Take Off the Mask So I Can See Your Face

Lisha: Hey Willa, I’ve been anxious to talk to you! As we navigate our way through coronavirus and all that our “new normal” entails, I’m so struck by the strong reactions we’ve seen to mask-wearing recommendations.

Willa: Hi Lisha! It’s so great to talk with you again! And I know what you mean about the blowback against wearing a mask. It’s really surprising, isn’t it?

Lisha: It is.

Willa: When news outlets first started reporting about hospitals running low on masks, a local group got together and began creating mask-making kits, and they put out a call for volunteers to sew them up. So I pulled out my sewing machine and started working. Each week a local high school student would drop off mask kits onto my front porch, and she’d pick up the masks I’d finished. I was really impressed with how organized they were, and together we were able to make thousands of masks for the local hospital, a cancer clinic, and others in need.

And of course, the whole time I was sewing, I kept thinking about Michael Jackson and his many masks….

Lisha: How can you work on surgical masks and not think Michael Jackson, right? He wore them like a fashion statement!

MJ and Lisa Marie

Willa: Absolutely! Here’s a fan video that celebrates his ability to rock a face mask.

Lisha: And by the way, Willa, I had no idea you knew how to sew! That’s so cool that you were able to participate in that way.

Willa: You know, I really enjoyed it. My mom has five sisters, and they are all very skilled with sewing, knitting, crocheting, and handcrafts of all kinds, and so were both of my grandmothers. I was taught from an early age to keep my hands busy. And I have to say, it’s really calming for me, especially when I’m trying to process difficult ideas or situations. I just seem to think better when my hands are active. You wouldn’t believe how much knitting I did in grad school!

Lisha: I can’t even imagine knitting in grad school. But over the years working as a musician I’ve noticed that a lot of singers like to knit and crochet in their down time, including Michael Jackson collaborator Siedah Garrett. Surely there is some fascinating psychology research somewhere that could explain this!

Willa: Oh, I love the long vest Siedah Garrett is modelling in the link you shared, Lisha. I wonder if she ever knit or crocheted during downtime in the studio?

Lisha: Yes! I remember her telling the story that she was sitting in the studio knitting when Quincy Jones asked if she wanted to sing “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You”!

Willa: Wow! That’s awesome! I love that!

So back to masks, I was really happy when this local group started organizing volunteers to sew facemasks. Working on them helped me personally as I tried to process everything that was happening, it helped local health care workers, and it provided a wonderful opportunity for community bonding in a scary time.

Lisha: I think that’s great, Willa.

Willa: I do too – a real win-win-win situation. But then this odd backlash hit, and I just couldn’t understand it, Lisha. I mean, health care specialists were trying to give guidance on how we could protect ourselves and our communities from this terrible disease. How could anyone possibly be against that? It really made me wonder what was causing such a strong reaction….

Lisha: I was similarly perplexed. For me, the mask is just a simple courtesy we can extend to others. I am more than happy to do something that might keep someone from getting sick.

Willa: Exactly. To my mind, Dan Levy says it best in this short clip:

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A post shared by Dan Levy (@instadanjlevy) on

As he says, “Imagine seeing it not as an infringement on your freedom but rather the simplest, easiest act of kindness that you can do.”

Lisha: Great clip! Thanks for sharing that. It definitely reflects my own views on the topic. But not everyone sees it that way. Some really do perceive the mask as a threat to their individual freedom, as if they are being forced into a display of submission, fear, or weakness.

It makes me wonder if the mask somehow represents a kind of collective weakness and insecurity as well. Has the mask become a symbol of our failure to contain and control the virus? Does the mask signal a collective “loss of face” in terms of American exceptionalism?

Willa: That’s interesting, Lisha. I hadn’t thought of it that way, as a literal “loss of face,” but it makes sense. I’d just been thinking about masks in general, and why they seem to make a lot of people uncomfortable, even hostile. It makes me wonder if some of the anger and scorn directed against Michael Jackson was generated simply by his habit of wearing masks.

Lisha: I think you are onto something, Willa. I know the more I think about the way Michael Jackson wore masks, the more intriguing it gets.

Willa: It really does. You know, when I think of masks – not surgical masks specifically, but masks more generally – I tend to think of Halloween, because that’s the one time when most American kids wear masks. Looked at from that perspective, masks are fun and playful, an important element of a time when kids get to run around in the dark and engage in community-sanctioned games of pretend and imagination. You’re even rewarded for participating with lots of free candy – what could be better than that? And I tend to think that Michael Jackson saw masks in that kind of fun, playful way.

Lisha: It’s spooky and fun all at the same time! Very much like Michael Jackson’s engagement with the horror film genre.

