“In storytelling, masks typically have the dual nature of indicating ‘the sacred’ and ‘the profane.'”– Lynley
Masks have existed since the Stone Age and are used to serve a variety of purposes through concealing its wearer. Masks are often worn with costumes, sometimes to conceal the entire body of its wearer in an effort to obscure their recognizable features. Masks often give the appearance of a completely new identity and usually tradition prescribes its appearance and construction along with how it is interpreted by viewers (Wingert 2020). They are often best understood as a unit with the performance they are presented in. In storytelling, masks typically have the dual nature of indicating “the sacred” and “the profane” (Lynley 2018). Initially believed to be a way of getting closer to the gods through performance, masks in storytelling have adapted to many genres while typically referring to any kind of deception or inauthenticity.
“Initially believed to be a way of getting closer to the gods through performance, masks in storytelling have adapted to many genres while typically referring to any kind of deception or inauthenticity.”– Karen Ramudit
In the romance genre of many movies, masks can represent getting to know others identities. In the comedy genre of many movies, masks can depict how the use of another identity can lead to different conclusions. In the genre of thrillers, masks can typically present a character in certain ways and also represent the growth of a character. In horror, masks can be used so that the “true identity” of a character makes an impression on the audience or to depict a character as less than human for the purpose of unsettling audiences (Lynley 2018). Some popular examples of masked icons throughout film history include Zorro, Batman, Hannibal, Darth Vader, Micheal Myers, The Phantom of the Opera, and Spiderman (Kurten 2020.) Masks are also typically used as a means of storytelling through gaming to serve multiple purposes of deception and are used in fashion to also give audiences certain impressions of their wearer.
Masks as Storytelling
The use of masks have been used as a trope in storytelling for centuries. Micheal Hauge calls the ‘identity’ a mask that “refers to the faces people present to the world” and that their true ‘essence’ or “true self” is hidden underneath (Lynley 2018). In Japanese culture there is a distinction between the ‘omote’ and ‘ura’ or private and public faces. These words literally translate to ‘front’ and ‘behind’ (Lynley 2018). The underlying message in many of these stories is that nothing is resolved and true happiness is achieved when the mask comes off. This connects to the use of literal masks as a means of storytelling in various forms of media. Throughout various cultures the use of the literal mask has been to obscure the face for many reasons ranging from the Victorian masks representing death and were designed to remind people of their loved ones, Italian masks were worn for entertainment, and English masks were also worn for performance purposes. Masks today also exist in many forms and all have the common trait of deception when they are used for their specific purposes.
In many cases the person who wears the mask is considered to be associated with the mask’s spirit force and exposed to “personal danger of being affected” by the mask’s power (Wingert 2020). For the sake of “protection” the wearer follows certain procedures in using the mask and in many cases the wearer plays the part of an actor in “cooperation or collaboration” with the mask (Wingert 2020). The real importance of the mask is its ability to conceal the wearers identity and its ability to give the wearer a new one. Typically, after wearing the mask the wearer assumes the spirit character depicted by the mask. The wearer becomes the “partner” of the character he is impersonating and brings the masks to life as they psychologically become one and the character comes to life (Wingert 2020). Often the wearer becomes subservient of the persona of the masks itself. This association between the mask and the wearer is made more evident by the spectators as many initially understand the mask’s identity before that of its wearer. The importance of the masks lies in its ability to be understood by everyone and its integral role is to give a sense of continuity “between the present and beginning of time” which is a sense of importance for the “integration into culture” (Wingert 2020).
Spectators become linked to the mask through its power and depending on the representation which affects how the wearer reacts as they may eventually become absorbed by the mask’s identity or reject it completely. The ‘being’ that is presented through the mask is met with familiarity by others which leads to catharsis for the wearer and the spectators. Even if the mask is depicted with malignant potential the spirit of it is recognized by others. Those that represent more harmful spirits are used as a way to keep a “balance of power” in the traditional social and political relationship of “inherited positions” in a culture (Wingert 2020). The characters depicted are created from tradition and fulfill roles to achieve the desired ends. These cultural beliefs on the power of masks have entered our media and are often depicted through characters in movies, gaming, and fashion. Many iconic film characters are shown wearing masks for their own gain and for the purposes of telling stories to audiences.
