Being a Man: The Masks We Wear

As a child, Batman was my favorite superhero. What drew me to him was not just his toughness, his stoicism, and his resolve not to kill anyone, but specifically the mask he wore. This was somewhat clear in Tim Burton’s films, but more so in Bruce Timm’s Batman: The Animated Series.

In Batman: TAS, Batman is the real person. Bruce Wayne is the mask he wears. I noticed that immediately, and it resonated because I understood what Batman was doing. You cannot suffer through that much pain and remain unchanged. However, you also cannot walk around wearing that pain. People just cannot accept it, so you learn to wear a mask.

This plays a major role in Chris Nolan’s Batman trilogy.

Fair warning: the following contains spoilers from The Dark Knight Rises.

In The Dark Knight Rises, the character John Blake reveals to Bruce Wayne that he knows Bruce is Batman. Blake explains that when he was a kid his mother died, but he could not remember it well. However, he did remember his father’s murder, and the anger of that stayed with him. He says to Bruce that people say they understand, but they do not know. They try to understand, and for a time they do, but eventually they expect you to move on, to let go of the anger and pain, and that is something you cannot do. So then they send you to therapy, put you in foster care or in group homes. Blake explains that it took him a while to learn that he had to wear a mask to hide his anger so that people would accept him.

When Bruce visited the boys’ home that Blake lived at years ago, Blake immediately saw through Bruce’s mask and realized that Bruce had to be Batman. (Oddly enough, when Blake finishes, Bruce does not even deny being Batman.) He knew because he learned to wear the same mask.

I share Blake’s experience. It took me a while to realize that I needed to hide what I actually feel because people could not handle it. I learned to hide my fears and anger as a child, not only so that I would not get it worse at home, but also so that no one at school would find out what was happening. Yet I never learned not to wear the pain. By the time I was in college, it was obvious to anyone who spent any time with me that I was damaged in some way. This made them treat me with kid gloves, try to fix me, or try to talk me into moving on.

Yet I could no more move on than Blake or Batman could. The experiences I went through shaped the person I became. They are a part of me as much as, if not more than, anything else. I need my pain, guilt, and anger. That does not mean I cannot overcome them or that I will let them rule me, but I cannot simply pretend nothing happened.

I learned to wear a mask. I learned to act more sociable. I learned to chitchat, to smile, to blend in. The person that my former co-workers and classmates know is not the real me; it is the facade I created to fit in.

Once a co-worker caught me dropping the mask. A friend who knows about my past called while I was at work, and because I was so used to talking to him normally, I slipped back into my usual self. One of my co-workers overheard the conversation, and afterward asked if something was wrong because I sounded cold.

My mask lets me fit in, but it does not fix anything. The pain and guilt are still under the surface, and they often taint my relationships with other people because I do not want people to get close. As is evident in the Batman comics and films, you can only fake it for so long. Eventually someone will catch on. This happens several times in TDKR. Several people see through Bruce’s playboy persona. Others want that persona to become real.

In the film, Alfred makes a point about wanting Bruce to have stayed away from Gotham back in Batman Begins. He had hoped that he would be abroad one day, drinking at a cafe, look up, and see Bruce sitting at a table with a wife and maybe kids. They would see each other, but say nothing, and then Alfred would leave. Alfred essentially wanted Bruce to move on. He wants this out of love (indeed, Michael Caine’s performance is worthy of an Oscar nod because you truly believe he cares about Bruce Wayne), but he does not realize how deeply hurt Bruce is.

Eventually Alfred does get his wish, but not before Bruce goes through his own journey. I think many people misunderstand the purpose of the mask. They think people who use them are hiding from the truth when in reality the masks are part of the healing process. As I said, the suffering people experience will never leave them, but we can learn to cope with it by using masks. We can learn ways to navigate the world until we can get to a place where we either do not need the masks anymore or that they become such a part of us that they are less a mask than a tattoo.

The people in my life, especially my godson, youngest brother, and youngest cousin, are helping me make that transformation. I still wear the mask, but it is slowly becoming my tattoo. The warmer, open personality I faked for so long is now something I genuinely do.

These things take time, and Christopher Nolan shows it perfectly in his trilogy. While Bruce may never be “Bruce Wayne”, he also does not have to be “the Batman”. This is not just because he physically gives up the mantle, but also because he realizes that “Batman” is also a symbol for something bigger than one person. Perhaps a better way of putting it is that Bruce will always be Batman, but he does not always have to be the Batman. He can be the man without being the symbol.

That Blake takes up the Batman mantle shows this. Bruce has learned to cope with his anger, guilt, and pain. He takes on aspects of the Bruce Wayne mask he wore as true parts of himself because of his emotional growth. However, Robin John Blake is not there yet. He still needs his “John Blake” mask, and he will keep that mask and become the symbol of “the Batman” until he, and Gotham, no loner needs them.