Willa: That’s a great analogy, Lisha. Michael Jackson and others who worked with him, such as John Landis and Rick Baker, have all said that he didn’t like movies that were too frightening or gruesome, and that isn’t what he made. Instead, his take on the horror movie genre is more entertaining than scary, though those films are also doing something really important and complicated, as we’ve talked about a number of times with Thriller and Ghosts. And I think his use of masks is kind of similar. That’s an interesting connection, Lisha.

Masks also remind me of Carnival, an ancient ancestor of Halloween whose roots go back thousands of years. Looked at in that way, masks also signify something far more transgressive – a moment of serious disruption to the established social order. So in that sense, I can see how masks might be threatening. And Michael Jackson was definitely disruptive to social norms. In fact, I see strong echoes of Carnival and this kind of turbulent, unruly use of masks in his Dangerous album cover.


Lisha: That’s interesting Willa. I’d love to better understand how Michael Jackson fits into that history as an artist. Especially now, as we see how the mask is stirring up all kinds of cultural and political meanings.

Willa: I would love to know more about that too. And you’re right, now is a perfect time to dive into that history, and also consider the symbology of surgical masks in particular. Surgical masks are a specific subspecies of mask that signify in unique ways. What I mean is, you can wear a surgical mask as part of a doctor costume, and it’ll perform similar functions of disguise and masquerade as other masks. But it will also carry specific connotations that complicate how we read and respond to it. And of course, Michael Jackson often wore surgical masks, and many commentators struggled with how to interpret that.

Lisha: You are reminding me of a paper I read in grad school titled “Masked States” by Mel Y. Chen. It really sent me down a rabbit hole as far as thinking about Michael Jackson and his use of masks. The paper was written in response to an earlier epidemic, H1N1, and it wasn’t about art per se, but about the cultural and political implications of the mask. Chen uses the analysis of masks to make a much broader point about how state power exploits narratives of “protection” and “threat.” For example, think of how the burqa played a role in constructing a racialized threat to legitimize the US “War on Terror.”

But when I look back at my reading notes on this paper, they aren’t really focused on state power at all, but on loads of Michael Jackson images!

Willa: That’s funny, Lisha!

Lisha: Ok, so I’m easily distracted thinking about Michael Jackson! And no doubt that’s an understatement. But the paper rehearsed so many of the complexities of mask symbolization, starting with the surgical mask, that it really got me thinking more deeply about the ways Michael Jackson used them as a performative device.

The essay starts with a discussion of a 2011 hospital poster that asks visitors to comply with the CDC’s mask-wearing guidelines for H1N1. The poster is clearly meant to be reassuring––a gentle reminder that masks are a form of safety and protection, used to “help protect our patients, visitors, and employees.”

H1N1 poster

It also reassures visitors that the sight of a masked person doesn’t necessarily mean that individual is infected with H1N1. The whole gist of it is this: please wear a mask for protection, and if you see someone in a mask, don’t assume that person is a threat.

This creates a question in my mind. Although the mask is intended as a form of protection, is there a disconnect when it comes to its symbolic resonance? Does the mask communicate safety and protection, or does it function as a warning sign of deadly infection, illness, disability, and threat, which generates fear?

Willa: Or maybe both – a symbol of necessary protection as well as a scary reminder of the threat of this new disease, H1N1? In other words, perhaps one reason a surgical mask is such a fraught symbol is because it carries both of those contradictory meanings simultaneously – both reassuring and threatening at the same time.

Lisha: I think that’s exactly it, Willa. There are two messages and they are polar opposites: protection and threat. Why else would it be necessary to assure people that it’s ok to wear and see masks? Isn’t the poster itself an acknowledgement that masks are broadly understood as unsettling?

Willa: Those are good questions, Lisha. You’re right – it doesn’t seem like the hospital would have gone to the trouble to put up those reassuring signs about how to interpret the sight of a mask unless they realized some patients were uncomfortable about them.

Lisha: Another key takeaway for me is that not only is the mask polarizing, it is also specular, meaning how we interpret the mask, as protection or threat, is self-reflective, like a mirror. A mask invites opposing interpretations, and those interpretations become like a mirror of one’s own personal feelings and attitudes.

Willa: That’s a really important point, Lisha. As we’ve seen recently, surgical masks have come to resonate as a powerful political symbol, and in that context they seem to be amplifying pre-existing cultural divides, with a small but vocal minority opposing them on ideological grounds.

Lisha: That’s so true.

Willa: The intensity of our reactions may also reflect our particular life experiences. For example, surgeons probably see a surgical mask in rather utilitarian terms, about as meaningful as their car keys – simple familiarity has muted their emotional response. The same might be true of someone with severe allergies. I live in an area with a very high pollen count in the spring, and it’s pretty common to see people wearing surgical masks then – when they’re driving, shopping, walking the dog, mowing the grass. You see people wearing masks all around you for about six weeks each spring, and then they disappear like daffodils once allergy season is over.

