The Issue of Masks

Return to Issue #72 of Laurie's News & Views

Beverly: It is one thing for us to believe, say, a heroine wouldn't recognize a hero she's been intimate with, but what about a heroine seeking through a mask on a hero she doesn't know, or doesn't know he's wearing? One of the things I've noticed is that whether the secret identity theme works for me or not personally is usually as simple and as complicated as the author recognizing and knowing how to apply the distinctions between a partially masked persona as opposed to a fully masked one.

A partially masked persona is best symbolized by what is used in a costume ball situation. This type of mask either covers only a portion of the face or is obviously made to be a facial covering of some kind. This is the mask of a Zorro or Batman type character. Their entire costume grows out of the concept - dark, cloaked and clinging to the shadows of secrecy itself. Everything about the costume literally screams that there is a secret being kept and dares the world to figure out who they are. It practically waves a red flag in the face of an observer that challenges "I'm pretending to be something that I'm not and I'm not telling you the truth. Nor am I going to." This partially masked persona is normally used in romance on the emotional level of a game of truth or dare between the couple, but it can also have intense romantic meanings as well. In the most serious romantic terms it whispers, in a near roar, "I don't trust you enough to let you into the most secret places of my heart. You have to get in yourself and deal with the consequences of doing so." And yet, it's also a silent plea for the observer to do just that.

Karen: I was always a fan of Batman. Like Superman, he has split his personality into two parts, the mild-mannered Bruce Wayne and the superhero Batman. But he knows that his true personality, his true self is somewhere in between. And he longs to share that with the woman he loves. There’s a moment in the first Batman movie, when Bruce Wayne is trying to figure out how to tell the heroine his secret. "I’m Batman," he repeats to himself as he tries to find the exact words, the right inflection to soften his revelation, to make her understand his dilemma. To me, that’s the romantic center of the secret identity story, that love is the only force that can reveal the true heart of the man behind the mask.

Beverly: Yes, a partial mask does hide a lot but also reveals a great deal of the real person. The thing is that in the grand scheme of things romantic, a half-masked persona usually hides a fairly small secret. Don't get me wrong, the individual may have extraordinary reasons for wearing a disguise, but they are not normally earth shattering in nature. In other words, even Zorro and Batman could both lay aside their masks if they wished without encountering grave consequences. It might be difficult to walk away from their personal crusade but they could do it. It is their own determination, will and imagination which create the other identity in the first place, but they do have to make the choice to wear the masks and take up the cause. Their masks, and therefore their other identities, do not define the sum total of who they are.

However, a fully masked persona has completely different meanings and implications. The enormous masks used by tribal shamans are great symbols of this type of secret persona - not so much because of what they look like but because of why they're used. When behind those, the belief is that the individual is not simply pretending to be someone else, but that they indeed become someone, and sometimes something, else. There is no pretense. Those masks are designed to cover all of the face so that nothing of the individual can be seen . . . unless the observer gains the ability to see through the mask. In like manner, the fully masked persona is not simply an individual in disguise per se. They are who they are whether costumed or not and the secrets hidden by a fully masked persona are by definition romantically Big Secrets because they are at the heart of who the person is all the time. A full mask works not simply in one direction to keep others from seeing the truth but both ways to also keep something of who the person is from escaping at the wrong times. If the observer does not accidentally or intentionally see through the mask they can not truly know the masked one at all.

This is the mask of Superman, Beauty's Beast and so many other even more magical characters that have more in common with mythological shapeshifters than individuals in disguise. They appear to not be wearing a mask of any kind and yet almost always are presenting an altered face to the world. Their masks are difficult to see because they are full personas that do not hide the usual things masks hide. Donning a costume, whether one of cloth or changed physical appearance, only allows the necessary part of their make-up to show through when needed but also hides a great deal of who and what they are at the same time. Usually their altered appearances hide soul-destroying or life-threatening secrets upon which survival either of them or the world they protect depends. These individuals cannot forsake their secret identities because the so-called alternate personas are as much a part of who they are as anything else. Clark Kent is not pretending to be Superman. He is Superman. He can not stop it all simply by taking the costume off - the powers, abilities and strength of character that make him who he, both as Clark Kent and Superman, would still exist inside him. Beast, even if released from the curse and allowed to change back into the Prince, would still be the same person inside. So the romantic question becomes, can they share their secret with a loved one and survive? Or can the loved one manage to see through the mask . . . and survive as well? Can the relationship survive either way? In the end, does it really matter that the costume can come off if nothing changes about who they are?

Which brings us back to whether or not Lois Lane should see the truth about Clark Kent and Superman in the beginning of their relationship? While it might be argued that partial masks are easy to see past, should any romantic character automatically see the truth about a fully masked persona no matter how closely they resemble someone else? Or is the point more that we, as readers and viewers, know something they, and just about everyone else in her world, do not know. You see, in Lois Lane's case, she doesn't see a disguise at this early point in the story because there is no reason for her to. She sees only a uniform. Two actually. One is the uniform of the man in the famous red and blue suit, the one who flies. The other costume, the business suit and glasses on her partner, is just as important to the mix, though. Together they create the illusion, the true mask of the mythological shapeshifter, that there is no secret to begin with. The point is that she doesn't even know there is a secret and as long as Clark Kent can keep her from suspecting that there is one, his secret is relatively safe.

Concluding thoughts

Of course, keeping the secret safe isn't really the point, now is it? Sooner or later, she really should figure it out. Or even better, he could share as soon as possible. Because whether we're talking about a mysterious magical creature straight out of our imaginations or the more everyday kind of characters that just happen to have things they don't want to talk about, it's all ultimately about sharing with someone else. At least, it's about sharing if we're going to call it romance.

Return to Issue #72 of Laurie's News & Views

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