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19 thoughts on “Being a Man: The Masks We Wear

  1. Amazing post. I’m actually going to have to process this for awhile before I leave a concise comment. Very well done.

  2. I find it takes so much courage to risk letting my mask slip and allowing myself to be just myself. I always felt that if people really knew who I really was they would never be around me. Most times I didn’t want to be around me. I didn’t know how to trust or believe when someone said that they liked me that it was true. Ever hear the saying “I hate you, don’t leave me”? Talk about being confused! When either I’d get close to someone or I felt they were getting close to me I would do some pretty silly things to put up a wall. The worst was that not only was I keeping others out I was keeping myself in that “prison”. I am so thankful for therapy with people who really knew what was up with me. I learned that I have many facets with my personality; some are strong. some are not and some I’m still learning about and I am 65 now.

    I started dealing with childhood sexual abuse at 42 when an inquiry was held in St. John’s, NL regarding the sexual abuse of male, brave and courageous survivors by priests/brothers at the Mount Cashel Orphanage in St. John’s, NL. So I am very fortunate that those brave men were willing to tell their stories. Through their disclosures I was able to acknowledge that what happened to me was wrong and criminal. I have a lot of respect for male survivors. I know it’s not easy, but, I also know the value of that sharing and how others can benefit from it. Speaking our truth as we know it is all we can ever do. Learning to be gentle with ourselves is vital.

    Thank you for sharing.

  3. I have never been able to exemplify my pain & anger. To explain to others what it means to me and how it has shaped me. I also learned early on that I needed to wear a mask because people did not understand. They wanted me to move on, let go, or, on a more often basis, just leave/betray me because they could not fix me. Very few people know of my pain, and one of which was sitting next to me while I watched TDKR yesterday afternoon. Before that, he said he wanted to talk to me to try to understand my anger. When the scene between John Blake & Bruce Wayne occurred, I just looked over at him. He looked back at me & I just pointed at the screen. When doing a Google search to try to find that piece of dialogue between John & Bruce, I stumbled upon your Word Press entry. I read it over and over again because I think you finally said what I have been trying to say for so many years. Thank you for being able to find the words that help explain my anger & pain…just thank you.

  4. Titfortat, for me there was no prior self before the abuse. My earliest memory — somewhere around 18 months to 2-years-old — is of abuse. But even if there were a longer period of time before the abuse, pain and suffering changes a person. It does not just do this on an emotional level, but also on a physical level. Our brains literally change to adapt to what the stress and suffering does to us. In that sense, after we suffer great trauma we are no longer the same person.

    I do not think the mask I wear is my true self because I am uncomfortable behaving that way. It is so unnatural that at times I have to make a conscious effort to maintain it. According to my father, I was a quiet baby and more interested in watching people than playing with them. According to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator I am an INTJ. I think what I went through made this more extreme, which is why I come across as cold and insensitive at times.

  5. @TS

    I understand. My abuse starts slightly later than yours and I distinctly remember a more joyous, fun loving person prior to it. I still own all those traits but have to be aware when the mask overrides that part of my personality. I concur that abuse can and does change our physiology. I wonder though, for many, if it changes us that must mean other experiences have the possibility to change it back. 🙂
    I hold out hope for the latter.

  6. Titfortat, I do not think we can change back. I think it of it as mixing food together. Once you mix eggs with flour, you cannot take the eggs out. The things that happened cannot be undone, so even if people go back to their “normal” selves, they are still not the same person.

  7. I agree, Toysoldier. The only way you can change yourself, rid yourself of the pain and trauma assoicated with it, is to go back in time and prevent the incident. Unfortunatly, that is only allowable in movies, books and TV Shows.

    In real life, the pain is a part of us. Best thing to do is manage and not let it usurp who we are inside.

  8. Why is my comment awaiting moderation? I didn’t say anything bad, did I? I mean, there was nothing in there.

  9. Well TS, I guess the trick is if you want to lessen the effect of the eggs, add more flour. 🙂
    That may be optimistic but at least that aspect of my personality wasnt completely beaten out of me.

  10. Eagle, your comment got caught in moderation because the word “ass” is in “associated”. That’s just the way that WordPress moderates words. Do not worry about it.

  11. Titfortat, I do not think the aspects of a person’s personality can be completely changed, at least not without someone intentionally trying to change them. A person may be less inclined to behave as they used to, but I think the old aspects of the person remains with them. That is part of the reason why I think it is my normal personality to be introverted and cerebral.

  12. @TS

    Obviously there are genetic predispositions that we all own. I would concur that it would be difficult to “completely” change your personality though it is evidenced in certain cases such as strokes that many times a person’s personality is greatly affected. In regards to your own personality you may be correct but I also question the fact that how can you actually know what your personality was like considering your earliest recollections have abuse in them. Seeing that it could have started even earlier that would essentially mean your physiological personality may never have had a chance to surface because of the effect the abuse could/would have had.

  13. In regards to your own personality you may be correct but I also question the fact that how can you actually know what your personality was like considering your earliest recollections have abuse in them.

    I cannot know for certain. It is possible that I would have had a different personality if I had been older when the abuse started or if it never happened. However, my father and youngest uncle used to tell me about how I acted as a baby, and it seems that my personality was similar to what it is now. I honestly do not know, although I would think that if there were a latent personality quirk different from how I normally behave it would have appeared by now, especially since I am in a better emotional place than I was for years.

  14. Such a true take on living life behind a mask or many masks in some cases. Very deep and makes you think of which person in you truly is wearing the mask and embracing the real person trying to emerge from the pain. Thanks for sharing!

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