That experience of seeing surgical masks so often in such everyday settings can drain them of some of their symbolic weight. However, for those who never see a surgical mask outside a medical drama on TV, I’m sure it can feel pretty alien and scary.

Lisha: That makes sense to me. Anything that’s unfamiliar or out of the ordinary could potentially cause some apprehension or anxiety.

That said, here’s a photo I’ve been thinking about! It’s from a Santa Maria courtroom, taken November 13, 2002, when Michael Jackson appeared in court to testify in a breach of contract lawsuit.

Santa Maria

Had he just come from the hospital or had a medical procedure? Is he protecting himself from illness or an environmental threat? Is the mask hiding some kind of disfigurement, like The Elephant Man or The Phantom of the Opera, two stories he claimed to identify with? Or, is Michael Jackson simply being dramatic and mysterious and bizarre just for the heck of it?

Willa: From what I’ve been able to gather, those kinds of questions created a lot of buzz in the courtroom that day….

Lisha: It certainly did. And it’s important to give it some historical context. This photo was taken just one year after 9/11, so there were a lot of debates at the time about facial recognition as a form of security.

Willa, I think you delved into this a bit in M Poetica, about how the judge ordered the mask to be removed in the courtroom?

Willa: I talked about it briefly, but there’s a lot more there to unpack. It did create a very specific kind of courtroom drama that day, as if Michael Jackson was about to be officially “unmasked” by the judge’s order. But I wonder if he anticipated that, because removing the mask did not reveal him so much as deepen the mystery since he had bandages on underneath – a kind of double masking.

What’s most interesting to me about all this is how intensely some people wanted to unmask him, to see behind the mask. And I have to say, it really amuses me how skilled he was at thwarting that, while also playing with it – kind of like a fan dance with facial masks.

Lisha: It’s really fascinating, and I love your analysis, Willa. But I have to say it bothers me that there was so little consideration for medical issues that might have genuinely required accommodation. I’m being critical of the press here, but I am being especially critical of the judge, who should have had a more sophisticated understanding of medical privacy.

Willa: That’s true.

Lisha: But perhaps the most baffling thing for me about that courtroom scene is how Michael Jackson seemed on board with just letting all these issues of health, both physical and mental, float around in an indeterminate fashion. One day he’s wearing a mask and a bandage for the cameras, the next day he’s not and there’s no sign that there was ever a wound there to begin with, and it’s like, what mask? Was someone wearing a mask?

A former bodyguard recently claimed the surgical mask was all a big publicity stunt – not that I have much confidence in former employees who sell stories to tabloids.

Willa: Actually, I’m happy to see people defending him, regardless of venue. And this bodyguard, Matt Fiddes, who worked with Michael Jackson for 10 years, has important things to say – about his use of masks, the molestation accusations, and his life in general out of the public eye. If the more reputable news outlets won’t carry what Fiddes has to say, then he might as well turn to the tabloids. At least his words are getting recorded in print somewhere. When historians look back at Michael Jackson’s life, art, and career – and I think he will be the focus of significant reevaluation in the future – this kind of first-hand account will be important to have.

Lisha: I can’t argue with that.

Willa: So I didn’t mean to jump on a soapbox. Sorry about that! You were talking about how Michael Jackson used face masks in unexpected and confusing ways….

Lisha: Well, I’m just thinking about how we all know there are industry expectations that celebrities try to adhere to when going out in public, especially concerning appearance standards. After all, in many ways they are a commercial product that is being sold, so they have to look the part. Tabloids play the game of trying to catch them off guard, publishing photos of celebs without makeup or with a few extra pounds. But Michael Jackson’s “startext” (all the various elements that make up a celebrity’s public persona) is radically different, and doesn’t conform to anything I can think of before or since. At times, he seemed to go out of his way to get caught off guard.

Willa: Or to intentionally disrupt or complicate his “startext,” to borrow that terminology. I mean, there are celebrities who have intentionally cultivated a bad boy image – lots of rock bands have done that, like the Rolling Stones, for example – but that’s fundamentally different from what Michael Jackson was doing. Like you, I can’t think of anything quite like it by any other artist, and I find it absolutely fascinating.

But you’re right, Lisha – while I find this courtroom scene kind of amusing, we have to be careful not to treat it too lightly. The fact that this was happening only a year after September 11th adds a lot of cultural weight to the question of “unmasking” those who could be perceived as a threat.

