Image of  Mask
Image of  Mask

Gender and sexuality

Masks can clearly depict female and male characters, or they can be sexually indeterminate. The depiction of gender, as of beauty, is influenced by the cultural mores of the society. Masks and masked performers can be a gateway to the dress, facial ornamentation, and social distinctions that distinguish the sexes.

Masks are associated with sexuality and are used in traditional rites of fertility. Masked characters can be advisers on sexual conduct and masks can be symbols of sexual desire, intrigue, and freedom. Masks can aid the release of sexual energy – that can empower fertility or incite the wearer to cast of their inhibitions.

Image of  Mask

Masks reveal attitudes to sexuality and gender in various ways. Through much of Africa, female masked characters will be performed by men. On these occasions, the over-arching control of the masked theater resides with men, often in male societies that may have some measure of secrecy. The womanliness of the character will be captured not only in the features of the mask but in the movements of the performer.

Similarly, in the Noh masked musical dramas of Japan, men perform all the characters including women. Generally, male characters are performed without a mask, but elderly men and boys, spirits, and women characters, are depicted by a mask. Female Noh masks can cleverly express different emotions by the tilt of the face, allowing a gradation of expression from happiness to grief.

Image of  Mask
     Three pictures of the same female mask showing
     how the expression changes with a tilting of the head.
     The mask was afixed to a wall with constant lighting,
     and only the camera moved 2009.

However, there are certainly examples of women wearing masks for traditional rituals or performances. Within the Mende culture of Sierra Leone and Liberia, initiation ceremonies instruct girls to become women. A Sowei mask is used to teach girls the Mende feminine ideal. Elder women wear the mask. The gule wamkulu great dance of the Chewa of East Africa is danced almost exclusively by men, but some older women, beyond child bearing age, can wear masks and instruct girls at their initiation.

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     Gule Wamkulu Malawi 2008 photograph by Gary Morgan

In many Muslim societies, especially Arab and Arab influenced cultures, women may wear a facial veil or mask (niqab) that can leave the eyes and forehead visible or cover the entire face. This mask may be accompanied by a whole of body covering (burqa or abaya) that drapes over the normal clothes beneath. The motivation for this practice is variously described as religious or cultural. This situation differs from most mask wearing practices in that the woman will wear the mask as a matter of course, and her public presence outside the home is always masked. There are divergent views publically expressed about this practice and it is today probably the most discussed – and sometimes controversial - example of mask wearing.

Working, and in some cases sporting, masks transcend gender. There is no distinction between a man or women wearing a medical mask, a mask for the sport of fencing, or a welder’s mask. The mask becomes a unisex leveler – the common ground is the purpose of the mask.

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     A woman wearing a burqua in northern Afghanistan 2005;
     photograph by Steve Evans

Needless to say, in many popular festivities – that may have religious origins – such as carnivals and Mardi Gras, both women and men adorn themselves with masks. Sometimes it can be hard to tell the genders apart. There have even been occasions when the great mask symbol of Michigan State University - the walnut muscled, chisel jawed Sparty - has been worn by a woman.

Masks convey anonymity and transformation to the wearer. Masks of the Venetian Carnival become blank faces, behind which the wearers can indulge their hedonistic pursuits without inhibition. In effect, they become other people, a transformation empowered by just a thin veneer that covers the face. It is interesting to note that historic records of the Venetian Carnival suggest that from its beginning, this masked, religiously-inspired event was an opportunity for sexual interludes and indiscretions.

Vibrant celebrations such as the Carnival and Mardi Gras are characterized not only by masks, but by the revealing of the body through skimpy costumes, accentuated through provocative dancing and comedic, but often suggestive, gestures and body language. Masks do more than depict a character. The anonymity they bestow allows the expression of behavior that might be unseemly or embarrassing without the protection of a face other than one’s own. Wear the mask and release the pressure valve of conservative morality and social constraint.

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     Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans 2009

In the film, Eyes Wide Shut, the late Stanley Kubrik features masks prominently, notably in the theatrical group sex scenes that many regard as central to the movie. This depiction draws upon the 1926 novella, Traumnovelle (Dream Story), written by Arthur Schnitzler, but Kubrik imbues the masks with a simmering, erotic – and definitely dangerous – sexuality.

Masks are not only a screen that allows people to release their sexual desires. There can be more specific and graphic demonstration of sexuality in masks. Masked characters can bring advice, or tell stories, of a sexual nature. They can also carry powers of fertility, from the ancestors or from natural spirits. The prominence of sexual masks is not surprising in societies where fertility is one of the most important attributes of young adults – they must procreate to maintain the community.

Image of  Mask
     Mardi Gras 2010 celebrants in the French Quarter of New Orleans,
     in the traditional colors of purple, green, and gold.

Masks can engage with sex in a subtle way, or can literally thrust sex into the face of the viewer.


In what circumstances do you think it is appropriate for a person to be masked, and when it is not?

What would you do if you could wear the mask of the opposite sex for a day?

Would you behave differently at a party if you were wearing a mask?

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