The Myriad Meanings of Mask

Happy All Hallows Eve, RLB readers!

Halloween is a logical time to be thinking about masks, but coincidentally there are two videos that have been floating around the interwebs for the last week or so that also bring the subject to mind. First, the 37-second photoshop video, and second, the baby weeping at the sound of her mother’s singing voice.

It wasn’t immediately apparent to me why these two things were dancing around together in my mind, but then I was struck by the notion of masks.

In the video where a model is photoshopped into an unrecognizable, inhuman barbie creature, the correlation to masks is painfully obvious. So many of the images that we see every day are masked representations of the people they depict. Think about the last 10 pictures you posted on Facebook or Instagram. How many of them had a filter? 10? Me, too. Nowadays we live in a world where we can so easily manipulate images into the best versions of ourselves, our understanding of what’s “real” has morphed into more of an idea than a solid definition.

There are two things that disturb me the most about the photoshop video. 1. When I first watched it, I looked at the still of the woman pre-alteration and wondered what they were going to do to her. To me, she looked like a perfectly lovely, fit woman.

Screen Shot 2013-10-31 at 2.36.26 PMThen I watched her metamorphosis. After seeing her Barbie-fied image, the video popped back to the still of her as she truly is. Suddenly, I had the thought that the real her now looked thick to me. Not fat, per say, but certainly not as fit and pretty as she had been when I first saw her picture. It was such an immediate and visceral example of how easily manipulated we are by the masked images that we are constantly exposed to.

Side Bar: Looking at a mid-point shot, where she’s wearing tons of makeup and hair extensions, but isn’t retouched at all, I can’t help but think, “WHY is this picture not “good enough”?? What about this image isn’t absolutely gorgeous??? Grr. Mad face.

Screen Shot 2013-10-31 at 2.37.15 PM

2. The next thing that hit me happened when I more closely examined the still of the distorted model. I use the word distorted very intentionally, because the longer I looked at her, the more I saw someone who didn’t even look human:

Screen Shot 2013-10-31 at 3.18.48 PM

The curve of her spine and the angle of her torso as it lifts off the ground – it looks like she’s missing several vertebrae. With her head turned, her neck unnaturally lengthened and any ‘unsightly’ skin folds smoothed over, she looks like she’s part ostrich. By shrinking her shoulder and then trimming and lengthening her arm, it looks like she’s using zero effort to prop herself up and may in fact be entirely devoid of any muscles at all. Then there’s the skin glow. What is she, a frakking fairy??

The problem isn’t so much that we manipulate images to enhance certain aspects of ourselves, it’s that the images of people we see in ads and magazines might not even look like people anymore, and because we have been conditioned to do so, those images are now what we think of as real.


Next we have the emotional response of little Mary Leroux as her mother sings to her. If you look at the comments being made around the interwebs, there are quite a few people who are upset, disturbed, and even outraged by this video. ‘How dare this mother do this to her child!’ they say, ‘What a torturous thing to do to an innocent baby!’ they rail, shaking their fists at what they perceive to be cruelty.

MASK. n.3 – 2c. a facial expression assumed deliberately to conceal an emotion or give a false impression; an outward appearance which belies a person’s true nature.
(oxford english dictionary)

When I mentioned this wee lass earlier, I used the word weeping, because that’s what I see her doing. She isn’t crying, at least not in the sense that a baby normally cries. She is weeping, because she is moved to tears by her mother’s singing. She smiles a few times, and her face wrenches up with the intensity of what she is feeling. What I see is pure, unadulterated emotion. Sure, maybe there are moments where this kid is sad. Sometimes a thing is so beautiful that it makes us ache with its beauty. Sometimes a thing is so moving, we have no outlet but to weep.

Growing up, most actors are told that we need to contain ourselves. That there is a time and a place for emotion, and that time and place is not polite society. We become actors because on stage and on film it is always the time and place for emotion. The vast, awesome, glorious range of human emotion is something that many people spend their lives trying to discreetly control, or ignore, or run away from. As artists, we run towards it, we dive in. Baby Mary might grow up to be an accountant, but she has the soul of an artist.

DISCLAIMER: This is not to say that people who feel things more quietly or privately are in any way less valid in their emotional experiences. My point is not that there’s a Right Way to feel things, it’s that too often humans are taught to Not Let Themselves feel things. We are encouraged to wear masks to hide who we are, what we truly think and feel. I think so many people had adverse reactions to this weeping child because we are not equipped to recognize even our own truest emotions. 

Before I get off my soap box, the last thing I want to say about masks is that masks can be Fun! It isn’t all ‘hiding who we truly are sadtimes.’ Masks can also be ‘pretending to be someone else funtimes!’ The OED has several additional definitions for mask:

1a. a covering worn on or held in front of the face for disguise, made of velvet, silk, etc., and concealing the whole face or the upper part of it (except the eyes), worn at balls and masques

1b. theatre. an image of a face worn by an actor

2b. a covering of something (material or immaterial), hiding something else from view.

Por ejemplo:

Makeup and Filter Masks
makeup maskCostume Mask (steampunk!)
costume maskDrag Mask (me) & Burlesque Mask (Amelia)
ps look how smokin’ hot Amelia is! helloooooo, eyebrow arch!
drag maskAnd finally, Mask Mask
Frank: You are in half of my mask photos. It appears you and I are both fans of wearing masks for funsies.
mask maskTo wit: Let’s save the masks for fun and the photoshop for flyaways*. Let’s do all that we can to let ourselves feel all the feelings, and to be everything we truly are.

*and filters, because we can’t resist. we are a culture of filter addicts!

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