Lisha: I remember a lot of debate about Muslim women wearing head and facial coverings for religious and cultural reasons. Should they be required to display their faces to TSA or other law enforcement officials to prove their identity? Is the government justified in asking someone to remove head and facial coverings for security purposes?

Willa: I remember that too, and it raised some complicated legal and cultural questions – especially for those who might be prejudicially seen as a threat, no matter how false or unfair that perception might be.

Navigating this issue of facial coverings can still be pretty complicated, as we’ve seen in recent discussions about the CDC guidelines to wear a facemask. For example, there has been some online debate among black men about which is more dangerous: to forego a mask and risk getting infected with the coronavirus, or wear a mask and risk getting shot by police. A Washington Post article addressed this after a Walmart security guard accosted two black men and forced them to leave the store because they were wearing protective masks.

Lisha: It’s so painful to hear this, although not entirely surprising. You’ve just pinpointed how strongly white privilege is associated with wearing a mask. Willa, earlier you mentioned that allergy sufferers in your area commonly wear masks in the spring. I’m wondering if black and brown men in your area are as comfortable with that practice as the white neighbors seem to be?

Willa: Well, that’s a good question, Lisha. I don’t have any sort of definitive answer to that, but it’s an important question to think about.

Lisha: The academic paper I referred to earlier addresses this point with a fascinating reference to Julianne Moore’s character in the movie Safe, directed by Todd Haynes. This 1995 film is generating some interest again in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

Moore plays a white suburban housewife who is afflicted with a mysterious environmental illness. The film dramatizes quite well what is already culturally understood: an upper middle-class white suburban woman never has to fear her medical mask will be interpreted as criminal intent, the way a black man does when buying groceries at Walmart during a pandemic. And she will never be treated with the same suspicion that a Muslim woman wearing the burqa is either, who might be viewed in terms of violence, terror, or even a strategy to legitimize war. In each instance, race (which is always tangled up with gender, class, religion, national origin, etc.) overrides the coding of the mask in a way that I would argue is a threat to democracy itself, like the hooded mask of the KKK.


And at the same time Moore’s character illustrates the racialized privilege to wear a mask – she is also emblematic of the stigma associated with medical issues that code as effeminizing weakness, as opposed to say a war injury, which is valorized as macho.

Willa: Wow, Lisha, you’ve just landed at an intersection where several complicated and somewhat contradictory cultural narratives collide. And as you point out, race and machismo play out in interesting ways in all this.

Lisha: Yes, and it’s especially interesting in the context of health.

Willa: That’s true. It just seems painfully ironic to me that many black men feel constrained about wearing a mask because it may be perceived as too threatening – too powerful, too criminal, too badass – while a lot of white men (and some white women as well) seem to resist wearing a mask because they feel it signals weakness. This even includes world leaders, who are getting advice from some of the world’s best medical experts and therefore should know the importance of masks in controlling the spread of airborne diseases. The title of a recent article in The Guardian sums this up pretty well: “Putin, Johnson, Bolsonaro and Trump: Men Too Macho for Masks.”

David Marcus applauds this kind of macho stance in The Federalist, in an opinion piece with its own declarative title: “The President of the United States Should Not Wear a Mask.” Marcus believes that Trump “is projecting American strength and health at a time when strong leadership is needed.” The implication is that wearing a mask would make Trump look weak.

Of course, Superman didn’t seem to have that problem! Or Batman, or Spiderman, or lots of other superheroes. But maybe all those bulging muscles were a type of overcompensation – a visual signal that they were strong despite wearing a mask….

Lisha: Good point, Willa! And is it just me, or does all this talk of leadership and strength unmask some real insecurity in terms of masculinity and power?

Willa: Well, that’s a very good question, Lisha. Actually, Amanda Taub does a great job of questioning the logic behind this kind of macho posturing, and Marcus’s argument in particular, in a New York Times article. Taub writes that “Marcus’s analysis is … consistent with the traditional idea of a strong American leader: one who projects power, acts aggressively and above all shows no fear, thereby cowing the nation’s enemies into submission.” Or as she succinctly summarizes, “In other words, a strong leader is one who conforms to the swaggering ideals of masculinity.”

However, as Taub points out, countries led by women have been more successful in addressing the pandemic than those led by men. In general, they’ve had significantly lower rates of infection and mortality. Taub’s point seems to be that “swaggering ideals of masculinity” – both by world leaders and by the people who vote for them – can actually get in the way of addressing the challenges posed by the novel coronavirus.

As interesting as this is – and I must say, I think it deserves a lot more attention – what really struck me most about all this is that a mask seems to be interpreted in radically different ways depending on who’s wearing it. If you’re a black man, it conveys a threatening kind of strength, menace, criminality. But if you’re a white man, it apparently conveys the opposite: weakness, vulnerability, even perhaps a kind of facelessness or loss of identity.

