Johnson has seen the light on 'face coverings'. Just not on toxic mask-ulinity | Marina Hyde

From gunslinging Gove to cock-of-the-spads Cummings – there’s no covering up the cost of this performative machismo

“The scientific evidence of face coverings … that’s been growing. So I do think that in shops it’s very important to wear a face covering.” “Face covering”! I wonder if Boris called condoms “penis coverings” when he wasn’t wearing those. Over the past long months of dealing with the coronavirus, perhaps the prime minister has often been forced to point out that he is just one of those guys who is too big for masks. Maybe they cut off his circulation or something. Normally, he might suggest, countries prefer the sensation of being governed by a maskless Boris Johnson. So … this feels like it’s your problem, not his?

Either way, please enjoy these naff little euphemisms from people in authority who can’t quite bring themselves to say the word mask. But do also be aware that we are at a stage where even the most conservative estimates confirm that as a result of the coronavirus, 45,000 British people have passed into the next room/lost their battle/travelled beyond the veil.

For now, this government has executed another U-turn so flawless that even the Russian judge is going to give them a perfect 10. Contrary to everything they said before, masks are now going to become mandatory. Not today, or tomorrow – don’t be stupid – but in 10 days’ time. I guess 24 July is the date when the government’s deal with the coronavirus expires, and we will not be negotiating an extension to it. No ifs, no buts.

So we’re now in a sort of mask transition – or the pandemic equivalent of the Christmas Day truce during the first world war, when instead of trying to kill each other, we played football with the virus in no man’s land. Or in Boots, or wherever. An equally sporting reading is that we’re giving the disease a head start. Matt Hancock has fired the starting gun for the virus, and in 10 days it’ll be our turn to get off those blocks.

With a report commissioned by Johnson’s chief scientific adviser warning a second spike this winter could … create 120,000 further sets of angel wings unless measures are observed, let’s hope that Johnson and his toughs man up and use the word “mask”. At least the UK is not at the levels of toxic mask-ulinity that we have seen in the US. Joe Rogan – a sort of Jordan Peterson for guys who can’t be bothered reading atrocious books – told listeners to his hugely popular podcast: “Masks are for bitches.”

Perhaps the standout example of comically toxic maskulinity came from some guy running for Congress in Florida, who the other day posted a picture of Donald Trump in his mask with the caption: “I don’t wear face masks, but POTUS is the only man who can pull it off and still look intensely masculine.” A tragedy in 106 characters, there.

Everything’s bigger in That America, of course, but we have our own smaller version in the likes of Michael Gove, who on Sunday cast himself as the sort of frontierland gunslinger who insists masks should be a matter of choice. It’s always instructive to hear from Gove, a throwback to the era where chancellors of the duchy of Lancaster were real men. Think of him as the John Wayne of the cabinet office. Even if John Wayne was largely the creation of John Ford, who many think invented his protege’s persona because he was terrified of his own softer side. “Can’t you walk,” Ford yelled at Wayne on the set of Stagecoach, “instead of skipping like a goddamn fairy?” “Can’t you wash?” he screamed at Wayne during another scene. “You’re just dabbing your face!” Of the director’s deep preference for the company of men, Ford’s biographer remarks: “Male bonding reached inordinate proportions”. Having once walked in on something she wasn’t supposed to, Maureen O’Hara’s autobiography is rather more candid in its reading of Ford’s behaviour.

Back to Westminster, regrettably, where male bonding has reached inordinate proportions in Johnson’s government. Men occupy almost all the important roles, with a report by my colleague Heather Stewart last week showing how the latest Whitehall shake-up had put key decisions in the hands of majority-male or entirely male cabinet committees.

Certainly, my abiding memory of the first movie in what could become the longrunning coronavirus franchise is an endless succession of men at the Downing Street podium, all telling us how great everything is, and by tacit extension how great they are. It’s like being governed by that guy shouting down the girl’s ear in the nightclub.

The excruciating posturing has trickled down. Witness Mark Francois, the former TA reservist who last week grandstanded to Britain’s most senior general: “Cummings is going to come down there and sort you out his own way, and you won’t like it”. Oooooooooooooooh!

But yes, much of this performative machismo feels like it flows from the prime minister’s most powerful adviser. For all his data-this and data-that, Dominic Cummings seems to revel in having finally attained a level of power where he can act like he does and people are no longer allowed to laugh. Consequently he is forever playing the big man, and threatening civil servants by saying things like “a hard rain is going to fall”. My attention was recently drawn to a set of pictures of a younger Cummings which originally appeared in Time magazine, in which he is smoking in front of Buckingham Palace. I imagine he felt the mood of these snaps was very James Dean, when in fact it was entirely “LOOK AT ME!!! I AM SMOKING IN FRONT OF BUCKINGHAM PALACE!!!!!!!!”

Cock of the spads, Ma. Or as a friend put it this week: “I feel we are all paying the price for a girl laughing at his poem in sixth form.” It could end up quite a price, all tallies considered. And one that no amount of face-covering – or indeed arse-covering – would be able to mask.

• This article was amended on 15 July 2020. An earlier version referred to a set of pictures a younger Cummings “had commissioned of himself”. In fact the pictures were commissioned by Time magazine.

• Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist


Marina Hyde

The GuardianTramp

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