Masks in Movies and Their Genres
When thinking of the use of masks to obscure one’s identity and create a new one it is hard to not think of a specific character in film that does this. Many film genres have used this trope to fulfill a purpose from action to horror. Hidden identities have become a staple in our movie culture as misleading the viewer has been used for good and evil motives as a means of deception or camouflage. Heroes are typically depicted as wearing masks for these reasons and because it provides them a form of protection. Many of the most famous male superheroes are seen donning masks from the initial Spiderman (2002), to Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy (2005-2012), to Iron Man (2008) which are all blockbuster movies and universally recognized characters. In each of these movies the importance of the mask is stressed as the identity of it provides different forms of responsibility which is stressed heavily in the Spiderman tagline that “with great power, comes great responsibility.” In many of these movies they also reference Wingerts assertion that it is often easy to become consumed by the masks identity and become one with it as in The Dark Knight Rises (2012)one important line said in the movie is that Bruce Wayne (the wearer of the mask) is now the alter ego or hidden face of the true identity of Batman himself although Batman is the one who wears the mask. His hidden identity lies in others seeing him in one way and the other identity, his true identity, lies in not being recognized by others. He gains power when he is not recognized compared to his now alter ego of being associated with his family name and given identity not chosen one.
Masks are also used by villains for the same means but they are known to use their deception for their own personal gain, not often prohibited by a restrictive moral code guided towards helping the public that many superheroes have. One notable villain in superhero themed movies is Bane from the Batman Trilogy (2005-2012). He is known for being the masked antithesis of Batman himself and aspires to do everything he can to make others suffer just as he did. This is very distinctive from Batman’s main goal of doing everything he can to help others not suffer as he did. One of the most iconic lines said by Bane during The Dark Knight Rises (2012) in which he claims that “no one cared until he put on the mask.” Like Batman, Bane has embodied his other ‘face’ through wearing the mask and believes that it is part of his true identity now just as Wingert references. The villain of the Spiderman (2002) movie is also one who dons a mask just as the hero does and becomes consumed by its power as they fully transition into the Green Goblin. In Iron Man (2008) the rise of the Iron Man character also prompted the rise of his antithesis character Iron Monger who is also set on destroying the ideals of the protagonary hero. The rise of villains and heroes resulting in a rise of other villains and heroes using similar means of adapting to new identity through masks relates to Wingert’s idea of “balance of power” in the social and political relationship of “inherited positions” as both masks characters assume different positions in a culture (Wingert 2020). The characters also both created their alter egos with masks as a means of fulfilling roles to achieve their own desired ends.
“The rise of villains and heroes resulting in a rise of other villains and heroes using similar means of adapting to new identity through masks relates to Wingert’s idea of ‘balance of power’ in the social and political relationship of ‘inherited positions’ as both masks characters assume different positions in a culture.”– Karen Ramudit
It is not fair to discuss masks in superhero movies without discussing one of the most iconic masked characters of all time, Darth Vader from Star Wars (1977). This film and the rest of the movies are not typically classified under superhero films but under drama and science fiction fantasy. Yet, the character of Darth Vader is universally well known because of what his mask represents as his name literally translates to “father of darkness” in German. Darth Vader’s character is an example of a hero turn villain as his initial identity of Anakin Skywalker was a young man who wanted to do right in the galaxy with his power much like the character of Spiderman but through the corruption of others that he faces he assumes a new identity through his mask. He becomes the ultimate villain in the sense that he rises to power and desires nothing else besides gaining absolute control over the entire galaxy and stops at nothing in his pursuits. His dastardly nature as the villain is emphasized as he is one with no moral code and appears to kill anyone who gets in his way in cold blood. This lack of humanity combined with the fact that we never see his true face ever again due to it being burned beyond recognition in the films when he turns, pushes the idea that he has become one with the mask’s identity. This identity being associated with inhumanity within the mask is carried into every form of the Star Wars franchise as it is seen as a driving symbol in the newer film, The Force Awakens (2015), where the new villain keeps Darth Vader’s mask and helmet in a concealed case and stares at it while planning new schemes of taking over the galaxy. The fact that this new villain, Kylo Ren, is also the grandson of Darth Vader himself adds to Wingert’s idea that even with the malignant spirit of masks presented its power is still recognized by others and that this “inherited position” comes from the culture of those who see the mask in this way much like Kylo Ren inherited the power of Darth Vader’s mask and creates his own masked persona in a way to achieve the desired ends of his grandfather.