Lisha: I think what we’re seeing is how race actually overcodes the mask.

Willa: Yes, that’s it exactly, Lisha. So what does it mean when Michael Jackson wears a mask?

Lisha: Hang in there with me, Willa, because I think there is another piece of the puzzle that is essential to understanding Michael Jackson’s mask and the intersection of race and health. I just revisited Raphael Raphael’s essay “Dancing with the Elephant Man’s Bones” in Christopher Smit’s book Grasping the Spectacle. It is an amazing piece on its own, but I am finding it especially revealing when placed in conversation with the Chen essay.

Raphael argues that health and “the crisis of the body” are key to understanding Michael Jackson’s radically fluid and unstable startext, citing his frequent use of the surgical mask as well as other visual signs of disability. I’m thinking wheelchairs, crutches, arm braces, finger tape, hyperbaric chambers, his fascination with Joseph Merrick, his associations with Dave Dave, Ryan White, Bela Farkas, Make-A-Wish Foundation, hospital visits, etc.

Willa: Wow, Lisha. I feel like I’ve been pretty slow on the uptake. You’ve referred to the health/disability symbolism of medical masks several times now, and it’s just kind of blown right past me. I guess I don’t typically think of Michael Jackson’s use of masks in those terms – as signalling poor health or physical vulnerability – because I’m so focused on them as an aesthetic choice and even a type of street theater.

But when you place it in context with “other visual signs of disability,” as you catalogue so well – the finger tape, wrist braces, etc – I see what you mean. There does seem to be a significant symbolic language centered on bodily injury and disease, as well as resulting medical interventions, that Michael Jackson tapped into for decades. Wow. That’s opening up a whole new way of seeing this, Lisha. I think I’m finally starting to catch on to what you’ve been saying. Sorry to be so slow!

Lisha: You’re not slow, Willa! To be honest, this is all just unfolding for me too.

Raphael tightly weaves Michael Jackson’s multivalence and cultural/political power with race, health, and his study of P.T. Barnum. I don’t think I fully understood Barnum’s exploitation of race and health before, perhaps because so much of it is offensive and treated as better off forgotten.

Barnum clearly understood America’s fascination with race and disability and turned it into a wildly successful form of entertainment. For example, his most popular performer, Joice Heth, was an elderly black woman who was said to be the 161-year-old nursemaid of George Washington. Of course she wasn’t. But the highly charged mix of blackness and disability, along with a wildly false claim, generated huge interest and publicity. Raphael argues that Heth was so popular at the time, we can think of her as the first international celebrity performer.

Barnum also caused a full blown moral panic by claiming he had discovered a weed that caused black people to turn white––all while exhibiting black people who, like Michael Jackson, suffered from vitiligo. The claim was explosive. As Raphael writes:

For a culture in which racial binaries were sacred, this was a dangerous claim indeed. If the most reliable visual marker for distribution of power could suddenly be made fluid, the whole social order (at least symbolically) was under threat.

Eureka. Isn’t that the key to understanding the public fascination with unmasking Michael Jackson? Isn’t that what everyone wanted to know? Was Michael Jackson altering/destroying his skin and nose with some kind of race-changing, freak science plastic surgery, threatening cultural constructs of race and power – all while suspiciously claiming a disability: vitiligo?

Willa: Ha! That’s funny…

Lisha: And it’s like the surgical mask heightened the mystery and suspense around it, acting as a kind of super multiplier for all these projections of race and health. However you interpret it, this was an extraordinary spectacle.

Willa: Oh, absolutely. White America, especially, was absolutely transfixed by the way Michael Jackson challenged popular notions of race, particularly the idea that race is something biologically determined and immutable. I mean, white Americans couldn’t seem to wrap their minds around what was happening, or tear their eyes away from the ever-shifting spectacle of his face. I honestly see this illusory spectacle as perhaps his most important work of art.

But oh my gosh, Lisha – I have never thought of his use of masks as a “super multiplier,” focusing and intensifying the public gaze. Wow. Just wow. I’m going to need a moment to process this. You have given me so much to think about.

Lisha: I’m sitting here trying to process that too! And remember Chen?

Willa: Who wrote about the H1N1 masks?

Lisha: Yes. Of all the masks that Chen explores, perhaps the most threatening is the nonphysical mask we can’t actually see, like the mask of normalcy that the sociopath wears, or the mask of duplicity that Michael Jackson describes in the song “Behind the Mask”:

You sit around and I watch your face
I try to find the truth but that’s your hiding place

It is this nonphysical mask, as it relates to power, that I want to relate to Raphael’s analysis as well as your observation of “how intensely some people wanted to unmask [Michael Jackson], to see behind the mask.”

