Masks In Storytelling

Arthur Hughes - The Property Room

We love stories about tricksters who get away with stuff. But we don’t want them to get away with stuff forever. We want them to be found out.

For instance, when Emerson Moser retired from Crayola and revealed that he is colour blind, he made sure that this one little detail of his career would eclipse all others. I’m not sure if this is what he intended, but that is his Internet legacy.

Audiences love masks. More specifically, we love the slipping of the mask. Our love for the mask may explain the wide appeal of celebrity gossip:

I’ve come to realize that my main attraction to celebrity gossip comes from a fascination with slipping facades. I don’t care what celebrities eat for breakfast or what they buy at Whole Foods, but I like it when they lose their shit: the Britney Spears breakdown, Lindsay Lohan’s downward spiral, Paris Hilton going to jail, etc. I’m sure part of it is just base, ugly schadenfreude on my part, but there’s something else too. Their public images are so carefully micromanaged and manipulated and wrapped in Teflon, and there’s something exhilarating about seeing the mask slip once they stop giving a shit. 

Suzanne Riveca at The Short Form

When creating characters for fiction, storytellers sometimes draw a distinction between what Michael Hauge refers to as ‘identity’ (masks) and ‘essence’.

  • Identity refers to the faces people present to the world, also known as masks.
  • Essence is the (one) true self.

This distinction is more clear in some non-Western cultures, for example in Japan. Japanese culture draws a clear distinction between ‘omote’ and ‘ura’ (public face and private face). The words literally mean ‘front’ and ‘behind’.

We may not have widely understood words to describe this in English, but the distinction is clear in our history of storytelling. The underlying message of most stories is the same no matter the genre: It’s only when a mask (false identity) comes off that true happiness can be found.

(Interestingly, this is not how Japanese culture sees it. In Japan, the ‘omote’ face is a necessary ‘mask’ for a harmonious society.)

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.

Oscar Wilde

Genre And Masks

The Love Genre

This omote/ura distinction is important in the love genre. The audience is clued in about who is right for each other because even if the romantic pair start off fighting (fight fight, kiss kiss trope), they eventually get to know the other’s essence. All other romantic rivals never get past the ‘identity’ stage of knowing.

Comedies

The transgression comedy is all about masks. A character tries to get away with something by posing as somebody else. The audience is in superior position, waiting with glee for the mask to come off. When it does, this big scene is full of comedy. We’ve been anticipating it, so it’s especially satisfying.

Tootsie is the tentpole example of a transgression comedy. A man dresses as a woman because he’s ruined his reputation in Hollywood and needs work. (If he dresses as a woman he assumes a whole new identity.)

A lot of The I.T. Crowd episodes are transgression comedy. Jen Barber is the biggest fraud, having secured the job as head of I.T. by bluffing. It is soon revealed that this is part of her character in general, to the last detail. In a later episode she buys shoes that are too small because she wants people to believe she has dainty little feet. Roy is a little duplicitous but not smart about it. Jen’s duplicitous nature contrasts with the personality of Moss, who says exactly what’s on his mind and takes everything literally.

In the “Kicking Up A Stink” episode of Kath and Kim, Sharon has found a job as a bootcamp leader, but the mask comes off when she invites Kim along. Kim isn’t one bit scared of her and walks off, prompting a mass exodus, ruining Sharon’s session.

Thrillers

Mask iconography – original source unknown

The transgression thriller — surprisingly, perhaps — has the same structure as a transgression comedy. It’s just the entire tone and plot details that are different.

By the way, the structure looks like this, courtesy of The Narrative Breakdown podcast:

Discontent – someone is unhappy about something

Transgression with a mask – peculiar to comedy and thrillers

Transgression without a mask – midpoint disaster when the mask is ripped off

Dealing with consequences

Spiritual Crisis – happens in almost every story

Growth Without a Mask

Another name for the transgression thriller is ‘the wrong man thriller’. Hitchcock was a big fan. He would set up a falsely accused innocent. Over the course of the story the truth is revealed.

Examples Of Wrong Man Thrillers:

Horror Stories

It is said that horror stories exist to define what is normal by showing us what isn’t. There’s a long tradition of horror monsters who act because ‘the devil made them do it’. Equally lazy but more modern: The horror monster is ‘psychotic’.

The horror genre is beginning to move more solidly into a phase where the audience discovers the ‘true identity’ of the monster and finds that in fact we are looking at the darkest parts of ourselves. This is widely known as The Shadow In The Hero.

A stand-out example of a vampire horror story is “The Mask” by Richard Marsh, which appeared in Marvels and Mysteries in 1900. A homicidal madwoman adept in the art of mask-making transforms herself into a raving beauty and threatens to suck the blood of the hero. 

