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“We Wear the Mask” by Paul Lawrence Dunbar Essay

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Updated: Oct 13th, 2021

In Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask”, he illustrates the various ways in which people hide their true selves from the public behind a smile. However, this is almost always a negative thing. This is made clear from his first line, “We wear the mask that grins and lies / It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes”. Not only does it hide who we are to the public, but it also enables us to lie and cheat and steal from people because we are aware that this isn’t really us, but is instead someone we are pretending to be for the moment. As we become good at pretending, though, we lose the ability to make real connections with others and find comfort for our “torn and bleeding hearts” and “all our tears and sighs”. Examining several public personalities, it is possible to discover that many of them have masks of their own, often hiding a great deal of pain and suffering that might not otherwise be suspected.

Movie stars are a tremendous example of this kind of behavior. Growing up, actress Lindsay Lohan was thought of as the quintessential, all-American ‘tomgirl teen. She was sweet and innocent and considered having everything together. For many young girls, she was a role model of what they’d like to be – spunky, determined, motivated, talented, beautiful, and capable of finding her own. However, as an examination into her personal life illustrates, she was never what her characters seemed to be. While young girls envisioned her as a regular, down-to-earth girl from the country, Lohan was accused of wealth, given a performer’s childhood complete with dance and singing lessons, and spent her entire life pursuing the cameras. When her parents’ lives began clashing, Lohan was again caught in the middle of it and began losing control over herself, partying too much with her new Hollywood friends and gaining a reputation more for her drug use and drinking than for her acting (“Lindsay Lohan”, 2008). There are thousands of examples of this kind of profound disparity between the real individual and the public persona that is conveyed in Hollywood.

However, the concept of the mask is not unique to Hollywood alone. Political figures are well known for presenting one face to the public while hiding their true face behind closed doors. This is the case for nearly every President in recent history. Ronald Reagan was considered to have been a highly successful president, sure of his actions and leading the country with confidence, yet there was evidence that his mind may have been slipping while he was still in office (Swan, 2004). The activities of Bill Clinton were made public to the world during his impeachment trials in which his persona of a happily married man, dedicated father, and responsible politician was demolished by the revelation of his multiple sexual escapades with women other than his wife (“Bill Clinton”, 2000). George W. Bush also managed to get himself elected on several claims regarding his agenda which proved to be little more than hollow words forgotten almost as soon as they were uttered (Brownlow, 2005). The concept of the mask among politicians has become so expected by the general public that the personas presented are frequently acknowledged to be little more than that, a superficial mask of what these politicians would like others to think of them.

Yet the concept of the mask extends well beyond the public figures we have come to ‘know’ through films and television as it is something ‘normal’ people do in everyday life as well. This is the premise behind some of the television shows we see on TV such as the makeover shows that have become so popular. The basic idea of these shows is to develop a more effective mask to present to the world with little to no concern regarding the individual housed within the skin. For many, the concept that the outer mask can be made to appear presentable and acceptable to society has become translated to mean the inner person will undergo a similar transformation and become what the mask evokes. Through the makeover shows, those lucky few who can fit the ideal image in any way, to attain the ‘body beautiful’, much is made of their subsequent happiness and success as a result of their ‘improved’ outer appearance. ASPS president Rod Rohrich pointed to the various individuals taking part in plastic surgery reality television indicating that many of them have unrealistic and unhealthy expectations for the results (Gustafson, 2005).

It is perceived through these types of presentations that the only way to find happiness and fulfillment is through the construction of the ‘body beautiful’, causing an extreme focus on the outward appearance many times to the detriment of the inner being. “Smith (1990) believes that women view their bodies as ‘objects of work’ requiring attention and upkeep to operate well and promote the desired effect” (Gillen, 2001), which is to appear to be the ultimate image of everlasting beauty. They accomplish this through expensive and sometimes dangerous plastic surgery, but the image of the mask is more important to them than the true health of the individual. Yet being a part of this crowd does not necessarily guarantee happiness as is evidenced by the lives of those people who help to set the standards, the movie stars themselves. Actresses such as Jamie Lee Curtis, long admired as the epitome of the dynamite female figure, suggest taking such measures as plastic surgery and liposuction are little more than a waste of money. “I’ve done it all. None of it works … I looked worse” (Jones, 2002). Despite the perception by many that this actress could be used as the definition of the ideal body beautiful, Curtis says she still suffered from significant self-esteem issues and must still face the onset of age.

Wearing a mask doesn’t have to be as complicated as performing a series of similar characters as in the case of movie stars, constructing a carefully shaped public persona as in the case of politicians, or even going as far as participating in dangerous and questionable surgery to achieve a certain look like the millions of women who flock to plastic surgery centers around the world. Masks are worn every day by everyone and can consist of something as simple as a false smile at the checkout line when feeling particularly anxious about something else. In conducting this research, I became aware that I wear masks all the time without even thinking about it. When my mind is filled with family problems, I still manage to put a smile on my face and act like nothing is wrong when I am out in social situations. This is typical because I am in a situation in which I would be uncomfortable discussing my problems with the people I am with or because other things are going on that my problems would not help. Other situations in which I might put on this mask would include when I am at work and cannot afford to get distracted into personal issues or when I am at school and need to pay attention to the lessons at hand. Masks are often an effective way of putting our troubles to the side for a little while, but we must always remember that they have not gone away simply because we are ignoring them. At some point, these things must be dealt with and at some point, we need to be able to trust someone with our true selves before we forget who that is.

Works Cited

  1. ” The History Place. (2000). Web.
  2. Brownlow, David. “” New With Views. (2005). Web.
  3. Dunbar, Paul Lawrence. “We Wear the Mask.”
  4. Gillen, Kate. “Choosing an Image: Exploring Women’s Image Through the Personal Shopper.” Through the Wardrobe. Eds. Ali Guy, Maura Benim & Eileen Green. London: Berg, (2001), pp. 71-93.
  5. Gustafson, Rod. “Parenting and the Media.” Parents Television Council Publications. (2005).
  6. Jones, Chris. “” BBC News. (2002). Web.
  7. “Lindsay Lohan Biography.” Tiscali. (2008).
  8. Swan, Norman. “President Ronald Reagan’s Alzheimer’s Disease.” The Health Report. (2004).
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