It’s funny how circumstance dictates fashion, and fashion influences civilization. Human society went through a major change in just four short years. Four short yet terrible years.
It started with the pandemic. Everyone had to take extra precautions when an experimental biological weapon leaked out of a laboratory somewhere in Asia, and the first and most prevalent precaution was the masks. Suddenly, they were on every face around the world, except for the more stubborn faces hiding rather ignorant minds. But those faces became fewer and fewer as new variants of the TACO-22 virus became more virulent and aggressive. It really was a well-designed little bug. Even after vaccines were rushed into production a mere thirteen months after the first outbreak, the virus would simply mutate into an even more contagious and dangerous form, rendering inoculation ineffective. People eventually got tired of hearing that the end was in sight, that there was light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. We’d had those hopes raised and dashed far, far too many times. To even suggest it would result in boos, hisses, and assorted projectiles. We just wanted to develop a sense of normality again, even if it was a completely new normality, even if it meant just living with the plague.
At first, the masks were a psychological torture that compounded the aggravation of continued lockdowns and travel restrictions. You never realize how much human communication relies on facial expressions, the power of a simple smile or smirk. The masks mutated alongside the virus to accommodate this social need. First, they were printed with ghoulish, cartoonish smiles. Then frowns. Frowns with fangs. Worded messages that advertised your latest state of mind to the world: “Peace,” “Carry On,” “Fuck you.” Whatever your daily mood. People would carry a pocketful of masks so that they could change their expression or motto throughout the day.
As the desire for contact increased, more elaborate masks emerged, designed to help us express ourselves again, to share our inner selves with the world, or more often to hide it. Remember that French electronic DJ duo, Daft Punk? They released their own line of LED masks, and people started using these as they projected pixilated expressions that could be adapted in seconds to express any mood or emotion to the world. Then avatar masks appeared, projecting all manner of emojis, memes, GIFs, clips of animals and other assorted chimeras. Masks were combined with full-body costumes as the collectively stressed social mentality was soothed by way of socially accepted cosplay. Further fed from the fertile soils of such popular TV series as “The Masked Singer,” a show in which B-list celebrities sang covers of pop songs while dressed in elaborately decorative costumes, the appearance of similar outfits became more common on the streets, in shops and restaurants, and even at places of business. Social media influencers became overnight millionaires not for their content but for their costumes, the message their avatar brought to the world. Points were given for elaboration, originality, and extent to which they were willing to commit to their new outer image.
It became so that people no longer talked about the pandemic, but rather about the plushie, prolific, profligate appearances of other people. Furry culture had been normalized, and the collective was adoring it. The horrors of the oppressively mundane were replaced by more creative freedom and joy of expression. Every day was another day at ComiCon. Racism, sexism, ageism, all the ugly -isms were forgotten, overshadowed completely by whatever identity we chose to assume on any given day and the freedom to create a new identity, by way of which creativity itself was celebrated in human culture as never before. Whereas creativity was always respected in art, music, theater, now it was finally being respected in individuals and personality types. Sexual identity was whatever you felt like that night. Body types were disguised, voices were modulated, and we found that entire psyches could be switched as easily as a mask. People tried to classify one another, as is human nature, but there was far too much variety to make any groupings stick. Everyone crossed lines and social mingling was as fluid as that of drops of water in a brilliantly colored lake.
As physical appearance took a backseat to creative expression, cosmetic surgery was replaced with much more affordable and painless mask designing. Profits in the cosmetics industry plummeted as no one felt the need to paint or repair the faces they were born with. Why would you, when you could simply pop a new face onto your head each morning, ready to go? And, as more people began identifying as the avatar they had chosen to become, and most of those were reflective of animal life, animal rights became a forefront in social discourse. In a plea to regain customer support, the cosmetics industry announced a moratorium on animal testing and began to invest in developing home kits for mask augmentations. No one was upset when they put a hat on a horse.
Without realizing it, we had become perfectly adjusted to living with an ongoing plague, and it had made us more cruelty-free. We were mesmerized by the fashion freedom it had presented to the collective culture, the zeitgeist of the zany. We had not only learned to ignore a deadly pandemic, but we had also overcome a particularly painful element of the human condition that had plagued us from day one: It no longer mattered what we looked like. All that mattered was how we expressed ourselves. What it meant to be human had completely changed, and at first, no one even noticed.
Our physical appearance had been rendered meaningless, pushed to the dark peripherals of the stage by the colorful prosthetic selves we now adopted as our true identities. We had achieved self-actualization through simulacra. All that mattered was the costume we chose to present to the world, and costumes could be bought or made. As with all things, money helped further one’s social image. After all, the best costumes could easily be purchased or commissioned. Professional costume designers were in high demand. But the restrictions of financial class were less of an issue as anyone could make a clever costume on their own, and a clever DIY costume brought with it a certain priceless status. These self-designed originals were seen as more honest, more respectable than their store-bought counterparts, and they brought in more revenue, which would allow for further embellishments to be made. The streets of even the smallest towns began to resemble a children’s Halloween parade or Mardi Gras on ecstasy, with prizes both prestigious and financial awarded accordingly.