W. T. Benda, Cover of LIFE, March 8, 1923

Types Of Masks In Storytelling

Actual Masks

Masks are used in all cultures around the world, especially in rituals and ceremonies. Masks play an important social function.

The masks used in ancient Greek theatre are based on the culture of the ancient Dionysian cult. Thespis was the first writer to use a mask in stage writing. Members of the chorus wore masks to distinguish them from the main actors. There was a good logistical reason for this: The same actors were able to play a variety of roles in the same play. Also, the actors were men. Masks allowed them to play women, starting a tradition which is still utilised today (problematically).

Another logistical reason for stage masks: A bland-featured mask utilised over and over again distracts from the individual character and forces the audience to focus on that character’s actions.

Posing As Someone You’re Not

These characters are based on the ancient trickster archetype.

Behaviours include:
  • Bluffing to secure social or economic advantage (Jen Barber in The IT Crowd).
  • Dressing in disguise to get away with a crime (the pigeon in the pilot episode of We Bare Bears)
  • Acting as someone with a different personality (Nom Nom the YouTube sensation Koala in We Bare Bears acts loveable but is actually evil.)

Walter White makes out he’s a nerdy, science teacher type (which works because he was), when in fact he’s the local drug lord.

The 2003 movie Thirteen by Catherine Hardwicke is a coming-of-age drama about two girls who pretend to be what they’re not. The structure involves the coming off of a mask. For much of the movie Tracy Freeland is acting as a pseudo-adult, ditching her mother who she still needs very much in favour of a girl who has not been so well protected from the world. How does Hardwicke wrap up this story? It’s a story chock full of conflict — arguments with Tracy’s mother, father, brother, teacher and former best friends. Therefore the ‘big struggle sequence’ needs something extra. In this case it’s the coming off of the mask. After rejection from Tracy’s mother, Evie Zamora outs Tracy to everyone as a thief, self-harmer, drug abuser and all-round evil person. While this portrait of her is not quite right either, it is in this scene that Tracy’s mother finally gets the full picture regarding what’s been going on with her daughter. The mask is finally off. In the outtake scene we see Tracy on a roundabout (a regression to childhood), emitting a primal scream. The torment of keeping up this facade of rebel has passed.

American Beauty involves two big masks: The teenage beauty who pretends sexual experience to disguise her complete inexperience, and the military neighbour with internalised homophobia. This contrasts with Kevin Spacey’s character, who takes off his mask at the beginning of the film and lives as his true, lazy, hedonistic self.

In some ways, Office Space is the comedy version of American Beauty. After hypnosis gone wrong, the hedonistic, don’t-give-a-damn side of Peter Gibbons is left. Comedy comes from the fact that this works to his advantage. Peter is now seen to have ‘leadership qualities’. Nerdy office workers pretend to be money launderers, knowing nothing at all about money laundering. This is a film with masks at every level — even the guy selling homeless magazines door-to-door is a well-spoken college student.

In both American Beauty and in Office Space, the double-identity characters are set up in contrast with people living as their true selves. Peter Gibbons meets a waitress who is so true to herself that she quits her horrible waitressing job by giving her boss the  middle finger over an argument about not showing enough ‘flair’. Joanna is literally  unable to pretend to be who she is not. Joanna in turn contrasts with her hyper-enthusiastic (but fake) boss. Michael Bolton is another character unable to fake anything with conviction, which is why it’s so funny to watch him try to pretend (in an important job interview) that he likes the singer Michael Bolton. Another character living his true life is Peter’s redneck labourer neighbour, whose basic urges make him crass but also relatable. Office Space has a happy ending because every character is living life as their true selves, ditching fake identities. American Beauty is a tragedy because characters are punished for their false presentations. In both films the message is identical: Faking who you are cannot possibly lead to happiness.

Makeovers

In the “Hello Nails!” episode of Kath and Kim, Kim gives Sharon a makeover. In a comedy, a makeover is a sure sign that the story will have the structure of transgression comedy.

Makeovers in non-comedies are often supposed to ‘reveal’ one’s true attractiveness, matching the attractive personality underneath. This is a fairytale view of humanity — that ideally, good people should look beautiful otherwise there’s an uncomfortable dissonance.

In comedies the real self is the unadorned version, which is why things don’t work out when the awkward, gawky Sharon Strezlecki tries to dress elegantly.

Cross dressing

There is one type of mask often used in comedy, and it is used in almost every major children’s film. At some point a male character dresses as a female character to achieve some goal.

I feel Tootsie becomes more problematic as time goes on, with transgender feminists pointing out for us the downsides of equating feminine presentation with duplicity. In Tootsie, at least, Dustin Hoffman’s character dresses as Dorothy not with the main intention of exploiting femininity by bewitching men with fake feminine wiles, but in order to apply for jobs otherwise not open to him, and to disguise his own well-known male identity.

