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The harm in mask jokes

The harm in mask jokes
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Influential political commentator and former television host Tomi LahrenTomi Lahren50 Cent calls on followers to vote for Trump citing Biden tax rate plan Mr. President, when did protecting others become unmanly? The harm in mask jokes MORE recently tweeted a joke about presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenFacebook, Twitter CEOs to testify before Senate Judiciary Committee on Nov. 17 Sanders hits back at Trump's attack on 'socialized medicine' Senate GOP to drop documentary series days before election hitting China, Democrats over coronavirus MORE, writing, “Might as well carry a purse with that mask, Joe.”  

Her reasoning for doing so isn’t hard to unravel. As a conservative publicist, she hopes to make Biden look weak, unmanly and wimpy. Biden frequently spotted wearing a mask in public, has been an advocate for widespread mask usage.  

And true enough, he may not be gracing the cover of GQ with his choice of facial coverings.  

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The joke also lends some branding support to the image of President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump, Jared Kusher's lawyer threatens to sue Lincoln Project over Times Square billboards Facebook, Twitter CEOs to testify before Senate Judiciary Committee on Nov. 17 Sanders hits back at Trump's attack on 'socialized medicine' MORE as someone who does not need help or protection. We witnessed this branding effort on full display by the scene of the president ripping off his mask with bravado, while actively contagious.  

Yet, at face value, the joke is flawed.  

Using outdated gender stereotypes, one could argue that Trump is the weaker one because he contracted the deadly virus while Biden stayed healthy. Trump himself used that tactic four years ago when he teased Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBon Jovi to campaign with Biden in Pennsylvania The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 spending wars | Biden looks to clean up oil comments | Debate ratings are in Biden gets late boost with key union endorsement MORE for getting pneumonia during a critical stretch of the 2016 campaign.  

But here’s the deal.   

The joke that Lahren offers is far more hurtful and offensive than a typical political attack. The message it sends are not only outdated but harmful about masculinity and femininity.  

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The real message it sends is this: Men who engage in protective health measures are less than men. They may even be women because women are a weaker and inferior gender and need protection. Real men do not. Only women should proudly wear masks. And men who carry purses or wear masks aren’t really men at all. 

The message implied in the joke is present even though wearing a mask is the number one protective measure against contracting COVID-19, a disease that has killed more than 210,000 Americans. 

Although the tweet is fresh, its message is dated and deadly. And it has been killing men for a long time.

Men’s engagement in riskier behavior and fewer preventive health measures has consistently been proved as one of the key factors leading to their earlier deaths than women. It’s a well-known fact that women tend to outlive men. For example, Harvard Health Publishing outlined that 57 percent of people ages 65 and older are women. By age 85, 67 percent are women. Women live about five years longer on average than men in the U.S. and 7 years longer worldwide.  

Men, for example, are known to avoid things like sunscreen. If we continue to poke fun at men with these kinds of jokes, we can add masks to that list.  

This way of thinking has both an impetus and a following. There are people who, at least initially, are attracted to risk-taking men or those who avoid protecting themselves in situations where simple interventions may keep them alive. They may see such traits initially as attractive, daring, or brave.   

That’s why the political message works, at some level. We tend to want a president who isn’t “covered up” and can “face anything.”  

Who doesn’t want toughness as a characteristic of the president?

Though we may never move completely away from these gendered messages, masculine norms have changed, albeit slowly. In addition to toughness, other valuable qualities apply to male and female leaders. They include empathy, connection and emotional intelligence. And they should include appropriate self-protection and modeling healthy, common-sense health measures.   

Messages around mask-wearing shouldn’t be centered around gender or political affiliation. Certainly, we have learned the virus doesn’t discriminate, although it has proved to be far deadlier for men. Instead, wearing a mask should be about connecting as a community and country in the midst of a pandemic with no clear end in sight. And that’s not particularly funny.  

Aaron B. Rochlen is a professor of educational psychology at The University of Texas at Austin.