How The Masked Singer reveals more than celebrity

Original artwork by the evanescent Kate Kohn

Original artwork by the evanescent Kate Kohn

by Kate Kohn

From the kitchen, my roommate screams:

“it’s gotta be Joey Fatone”

We’ve been watching The Masked Singer, and some C-to-D-list celebrity has just wowed a panel of B-list celebrities (featuring the questionable Robin Thicke) with his rendition of a non-descript pop hit while dressed as a rabbit in a straitjacket. While Nick Cannon gives increasingly cryptic hits to the panel, my roommate scrolls through Joey Fatone’s Wikipedia page--“see, he used to host a cooking show, so the carrot makes sense. He’s too big to be JC Chasez.”

My roommate has a few years on me, so I don’t know who JC Chasez is. I barely know who Joey Fatone is (except that he might be this rabbit guy), and I can only name *NSYNC songs so long as they had a second life as memes in the mid-twenty-teens. Though there is still something familiar about this performance. I remember doing it.

Like all digital natives, I grew up with warnings to never reveal my identity to internet strangers. What a load of bull. Under fake, cutesy nicknames, my internet friends and I would talk about our tween angst, the new starter Pokemon, whatever anime we were all watching together. We would follow each other from oekaki boards, to Tumblr, to Twitter. The same, solid group of people, who I knew everything about--except their names.

Sure, I knew Micchi and Kizu and Kino; I knew whose family was moving to a different state, whose parents got divorced, who passed a test they thought they were going to bomb. I knew birthdays, I knew interests, I had the vaguest sense of geography. Accommodating time zones for those in California or Italy wasn’t an issue. We were Always Online, revealing intimate information that stopped short at social security numbers. But I never knew their real names.

The idea of internet friends has advanced a bit. Mutuals, as they’re called on Twitter, can grow close, like siblings even, and never know the name of their dearest friend. This kind of anonymity is freeing for many people. Everything is laid bare emotionally, but stakes are low without a real-world identity.

The principles are the same in The Masked Singer. Celebrities looking to rise from the edge of obscurity ghost-write their own memoirs. They gift spectators clues that are easy enough to dissect with a few minutes of casual Googling. Maybe less if you’ve previously reserved some folds in your brain for celebrity trivia.

The Masked Singer holds a mirror to our avoidant eyes. Internet identities are all curated. Your name, your icon, your font color of choice. To call them masks isn’t revolutionary. But for many people who grew up in tight-knit internet communities, that mask is superficial at best. Underneath the mask is frantic tweets about a late night bout of suicidal ideation, underneath that mask is oversharing on LiveJournal to an audience as anonymous as you deem it to be.

The reflexive, automatic spilling-of-guts complicates internet-era notions of anonymity. Being let into someone’s life without knowing their name is an intimacy from another time. Somewhere between pen pals, or a priest in the confessional, there is no face to imagine as you absorb stories of agony and love. It’s romantic in an age where Tinder accounts can be verified.

When anonymity is performed online, it’s done so with the caveat of “does anyone care?” No. Because the user has become their own persona. That there is someone named Chelsea under the mask of Micchi doesn’t matter, because there is no reward to unmasking users.  Your pseudonym is a challenge to others to respect your boundaries.

You may know this information about me, but you may not act on it. I need your support, not your obsession. But The Masked Singer and its Korean parent King of Masked Singer (미스터리 음악쇼 복면가왕) reward the social impulse to just wanna know. They are voyeuristic, and obtrusive, and they reject the network of unconditional support that anonymous posting constructed. The reveal violates that one plea that mattered: respect my anonymity.

But when the mask does come off, the answer to “does anyone care?” remains the same. No, nobody cares. The participants are struggling ex-celebrities looking to sell their bodies for infomercial work or a bit part on a sitcom that won’t be renewed. It hurts how inconsequential the reveal is. That you wasted an hour to see someone you’ve never heard of underneath. Through that lens, it’s a postmodernist’s dream--that the only reason we care is because we’ve decided we care. It provides a perfect analogy to our current age, where we reveal ourselves drip by drip, but never who we are.