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Reality TV has become obsessed with disguise, from The Masked Singer to Alter Ego to Sexy Beasts

  • "Call it camp-ouflage," says Megan Garber. "The costumes of Sexy Beasts—elastic, protruding, disguising every feature of the wearers’ faces save for their teeth and eyeballs—work primarily to be amusing. (Kelechi the rooster has two wattles that hang from his chin and sway insouciantly as he speaks; several contestants discover what happens when champagne flutes contend with prosthetic snouts.) But the getups also have a philosophical purpose, the show insists: They help the daters see beyond the surface, and perceive the people behind the masks. Invisibility, Sexy Beasts suggests, is a means of vision. If the premise sounds familiar, that might be because it is also the operating principle of The Masked Singer, the disguised-celebrity juggernaut currently in its sixth season on Fox; and of its popular spin-off, The Masked Dancer; and of Alter Ego, the search for 'the world’s first digital superstar,' which debuted this fall. The shows’ main pitch is revelation in reverse: They conceal people in order to explore who they really are. Borrowing elements from drag and cosplay and avatars and Avatar, they explore self-expression at a time when people are more exposed to and more isolated from one another than ever. The genre, in its every-day-is-Halloween excesses, might seem to be sardonic or simply delusional—more evidence, perhaps, of our uniquely whimsical dystopia. But its shows are also engaging with some of the moment’s most elemental questions: about identity; about human presence in digital spaces; about the fate, it is no longer melodramatic to say, of reality itself. Their inanities, in that sense, become revealing. 'Who is that?!' the judges, trying to see the people inside the costumes, regularly agonize on The Masked Singer. The shows argue, absurdly and sometimes accurately, that the answer might come in disguise."

    TOPICS: Sexy Beasts, Alter Ego, The Masked Singer, Reality TV