There’s an entry I really love in the growing canon of viral mask freakout videos—that is, clips of people losing it over mask requirements in public spaces. It’s not the most shocking or most outrageous of these videos, but it really gets at what’s most absurd about the genre. In it, a Louisiana state representative, Danny McCormick, declares his opposition to a mask mandate ordinance in Shreveport. McCormick, mugging happily in safety glasses and a sport coat, takes up arms against the masks that so bedevil him, first attempting to light one on fire with a blowtorch, and then manfully pull-starting a chainsaw in order to slice a mask in half. What I love most is that the mask, dangling from the ceiling on fishing line, is playfully batted away by the chainsaw, like a butterfly caught in an updraft; the mask is too lightweight for a tool like a chainsaw to actually damage it.
All that a mask wants to do is protect you and the people around you. It Has One Job, in the parlance of the day. But the intersection of that one job and the belief of many crackpots (that the coronavirus is fake, or that its threat is overstated, or that it could never affect them, or that “the economy” should be prioritized over people’s individual health, or that mandated masks are a gateway to—as McCormick darkly warns in his video—the government forcing its citizens to “take the mark” of the beast, as described in Revelation) has made the mask the preeminent symbol of the chaos overtaking the United States five months and counting into the COVID-19 pandemic.
And as communities begin to reopen, wisely or unwisely, the mask—the crucial tool, public health experts agree, in controlling the virus’s spread—has become the catalyst for any number of filmed meltdowns. In these videos, people—always white, always aggro—lose their shit at the idea of wearing a mask inside a store. “You fucking bitch! Democratic pigs, all of you!” yells a woman in a Los Angeles Trader Joe’s, throwing her basket to the floor and storming out. “I feel threatened! Back off!” shouts a man in a Fort Myers, Florida, Costco, advancing on a customer who reportedly asked him to wear a mask. In a Dallas Fiesta Mart, a woman throws her groceries around the checkout area, her tosses punctuating a kind of free-verse incantation: “I don’t give a fuck [toss]/ about a fucking dumbass mask [toss]/ I don’t care about Dallas [toss]/ and you dumbass motherfuckers [toss].”
What are these displays? Whatever they are, they are not authentic expressions of rage. They’re too premeditated for that. Many are filmed by the tantrummers themselves, staging their moments of resistance with an eye toward narrative, drama, mise en scène. Take this Phoenix public relations executive, who lurks behind a rack of masks at Target, whispering to her video audience and waiting for the perfect moment to rip the packages down. (This video, like many in the genre, was showcased by the former NBA player and now inexplicable social influencer Rex Chapman, the Homer of the viral freakout.)
Even the ones caught on the fly by onlookers bear all the hallmarks of theatrical performance. Rather than citizens pushed too far by onerous mask policies—finally sent over the edge—the people in the videos are recognizably acting, delivering tiny one-person shows. Perhaps they’ve rehearsed these lines in their head for weeks, cooped up at home, seething about the news. Maybe they even wear the exact right costume—a bright red T-shirt, say, bearing the legend RUNNING THE WORLD SINCE 1776. And here, in the grocery store, finally granted an audience—the lights bright and the cameras running—they seize their moment to act.
And they’re bad actors. Anyone who’s ever been through a beginners’ acting class has been told that the enemy of a truthful performance is indicating: making all the gestures that signify an emotion rather than honestly portraying the emotion. The performers in these videos are indicating like crazy. They point, they shout, their eyes bulge. They wave their hands around to show how upset they are. They HURL their FOOD to the FLOOR in iAMBIC penTAMETER.
The mask freakouts are site-specific theater for an age without any other kind of live performance. Unfortunately, the show sucks. It sucks worst, of course, for those store employees who must deal with these bad actors, the ones caught on video and the ones who don’t happen to get filmed. Poorly paid, poorly protected, deemed essential but abused on the regular, the clerks and stockers and hassled store managers must attempt to do their jobs while hoping they don’t go viral, figuratively or literally. Unlike the audience at a bad play, they don’t have the option of just walking out in the middle of a dishonest line reading or an embarrassing bout of overacting. Unlike those of us watching the video, they can’t click to a new tab. They’re stuck there.
I admire the employees of the Gelson’s grocery in Dana Point, California, who became the subjects of a video-maker’s tirade. “I have a medical condition that I’m not allowed to wear a mask and I’m not required by HIPAA rules and regulations to disclose that,” the woman declares to the incredibly chill clerk who’s refusing her entry without a mask. Soon the manager arrives, offering accommodation after accommodation; the woman refuses each one, inventing ever more baroque reasons why such courtesies could never substitute for shopping in the store, without a mask. Could they do her shopping for her? “I have private things I wanna get that maybe I don’t want you to see.” No, she can’t give them her credit card, are they kidding?! The more belligerent she becomes, the more the employees refuse to argue with her; the manager lets her wait outside while he gets a card with the corporate office’s telephone number on it.
By the end of the video, the woman is reduced to filming her own mutterings—and the first clerk, recognizable from his swoop of blond hair and his cool sunglasses. He’s dancing around the shopping carts as he wipes them clean. “You’re pretty chipper,” she says bitterly. “You’re happy.” He looks up and grins behind his mask. He floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee. He’s performing too, but he’s a good actor. “Why not be?” he says.
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