But in many stories for children, the male characters dressing as femme characters are using a mask of femininity to get away with behaviours which are manipulative in a sexualised way. A terrible example of that is the Australian middle grade book The Bad Guys by Aaron Blabey. Yet this is a very popular book and few question its ideology.

This storyline is highly problematic. The message is that femininity equals duplicity >> women are manipulative liars >> “Lock her up”.

I’ve said more about that here: Liars in Storytelling.

Masked Settings

The lovely setting later revealed to be hiding misery and crime is the setting equivalent of peeling a mask off a person. The masked setting is known as a snail under the leaf setting.

This is why mystery stories often work well thematically in tranquil little towns. The crime peels back the mask of civility to reveal the more troubling reality beneath the surface.

See also: How Can Setting Be A Character?

Guillaume Seignac - Pierrot’s Embrace 1900
Guillaume Seignac – Pierrot’s Embrace 1900

Are Western Storytellers Correct?

A few years ago I read a book called The People You Are by Rita Carter, which presents quite a different thesis of human behaviour.

Carter’s main argument is that there is no ‘one true self’. She argues that humans have the ability to change according to circumstance, and that we are rewarded for doing so. We are one way with our colleagues, another way with our families, and neither one of these ‘people’ takes precedence over the other.

The dominant idea in modern storytelling contrasts with this psychological view. No matter the genre, we are told time and again that that there is ’one true self’. This version of the self must make its way to the surface and be somehow ‘exposed’ before happiness can be found.

This view of human nature may age contemporary stories in the way that ‘one true love’ romance stories now seem old-fashioned to us, in the era of serial monogamy. Some pushback on that:

My problem is that people always say ‘don’t be afraid to just be yourself!’ and like…it’s not that I’m afraid, I just don’t know how to do that? Because I want to get super jacked and tattooed and never wear make-up and have plaid shirts and shave off my hair, and I also want to wear pretty dresses and high heels and learn how to do eyeliner properly and grow my hair out real long, and I want to be intimidating and confident and Speak My Mind and Take No Shit but I also want to be soft and kind and for people to think I’m cute, and I want to be seen as smart and well-read and respected but I also want to be seen as down to earth and approachable and fun…and I have no idea which if any of those people are actually ‘myself’ or if they’re all just a variety of exciting disguises.

Blog of Impossible Things

Since culture prioritises the view of the personality as a ‘singlet’ (hence the popularity of astrology, as explained in Carter’s book), readers generally have little time for a fictional character who does one thing in one context, then seems to be completely different in another. Multiple selves in a single character may be one of those things which doesn’t work too well in fiction even if it would reflect real life. Certainly, if not written well, the reader may blame the author for failing to create an authentic and consistent personality, even though none of us is one hundred percent consistent in real life.

I believe moving past this idea of ‘one true self’, which includes all stories in which someone ‘finds’ their ‘true self’ needs a bit more pushback. It might be closely related to moving past the gender binary, and has particular impact on those who live in a more gender expansive manner, which is hopefully all of us.

SEE ALSO

Twins, arch-nemeses, imagined selves, ‘Sliding Doors plots‘… all of these are used in fiction to convey the idea of multiple selves without actually writing multiple selves.

Header painting: Arthur Hughes – The Property Room

Mother’s Day Courage The Cowardly Dog

“Mother’s Day” is an episode from season one of Courage The Cowardly Dog. This is where we get some of Eustace’s back story. Until this point in the series, Eustace Bagge has been a singularly unpleasant character. We haven’t see what made him the way he is. In this episode, for the first time, we learn his ‘psychological wound’, or the backstory that explains why he treats others so badly. In stories, as in real life, this is simplistically attributed to deficiencies in the mother.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “MOTHER’S DAY”

SHORTCOMING

As usual we have an opening shot in which Courage looks momentarily at peace.

courage-at-peace

Of course this does not last long because of the two people he lives with. Because he is a child (in the body of a dog) he will have to just go along with them, trying to appease them.

DESIRE

Eustace doesn’t want to go see his own mother for mother’s day but he wants to get Muriel off his back.

go-and-see-your-mother



OPPONENT

The opponent is introduced before we see her. Muriel, accommodating as she is, refuses to go visit her mother-in-law, volunteering Courage as a companion instead.

mothers-house

mother-appears

The character archetype is very similar to Bill Henrickson’s mother Lois in the series Big Love.

big-love-zabriskie26

Like Mrs Bagge, Lois is poor, has tendencies towards vanity, is psychologically abusive (while herself being a victim) and her own son will never live up to her standards.

Lois is a slightly caricatured but nevertheless fairly real representation of this personality type, in a live action TV show made for adults. Over the course of Big Love we also see the ways in which Bill Henrickson is basically his own parents, despite his wish to escape the Juniper Creek compound. While Lois Henrickson is also a Mama Bear who would do anything for her children, I’m of the impression that in a different episode of Courage, with an outside opponent, the abusive mother of Eustace would also turn on a dime to protect her own flesh and blood.