Exactly one year after the dramatic unmasking of Michael Jackson in the Santa Maria courtroom in 2002, he was arrested on criminal charges. Raphael surprisingly cites his arrest as evidence of his tremendous cultural and political power, in that the intensity of the American media spectacle it generated that day totally eclipsed another important international news story. On November 20, 2003, as many as 300,000 people gathered in London to protest President George W. Bush and the US “War on Terror” – one of the largest protests in British history.

These protesters were questioning the legitimacy of the Iraq war as well as Britain’s complicity in the US effort. As President Bush met with Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Queen, the world watched as protesters unmasked American economic and military might, destroying a statue of George W. Bush that mocked the US removal of an Iraqi statue of Sadam Hussein. But while the international press was busy covering this massive show of political resistance, the American press seemed more interested in a state effort to unmask Michael Jackson’s floating, indeterminate identity, attempting to define it and permanently fix it once and for all as a dangerous, racialized, criminal “threat.”

Willa: Whoa. Let me see if I’m following this correctly. So Raphael is suggesting that Michael Jackson himself became a mask for the Bush-Cheney administration, or the power of the state more broadly? And Michael Jackson’s arrest was a way to reaffirm state power at a time when it was threatened by the growing protests against the invasion of Iraq?

Lisha: Raphael isn’t claiming politics of distraction or any kind of media coordination to bury a politically damaging story. He is just saying that the American media spectacle of Michael Jackson’s arrest––understood as the government’s attempt to “fix” Michael Jackson’s radically unstable startext by aligning it with tropes of black criminality––totally eclipsed the news of one of the largest protests in the world, one that exposed the frailties of US power:

     While American newspaper covers were saturated with the arrest of the “King of Pop,” papers throughout much of the world featured the single most spectacular image from the protests in London: the felling of a giant plaster statue of Bush.

     … [S]ome wondered what the political impact for Bush and the larger “War on Terror” would be from this potentially humiliating spectacle of resistance. There were no such discussions in the dominant American press, where the protests received little attention…. Consequently, in the United States, the event is not widely remembered by American citizens, certainly not as well as Jackson’s arrest the same day.

That’s true for me because I honestly don’t remember the London protest at all, though I do have a memory of Michael Jackson in handcuffs performing the staged perp walk, and I wasn’t a fan at the time. Using Chen’s logic, one might argue that Michael Jackson’s arrest actually masked the insecurities of the Bush administration, with Tom Sneddon’s narrative to “protect” the public from a dangerous “threat.”

All protest is ultimately a media strategy that attempts to focus attention on an issue or cause. However, on that particular day, even 300,000 protesters in London, along with the Prime Minister, the Queen, and the US president, couldn’t compete with the American media spectacle of Michael Jackson’s arrest.

Willa: When you look at it that way, I can see Raphael’s point. I mean, it’s pretty amazing that media coverage of Michael Jackson’s arrest was able to knock one of the largest protests in the world off the front page. Raphael is right – that is a testament of Michael Jackson’s cultural power … though it may also be true that American media were not that enthusiastic about covering the protests.

I have to say, though, that initially it felt like a bit of a stretch to draw a connection between Iraq war protests in London and Michael Jackson’s arrest in California. But as I think about it, it’s true that in moments of crisis, whether from real or perceived threats, there has typically been a kind of national contraction in the US – a curtailing of civil liberties, an increase in bigotry and xenophobia, a growing intolerance to difference of all kinds, including the targeting of popular artists. Several examples spring to mind. There’s the execution of the Rosenbergs during the Cold War, and Charlie Chaplin’s paternity trial and banishment from the US at about the same time. Or the Kent State shootings during the Vietnam War, and John Lennon’s banishment not long after that.

And Michael Jackson was a much bigger threat to the established social order – to white male supremacy in particular – than Chaplin or Lennon were. So the more I think about it, the more it makes sense to me. I can see how there would be an urge to “fix” or contain or neutralize the threat Michael Jackson represented, especially at that time of perceived national crisis following September 11th and the invasion of Iraq. And I mean that in the Foucaultian sense of diffuse mechanisms of power, not in a premeditated conspiracy type way.

Lisha: I think that’s exactly it.

Willa: Lisha, your take on Raphael’s article was so intriguing to me that I went back and reread it, and based on some of the things you’ve been pointing out, I was also struck by this passage:

In these widely circulated images [of his arrest], Jackson as (at least potentially) symbolic revolutionary symbol was “fixed” as pathological at precisely the same moment resistance itself was pathologized. So it was in such a moment that this constantly changing body, perhaps the ur-text of otherness, was politically contained.

