistance it faced from the anti-maskers who symbolised the exercise of a form of toxic masculinity, in association with the rise of white supremacy in US politics.
First, it is important to theorise the nature of the state and its gendered exercise of authority over its citizens through measures to regulate their actions. With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, states globally implemented strict and immediate measures to control the spread of the virus in the interests of the safety and health of the public at large. We relate this tendency of the state to dictate its citizens’ actions for their safety to a form of paternal, protectionist masculinity. Iris Marion Young showcases how the state imitates the logic of protectionist masculinity, that patriarchs show in relation to women and children, to justify its aggressive behaviour towards citizens in case of security threats (Young 2003). In this case, the pandemic poses a global threat to public health and safety, legitimising the use of strict protocols and police force by the state to discipline citizens into following the covid protocols. This protectionist masculinity of the state however is directly challenged by the toxic hegemonic masculinity of the anti-mask protesters flouting state norms which we explore through the intersection of gender and race.
There are two main ways in which the anti-maskers protests in the U.S. can be read as an exhibition of toxic masculinity and white privilege. On the one hand, these protests stem from a gendered perception of masks and the necessity of wearing them. A number of studies in the U.S. have displayed how men are less likely to wear masks as compared to women, and how they view masks as feminine (Cassino and Besen-Cassino 2020, Willingham 2020). These studies show that men are less likely to don face masks because they believe wearing one is “shameful,” “a sign of weakness,” and “not cool” (Mahdawi 2020). While this explains the individual response of men as anti-maskers, there is more than meets the eye in these protests.
Anti-maskers in the U.S. further employ a highly masculine understanding of personal choice and public safety, one that often transcends the male-female identity of the protestors themselves. These protests cite personal choice and freedom as reasons for not following COVID protocol and wearing face masks in public. However, the exertion of the anti-masker’s choice by not wearing a mask directly jeopardises the health and safety of those around them. In this situation, to make a case for personal choice over the larger public safety is to actively assert a masculine sense of privilege. This assertion can be conceptualised as Cindy Patton puts it, as a “masculinity that understands itself to be largely uninfectable, or if infected, cares little for its infectiousness” (Patton). The central demand by anti-maskers for independence displays a callous disregard for individual responsibility, that arises from an overt sense of masculine white entitlement. This masculinity views any sort of control over its bodily autonomy as an infringement of its personal freedom, or “tyranny” as the poster depicted above puts it – even if the exertion of personal freedom has grave consequences on the health of others.
While an analysis of the form of masculinity inhabited by these anti-maskers helps us understand the entitlement that underlines their definition of ‘freedom’, these protests are also influenced by the rise of white supremacy. This is aided by the presidency of Donald Trump that allows them to reject and challenge state rules. Trump’s recurrent mobilisation of the warrior-trope is in line with white supremacist notions of masculinity. With the rise of white supremacy and right-wing populism, whiteness is seen as a sign of marginalisation and oppression, and thus, a display of power and violence become a performative aspect of one’s identity, and “serve as a rite of passage to finally become a man” (Savage and Meisl). The lamenting white male, then, uses every opportunity to assert his latent masculinity.
There are a number of linkages to be drawn between structures of white supremacy that exist within the state apparatus as well as the anti-masker protesting demographic. The underlying white privilege that rests with anti-maskers is apparent through the ease with which these groups were able to flout and reject state-directed rules while others who similarly protested against the state faced brutal crackdown. Here we refer to the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 in the wake of George Floyd’s death that faced a significantly greater degree of repression by the state’s forces. Zoe Huval theorises anti-mask protests as being an example of “white public spaces” where the state employs a policy of anonymity through which protestors are saved from political accountability (Huval 2020). This same policy, however, is absent in state response to protests by minority groups such as the Black Lives Matters. This creates a “white hegemony over public spaces that are ideologically founded from political authority” (Huval 2020: 27). Thus, while both protesting groups criticised the legitimacy of the state institutions, it was the white masculinity of the anti-mask protesters that allowed them to challenge the protectionist tendencies of the state while mediating its counter-resistance due to their shared underlying racial and masculine characteristics.
In the context of global politics, this instance shows us how similarities and differences between the masculine state apparatus on the one hand and the masculine subject dissenting against the state on the other, allows the two to manoeuvre their interaction in a way that is based on gendered and racial logics of the two groups.
Cassino, D., & Besen-Cassino, Y. (2020), “Of Masks and Men? Gender, Sex, and Protective Measures during COVID-19”, Politics & Gender, Vol. 16(4), pp. 1052-1062.
Huval, Zoe “Zozo” Louise (2020), “Discourse-Historical Approach in Critical Discourse Analysis: Observations of Linguistic Shifts of Authority Between the Movement for Black Lives and the COVID-19 Anti-mask Rhetoric”, accessed via: https://www.openanthroresearch.org/doi/pdf/10.1002/oarr.10000378.1.
Mahdawi, Arwa (2020), “Men are less likely to wear masks – another sign that toxic masculinity kills”, Guardian, accessed via: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/may/16/men-masks-coronavirus-protests-masculinity-kills.
Meisl, Ricarda and Stephanie Savage, “The Modern Spartan Man: White Supremacy, Masculinity and Ancient Sparta”, New York University, accessed via: https://classicalstudies.org/annual-meeting/152/abstract/modern-spartan-man-white-supremacy-masculinity-and-ancient-sparta
Patton, Cindy, “White Men Spitting”, Signs Journal, accessed via: http://signsjournal.org/covid/patton/.
Willingham, Emily (2020), “The Condoms of the Face: Why Some Men Refuse to Wear Masks”, Scientific American, accessed via: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-condoms-of-the-face-why-some-men-refuse-to-wear-masks/.
Young, Iris Marion (2003), “The Logic of Masculinist Protection: Reflections on the Current Security State”, Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 29 (1), The University of Chicago.