This episode of Courage the Cowardly Dog is a very condensed, highly stylised storyline done differently in Big Love.

PLAN

In the car on the way, Eustace tells Courage his plan. If Eustace scratches his face, this is a secret signal for Courage to attack the mother. Then they’ll be able to leave early. Eustace makes sure Courage knows how to snarl and growl. He demonstrates it himself.

establishing-the-plan

The plan doesn’t work. We know it’s not going to work the moment the mother greets Courage warmly while ignoring her human son.

BIG STRUGGLE

The big struggle begins on the doorstep, with Eustace laying into Courage for failing to be sufficiently vicious.
The big struggle begins on the doorstep, with Eustace laying into Courage for failing to be sufficiently vicious.

The visit is one long miserable family feud. Obviously a long-running enmity exists between Eustace and his mother. With Courage there, who the mother dotes on, the meanness she displays towards her own son is only emphasised.

Courage is stuck in the middle.  Only children are particularly likely to find themselves in an awkward dinner table scene in fiction.

dinner-table-scene

The scene of the two feuding adults sitting at each end of the dining table with the innocent and conflicted child character in the middle is a familiar one from the screen.

from American Beauty
from American Beauty

from Gilmore girls
from Gilmore girls

from Breaking Bad, in which Jessie is depicted temporarily as a child character
from Breaking Bad, in which Jesse is depicted temporarily as a child character

Mother gives Courage a big, heaping bowl of food with a literal cherry on top. After admonishing Eustace for being too thin, the mother then accuses him of wanting her to provide him food. When she provides the food, begrudgingly, it is two measly rashers of bacon. This is a parody of psychological abuse.

The distance between Eustace and his mother is visually depicted with the empty table between them filling most of the screen.
The distance between Eustace and his mother is visually depicted with the empty table between them filling most of the screen.

two-thin-rashers-of-bacon

Mother gives Eustace’s teddy bear to Courage, which really upsets Eustace and comically turns him into a toddler.

teddy-bear-tantrum

During the big struggle sequence the audience is left in no doubt as to the similarities between Eustace and his mother. The scene with the mask introduces every single episode, after all. When turned upon Eustace he is terrified. He can give it, but he can’t take it. Eustace has been temporarily turned into Courage.

mothers-scary-mask

The mother is ungrateful for the gifts, which Eustace gives her to try and make peace. She is allergic to flowers and doesn’t even like chocolate, which only proves that this woman is totally lacking in any kind of sweetness/humanity. She does, however, like the mirror gift. This is because she is vain. (One of the deadly sins, which makes it nice and simple and good for comedy villains.)

Courage eats the chocolates himself, which offers the audience a nice visual representation for how sick he is feeling about the visit.

courage-chocolate-sick

Mother decides she’d like a photo taken. She goes all out to prepare herself for this, even going under a tanning bed, plucking hairs from her chin and so on in a rapid sequence.

preparing-for-photo

When Mrs Bagge tells Eustace that he’ll never be a real man and never fill his father’s shoes (which are literally huge), Eustace challenges her to an arm wrestle.

youll-never-fill-your-fathers-shoes

In a previous episode we’ve already seen a big struggle carried out via a thumb wrestle, and the writers make much use of common childhood games throughout the series.

It’s significant that neither of them is winning. They are evenly matched, psychologically as well as physically.

arm-wrestle
another version of the classic only-child dinner table scene

Eustace signals to Courage to do something, so Courage retrieves the bouquet of flowers hoping this will cause Mother to sneeze, and lose the game.

retrieving-the-bouquet

The writers foil expectations by having her hair come right off.

ANAGNORISIS

mother-and-son-hug

The audience has already realised that mother and son are basically the same person. This similarity is underscored visually with the sneeze, and the flying away of the mother’s hair. She breaks down at first, proclaiming that she’s ugly and how could a son possibly love a mother with no hair. We have seen from earlier episodes that Eustace is sensitive about his own bald head, so he is able to identify with his mother’s pain and there is a brief reuniting moment before he leaves with Courage for home.

This is a rare, genuine anagnorisis in the Courage series. Usually there is a revelation, but it is not a anagnorisis.

However, the anagnorisis will do nothing to change Eustace for the better. He will continue into the next episode as mean as he was before.

NEW SITUATION

Time of day is indicated by the orange and yellow sky.
Time of day is indicated by the orange and yellow sky.

At home, Muriel has been watching her favourite show. She asks them how it was. Courage produces a photograph, which gives Muriel the impression the visit was far more successful than it actually was. Eustace says grimly that he’ll have to go again sometime soon.

By putting someone else’s hair on a dog the artists also appeal to the sense of humour of its young child audience.

closing-image