So in the mainstream press anyway, Michael Jackson as a “revolutionary symbol” was finally unmasked, and what was revealed behind the mask as something pathological – a pedophile – thereby neutralizing or “containing” him as a cultural threat. And Raphael suggests this same process happened to the war protests also. As he writes, “resistance itself was pathologized.” But the pathology that was revealed by this symbolic unmasking was false.

Lisha: Yes! It’s like who unmasked who? Where is the true site of this pathology?

In 2005, the 14 not guilty verdicts unmasked Tom Sneddon and the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s office, in “an absolute and complete victory for Michael Jackson, utter humiliation and defeat for Thomas Sneddon” to quote CNN.  It’s also worth noting that during that trial, yet another judge decided Michael Jackson’s medical issues were all just a big show, and ordered him to leave a hospital emergency room to appear in court. So he did. In the pajamas he was wearing when he was rushed to the ER.

After the trial, Michael Jackson leaves the US and moves to Bahrain, on the advice of counsel that it was not safe to remain in his own home because of the threat posed by law enforcement.

And whoops, he is at it again:


Willa: I have to say, I love this image, and also this quote from the manager of a theater he frequented in Bahrain, taken from an old GQ article:

“The first time he come here, he’s not dressed like woman,” he says. “He come in like regular person.… But people recognize, ask to make a few pictures. So then he come with abaya like woman! But he don’t know how to put on. Grace [Jackson’s nanny] she come in here and ask me how do you put on this. I tell her, ‘Michael have man body, this for woman body.’ I fix Michael’s dress!”

I love the fact that in these brief glimpses, Michael Jackson still seems playful and creative – unbroken and unbowed. He’s still boldly stirring the pot, which is especially remarkable since it’s during the thick of the Iraq War.

Lisha: And when finally returning to the United States in preparation for “This Is It” (which Rita Alves connects to Barnum’s wildly popular attraction “What Is It?”), I see no signs of Michael Jackson slowing down with the mask symbolization, and absolutely zero fear or insecurity about wearing them. In fact, he’s kind of leaning into it:


Dan Reed’s wildly popular Barnum-esque spectacle of race and (mental) health, Leaving Neverland, provided another breath-taking display of Michael Jackson’s cultural and political power in 2019, in that the intensity and the fascination continues a full ten years after his death. I do sense another unmasking coming soon, but I doubt it’s going to be Michael Jackson.

About Dancing with the Elephant contributors

Joie Collins is a founding member of the Michael Jackson Fan Club (MJFC). She has written extensively for MJFC, helping to create the original website back in 1999 and overseeing both the News and History sections of the website. Over the years she conducted numerous interviews on behalf of MJFC and also directed correspondence for the club. She also had the great fortune to be a guest at Neverland. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was three years old. Lisha McDuff is a classically trained professional musician who for 30 years made her living as a flutist, performing in orchestras and for major theatrical touring productions. Her passion for popular musicology led her to temporarily leave the orchestra pit and in June 2013 she received a Master’s degree in Popular Music Studies from the University of Liverpool. She’s continuing her studies at McMaster University, where she is working on a major research project about Michael Jackson, with Susan Fast as her director. Willa Stillwater is the author of M Poetica: Michael Jackson's Art of Connection and Defiance and "Rereading Michael Jackson," an article that summarizes some of the central ideas of M Poetica. She has a Ph.D. in English literature, and her doctoral research focused on the ways in which cultural narratives (such as racism) are made real for us by being "written" on our bodies. She sees this concept as an important element of Michael Jackson's work, part of what he called social conditioning. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was nine years old.

Posted on May 28, 2020, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Just wanted to give everyone a head’s up that someone complained to Facebook that our website is “abusive.” So all of our posts (except one from 2012 – not sure why that one was spared) have been removed from our Facebook page, and our website can’t be shared on Facebook.

    I realize we sometimes talk about difficult issues here. In fact, that’s one reason why we called our site “Dancing with the Elephant” – because we take on difficult topics. Joie wrote about this in our very first post back in August 2011:

    For me, not only are elephants amazing animals, but they also symbolize a “touchy subject.” A difficult conversation that people may wish to avoid. For example, I’m a Black American … and my husband is White. He and I often talk about different racial issues and it’s wonderful because we can do so in a very open and honest way without the fear of offending anyone or hurting each other’s feelings. … The point is, sometimes people (of all races) don’t really know how to tackle the uncomfortable topics, so instead they “avoid the elephant in the room.”

    Well, I think we can all agree that when it comes to Michael Jackson there are a lot of uncomfortable topics that might come up. Even in a blog that focuses on his art. And Willa and I are not going to avoid those elephants. Instead, we’ve decided to dance with them!