“The fact that this new villain, Kylo Ren, is also the grandson of Darth Vader himself adds to Wingert’s idea that even with the malignant spirit of masks presented its power is still recognized by others and that this “inherited position” comes from the culture of those who see the mask in this way much like Kylo Ren inherited the power of Darth Vader’s mask and creates his own masked persona in a way to achieve the desired ends of his grandfather.”– Karen Ramudit
Antiheroes are also commonly depicted as being mask wearers who use their hidden identity for their own gain just as Darth Vader chose to. Many of these anti heroes align with villains in the sense that they wear their masks according to a moral code but do not have a super hero to balance out their power. One very popular example of an antihero with a moral code who wears a mask is the character V from the film V for Vendetta (2005). V is an anarchist freedom fighter who believes in the power of the people over the oppressive government that is prevalent in his world and uses these moral codes to justify his destructive behaviors such as fighting and killing those who oppress others and destroying symbols of oppression created by the government. V wears a Guy Fawkes mask, which references the actual Guy Fawkes fight for a Catholic rebellion in England and planned an event in which explosives would be used to blow up Westminster palace but was caught and hanged for his extreme beliefs, according to Wikipedia. Zorro from the film The Legend of Zorro (2005), is another anti hero who wears a mask and lives according to his own beliefs and kills those he believes deserves death but also reaches trouble because of his actions. Donnie Darko from the film Donnie Darko (2001), is another example of an antihero that where’s a mask but he does not live by a moral code. This movie is more a thriller and time traveling film and while Donnie himself is of questionable character, the bunny mask that one of the characters wears and designs himself has been an icon of the film and its nihilistic themes.
The horror genre of film is also well known for producing various villains and antiheroes who wear masks as a means of deception and creating a new identity for those who see them. Many of these characters use masks as a means of deception and to unsettle their victims. Many iconic horror characters also use this deception for their own gain such as Stu and Billy assuming the shared identity of Ghostface to terrorize their friend as an attempt at revenge in the movie Scream (1996). In many of these films the characters that wear masks are depicted as less than human as exemplified in Halloween (1978) in which the character of Michael Myers is depicted as less than human in his pursuits of murdering sexually active teenagers. This character is even officially named “the shape” as it has no true form other than the mask and jumpsuit that it wears (Phillips 2020). It can not be connected to the human form aside from these characteristics as its lack of humanity, speed, and strength are not traits of a real human. The same can be said about the predator character from the film Predator (1987) as a humanoid creature attacks people based on their heat signatures and it is seen as human shaped but still another creature through the use of its mask and costume. The same argument can also be made about the characters of Jason Voorhees from Friday the 13th (1980) and Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs (1991). Both characters are given human names and origins but are transformed into something less than human through their overt lack of humanity and excessive violence towards others, therefore making them more monsters than human as they assume their new identities through wearing masks and become new creatures. The obstruction of their faces through their masks depicts that they can no longer be considered human anymore (Scott 2020).
“The obstruction of their faces through their masks depicts that they can no longer be considered human anymore.”– Shannon Scott
Romance in film has also integrated a few instances to the difference between the identity behind the mask and when the mask is worn. This is notable in the small scenes of The Dark Knight Rises (2012) depicting the relationships between Selina Kyle (Catwoman) and Bruce Wayne (Batman) as their identities and those of the ones they assume through their masks interfere with their romantic relationship. This romantic aspect is also used in Spiderman (2002) where the hero Peter Parker kisses his love interest, Mary Jane, under the guise of Spiderman in the masks and creates a rift in his actual relationship with Mary Jane or with the Peter she knows of. This genre expands into the antihero trope through the film The Phantom of the Opera (2004), in which the illusive “phantom” who enacts his revenge on a society that abused him as a child by murdering citizens who attend the opera in Paris, falls in love with a young woman and tries to change his motives to aid her in her rise to fame. He uses the identity of the “phantom” to conceal his disfigurement and convince her to fall in love with him until she sees his true identity after his mask is removed and she understands his story (Madison 2016). The comedy genre also overlaps with this theme of morally ambiguous characters and romance as The Mask (1994) gives us a timid and soft spoken man who uses the power of a green mask to transform himself into a antihero who uses comedy and violence against evil doers while also romancing a woman that his initial identity did not have enough confidence to do.