Costume identities could be adopted legally, and a certificate of copyright was all that was needed to make the face you designed your legal face for all things from driver’s licenses to passports. If your image was already copyrighted by someone else, say, some faceless corporate entity, then one might gain official mascot status, the more successful of which were often compensated with free merch or money. Costumes can be shared as a family resemblance, and they can be bequeathed to future generations or abandoned in favor of a new design. Ultimately, the physical doesn’t matter, only the mind that resides behind the mask.
The natural face, the true physical form, became obscene. Everyone began acting like members of the rock band KISS, circa 1978 — it was unthinkable to be seen in public or on film as one’s natural self. It was taboo. We were like Mandalorians with their helmets. This was The Way. Forcing others to gaze upon your hideously God-given features became an afront. How dare you go around flaunting your imperfect flesh-face, warts and all? People are trying to live out here, you know. Some of us are even trying to eat. We don’t want to be confronted with that grotesqueness, all pasty, pimpled, and wrinkly. It reminds us of our own mortality, and we would no sooner gaze upon it than we would the fleshless skull beneath. Of course, this became an unspoken kink that altered the face of the porn industry. But I won’t discuss such aberrations here. Still, sociologists might find the newly formed uncomfortable alliance between porn and the pious sect of particular interest.
There are always those who will insist on flaunting convention. The underground face-porn industry soon found strange bedfellows among the religious, and the Faceist movement appeared. These self-proclaimed “traditionalist” types insisted that God had intended them to look as they were made “in his image.” They adopted the motto “Look Upon the face of God and Rejoice!” They printed it on T-shirts with an arrow pointing upwards at their natural hideousness. (The face-porn enthusiasts adopted a similar motto, but they swapped out the respectable verb “gaze” with the vulgar verb “cum.”) Never mind that by this theology, the plague was also part of God’s plan, and the plague tended to infect only those who insisted on attempting to live according to this maskless, Faceist dogma. After all, God had given us the wherewithal to design our own image, and we could adopt any that we felt reflected whatever glory we saw befitting the concept of a God. If we were created in God’s image, then isn’t it God’s intent that we grow to take on the responsibility of our own image, just as any parent would want their child to grow to be responsible for themselves? Couldn’t God also look however they chose at any given moment? And didn’t the ongoing plague indicate that it was God’s plan to kill anyone who didn’t wear a mask anyway?
Still, the more radical-minded of society’s fringe population began to demand their right to be seen as they were born. Underground clubs sprang up like flesh-faced speak-easies, private meeting places for the perverse partaking of the primary physiognomy. These dens of iniquity grew in popularity, and soon these basement-dwelling bugaboos of the beastly born-forms began to demand a return to the public arena, and flash mobs of barefaced uglies began to explode in more public places, making everyone very uncomfortable. Their in-your-mask faceism was seen as fugly fascism, and as laws were passed to prevent these unwelcomed intrusions, conflicts increased, and society did what it always does: it divided. For a while, there were two societies, the Faceists and the Masked. An uneasy but enduring peace ensued, but relations were immediately normalized as long as the Faceists agreed to stay behind the walls that hid them from the Masked. The Faceists could cross over to the Masked communities for tea and trade as long as they abided the local custom, and so was true of the Masked. Sometimes, the Faceists would temporarily cross over to live in Masked society, and vice-versa, and cultural relations and commerce continued smoothly between the two. But this dual society was short-lived as the TACO-22 virus continued to mutate, and when the TACO-22 Omni variant appeared, it decimated the Faceist population with extreme proficiency. Their brilliance flashed and burned out quickly, much like the blue center light of which Kerouac wrote. The survivors were assimilated back into the Masked collective, and we continued on into a faceless future.
Today, the vast majority of people remain masked, and have developed even more elaborate costumes to freely express their true selves. They remain unsatisfied with their flesh-faces and favor a costumed identity over the forms into which they had been so unfairly born. We prefer to be able to choose what we look like, what we are, how society sees us, rather than having to identify as whatever ugly, insecure thing the cruel fates of genetics and general living had thrust upon us. If we are uncomfortable in our own skin, we simply choose another. Everyone is happy. Everyone is accepting of others. Everyone is the self they choose to be. And everyone embraces their social standing.
It isn’t a perfect utopia of equality, but there is a prevailing sense of peace. At long last, we are all comfortable with who we are. And if that comfort falters, we can easily become something else. And the world is a more colorful, creative, and accommodating place. As I sit here writing this, I am in a coffee shop, feeling perfectly at home in my Bingo persona. You remember Bingo? From the Banana Splits? No? Damn, I’m old. But you couldn’t tell by looking at me. Besides, you’d likely be too distracted by the barrister dressed as a sexy Buttercup, the Powerpuff girl. His name is Marcus.
People still die, as they always have done, but at least no one talks about virus variants anymore.