    So from the very beginning of this blog, we have pledged to take on “touchy subjects” and not avoid “the elephant in the room.” However, we have always worked hard to maintain an atmosphere of openness and respect, where everyone can feel safe sharing their perspectives, even when we strongly disagree with one another.

    We are researching how to appeal this decision, and we will keep you posted. In the meantime, those of you who follow us through Facebook will not receive notifications when we publish new blog posts. You can still subscribe through WordPress, however, and receive notifications that way.

    Thank you so much for all your support over the years,

  2. Dear Willa, Joie, Lisha and all others who contribute to this wonderful blog,
    I’m shocked that they removed these valuable contributions from FB. That says a lot… For me this is the most valuable content and I was very happy about yesterday’s post. The most dignified way to talk about Michael Jackson and topics concerning him. Thanks for coming back!

  3. Harriet Manning

    Thank you Willa and Lisha for such a thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I’ve been working through the DWTE archives lately and re-enjoying them very much, and it’s wonderful to see that you continue with such dedication. Michael Jackson’s skill at relevance never ceases to amaze and inspire, and this post provides an insightful exploration into the latest example of his endurance and ubiquity. He boldly rests in power yet ‘rest’ is what he just does not seem to do: he’s pulling our strings, even at the most unexpected moments, forcing us to look and I’m sure will continue to do so for a long time yet to come.

    • Hi Harriet. It’s great to hear from you again! Thank you for the kind words – it felt really good to be writing about Michael Jackson again.

      As you say, his “skill at relevance never ceases to amaze and inspire.” Because of that relevance, his work always seems to give me a pathway to process the things I’m working through, whether they are personal or global in scale. I was doing a yoga class online this morning, and at one point the yoga teacher began singing “You are Not Alone” – a perfect message for the pandemic, when we are all being encouraged to self-isolate.

      Take care, and thank you again.

  4. Thanks for returning to the blog with such a wonderful deep dive into “the mask.” You explore so many rich avenues here. I need to think it all over a lot more but just to note now that while we more simple and unknown people don’t have to worry about our privacy because nobody is beating on our door, ringing our bell trying to do interviews and put us on TV at every opportunity, that was not the case for Michael Jackson. So I’m just wondering if there is a more simple explanation for the mask—that he was protecting his privacy, which of which he had very little when he went out in public. I realize that’s just one part of the complex nexus of meanings around wearing a mask but I think for Michael Jackson his privacy was very important to him and this was one means of attaining it, and of course, he did it with style and grace. The Dangerous cover is interesting because of the ornate mask, and also because it makes his eyes so apparent, highlighted, and as we know, Michael‘s eyes were such an important part of his appearance and his message as the one who sees, the seer, the visionary.

    Good luck with FB. I got so disgusted with them over the last few years that I gave basically stopped using it. This is a particularly egregious example of what FB is doing with selling people’s data on one hand and censoring or banning them for their content on the other.

    • Hi indigenous. Yes, I think you are absolutely right – the mask helped him protect his privacy when he went out in public, and helped protect his children’s privacy as well. I agree completely.

      I think it also must have been a strain to have to be Michael Jackson all the time – to know that people were watching him and judging him and how well he performed that persona every time he stepped outside – and the mask provided a bit of respite from that.

      But as with many areas of Michael Jackson’s life and art, I think wearing a mask performed multiple functions at once. I think there was an element of mystification. As his bodyguard, Matt Fiddes, remembered, “He would say he wanted his life to be the greatest mystery on Earth,” and Fiddes claims his use of masks was a big part of that. And there were other factors as well, as Lisha and I tried to explore in the post.

      So I don’t think it was simply one thing or the other. I think there were a number of motivations at play – some personal, as you point out, and some provocative – and the intense public reactions to his masks supports that reading, I think. But I agree with you that protecting his privacy was a big part of it.

  5. Dear Willa and Lisha:
    So fabulous to read your cogent, pungent, fascinating thoughts once again on all things MJ and how those many (seemingly unrelated BUT…) facets of his life continue to relevantly radiate out into our cultural struggles. You both go in so many directions at once, my mind starts to spin.
    (I can’t wait until your wonderful minds tackle the rather new but equally bizarrely choice saga of Kanye West and the 2020 election!)
    PS: Yahoo deleted your email as soon as I tried to open your latest message in my email account. Just enough time to see who sent it before it vanished. How’s it feel to be considered so “Dangerous”?!
    Adore you both. Stay safe.

    • Oh no! I didn’t realize that, Chris – that we were banned from Yahoo Mail. I know that our Twitter account wasn’t working so our last post didn’t go out automatically, as it usually does. Lisha just fixed that yesterday. There do seem to be a lot of funny things happening with our accounts recently. I like your suggestion that in some way it’s a badge of honor. We are “Dangerous”!

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