Unification through the masks is also a common trope that we see utilized in film as many movies depicting a war or battle often present groups wearing similar masks and costumes. This is exemplified in 300 (2006) when the Spartans use their helmets with built in masks as a way of unifying their tribe before going into battle with the nearby civilization. This is also exemplified on a smaller scale in the Disney film Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) where a group of archeologists find the lost city of Atlantis and encounter the Atlantean tribe who wear giant tribal style masks as a form of protection for their identities and bodies. This leads into our assessment of masks worn by women in film, as there are not many examples of this occurrence. The character of Kida from Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) initially wears her mask but quickly takes it off to greet the explorers and welcome them and her true identity is present through the rest of the film. Every other notable example of a woman wearing a mask in film follows the same situation as the mask is hardly worn by females. In The Dark Knight Rises (2012) Selina Kyle is more prominently shown compared to her Catwoman counterpart who appears for a short amount of time in the film. The female character of Yennefer from The Witcher (2019) wears a lace mask for her introduction to the show’s titular character but is never seen hiding behind a mask again, and even in this case her mask is mostly transparent and does not obscure her true identity.
Masks in Gaming
Masks in gaming follows similar tropes to those presented in films. One of the most popular games ever made is the Persona Series (1996-2020) in which characters in the game combine their multiple identities and gain powers. Similarly to the super hero trope the characters in these games have alter egos when they use their powers and one of the most notable images from the game is the main character, Joker, wearing his white masquerade inspired mask. Many other games have characters wear masks to depict the type of setting their story is in such as Dishonored 2 (2012) in which characters wear masks and face coverings because of the plague ridden city that they live in or Payday 2 (2011) in which you play as characters involved in a scheme of multiple heists and cannot remove your masks (Nurcahyanto 2021). For many games the characters who wear masks have them as part of their style or gimmicks as exemplified in Mortal Kombat (1992-2019), Borderlands (2009-2019), Street Fighter (1987-2020), and the Mario Series (1985-2021). Many of the characters in games used their hidden identities and deception to their advantage just as those in film do (Gill 2019).
“Many of the characters in games used their hidden identities and deception to their advantage just as those in film do”– Jeremy Gill
Masks in Fashion
Masks in fashion can be dated from centuries ago and take inspiration from a variety of cultures. Masks are created from many different types of material including wood, cloth, vegetable fiber, paint, metal, clay, feathers, beads, bark, cloth, and plastic (Smith 2021). While masks have the ability to alter one’s appearance and identity, it can also be used for protection and anonymity. For the purpose of performance we can focus on masquerade balls as they include masks along with costumes to reach their full effect. The masquerade ball is considered a less formal costume party that stemmed from various traditions of wearing extravagant costumes for events from the past. According to Wikipedia, they were initially a feature of the Carnival season during the 15th century and were included in events like royal parties, pageants, weddings, and other celebrations celebrating life accomplishments. Masquerade balls were extended into the public festivities during the 16th century during the Italian Renaissance and were part of the Venitian Carnival until the 18th century. Nonetheless the masquerade ball was popularized throughout Europe and continues to be popular in modern times as exemplified in the multiple events that occur in New York City that include a masquerade element such as The Black and White Ball of 1966.
“Masks in fashion can be dated from centuries ago and take inspiration from a variety of cultures.”– Karen Ramudit
Use of Masks in Fashion Today
Between entertainment and storytelling it is simple to see why masks have continued to be an accessory in today’s fashion. In the new age of Coronavirus many companies have seized their opportunities to create unique face masks given the need to add this item to our daily wardrobe now. Fast fashion companies such as Pretty Little Thing and Fashion Nova have begun selling masks individually or built into their clothing. Departments stores, like Target, have also begun manufacturing and selling their own masks as well in different sizes for everyone. Even In 2020’s Paris Fashion Week, many designers chose to display the theme of the year as they included masks as part of their looks. The importance of designers adding masks to their styles helps the idea of wearing masks for everyone seem more appealing and designers recognize the power that they hold in doing this. They encouraged healthy and sanitary habits with masks that had prints to match runway looks. Christian Siriano’s Spring 2021 collection combined new looks that combined style and aesthetics through clothing and matching masks on the models. Other designers such as Marine Serre and Paco Rabanne took the pandemic very seriously and provided their models with full coverage of couture which added practicality to couture in regards to how the world is today (Magrini 2020). It is enlightening to see how many films, games, and fashion statements incorporate masks into their looks in ways that appeal to everyone. By viewing these forms of media, many can become inspired to decorate their masks and stay safe during this time as many options are available for everyone.
“It is enlightening to see how many films, games, and fashion statements incorporate masks into their looks in ways that appeal to everyone.”– Karen Ramudit
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