Masks. What do they mean for us as both people and professionals?
In a world of business where the purpose of the power suit has shifted from self-preservation to self-expression, what are the benefits to us of openness… and what’s still left to conceal? It seems a fitting topic in the wake of Halloween, with the veiled spectres of Jason, Ghostface, Hannibal and Michael Myers all fresh from their moment in the sun. Or the shadows. Whatever.
Long synonymous with horror’s bogeymen, the mask is a simple yet powerful means of cultivating fear and anxiety. Its inherent blankness helps create an antagonist that’s both mysterious and unknowable, free from empathy or expression, terrifying and unreal – something somehow less than human.
And yet this cuts both ways. Countless heroes in popular culture have concealed their identities, with almost identical advantages. The anonymity of a mask striking fear into enemies, protecting loved ones, and helping them transcend into something ‘more than just a man’ (as Liam Neeson puts it in Batman Begins) — a symbol of virtue. Indeed, this was such a mainstay of comic books that Spider-Man’s decision to reveal his secret identity to the world (in Mark Millar’s highly influential Civil War series back in 2006) created aftershocks for fans, and the character alike.
Which makes the moment when Robert Downey Jr. went off-script as Tony Stark to announce ‘I am Iron Man’ in the final line of the titular movie in 2008, all the more noteworthy. This was a fork in the road for the superhero genre on the silver screen — Marvel Studios head honcho, Kevin Feige, crediting RDJ’s ad lib with changing the course of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. From this point on, Captain America was also Steve, Black Widow was Nat, Hawkeye became Clint and Thor was, well, still Thor — just without an Earthbound alter ego. But what made this such a significant decision?
By doing away with a secret identity, Downey Jr. was able to bring his ‘whole self’ to the party: playing a hero with all the ego, ebullience, humour and heart that this entailed
Superheroes — particularly those portrayed on celluloid — are ostensibly pretty silly. The suspension of disbelief necessary when watching this genre can be a challenge, even for fans of the original work. Bringing down the walls between the hero and the human in this way helped create a more credible connection with movie-goers. It’s what made audiences fall in love with the character, and the gold-dust that helped forge a multi-billion dollar legacy (as well as a reported $400 million fortune for the actor himself).
Not only was this more entertaining on-screen (largely thanks to RDJ’s fizzing performance), but it reflected a more contemporary societal mindset — the rise of social media offering a fresh means of self-expression, people more openly sharing the passions that shaped their personalities. Unafraid of the imperfections that make us human (or, as covered in another article, superhuman).
Just as this allowed Tony Stark and his contemporaries to be ‘better’ in the workplace — more empathetic, relatable and well-rounded — the same is true for the rest of us. Though it pains me to mention the ‘p’ word, it is without doubt true that the pandemic massively accelerated the adoption of ‘whole-self’ thinking
Whether it was pitching from the kitchen or bedrooms becoming boardrooms, the shift in perception from home invasion to hybrid norm was almost subconscious — a very literal manifestation of the walls between personal and professional worlds coming down. A willing embrace of the ‘whole self’ is an acknowledgement of life’s rich (and infinitely complex) tapestry.
A mindset that allows us not only to live more honestly, but, as marketers and creators, to connect more meaningfully; navigating human impulses and business needs to create campaigns, experiences and interactions that ring truer, hit harder and live longer.
It can help us build more inclusive work environments for the next generation, for whom identity and self-expression is so important, in doing so, enabling more progressive, authentic and attentive behaviours to flourish. This includes a more honest and positive dialogue around mental health, through the acknowledgement that we’re all more than our job title.
Understanding that vulnerability is not weakness, means an ‘it’s okay not to be okay’ mindset is more commonplace in the workplace.
Does that mean we have nothing to hide? Do we live unfiltered? Are masks no longer necessary? Surely not. There are, without doubt, both professions and social settings where the adoption of one’s more ‘authentic self’ would still be a dangerously radical concept. But progress is a marathon not a sprint. Overall, one might argue that today masks serve a slightly different purpose, whether that’s playing a role, code-shifting or protecting anonymity. A preference rather than a prerequisite.
More whole self, less Stark contrast.