If you’re the kind who ventures out on foot after dark, you’ve almost certainly noticed a hypnotic blue glow flashing inside windows throughout the neighborhood. And when you see people held captive by a box of moving light, you can’t help but think that humans seem complicit in their own capture—even if you’re no stranger to a great episode of Planet Earth or Arrested Development yourself. Does it matter whether they’re watching American Idol, Mad Men, or Real Housewives?
For decades, people have worried that television and movies would take away the public’s agency, the collective drive to do anything but work and buy things advertised on TV. It’s a justifiable fear. People do seem pretty entrenched in a lifestyle that revolves around working, eating, and watching TV.
Of course, there’s also a history of resistance to this prescribed lifestyle, and not just among academics. Ray Bradbury wrote his 1953 novel, Fahrenheit 451, to caution against “the moronic influence of popular culture through local TV news and the proliferation of giant screens and the bombardment of factoids.” In 1967, Timothy Leary urged a gathering of 30,000 hippies to “turn on, tune in, drop out” (a phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan). Such messages urged audiences to avoid a lifestyle of shallow entertainment and consumption in favor of unmediated experience and action toward positive change.
But money has a way of rendering its critics useless. Now the hippies’ peace sign is converted into profits at big box stores, where workers are underpaid and money is funneled to warmongering presidents. And the purchase of a tie-die rainbow dress from a popular bohemian concept shop might well further the career of a dogmatist politician. From hippie to hipster, attempts at cultural overhaul have been bought, sold, and used against those trying to change the system. What’s a rebel to do?
Some have attempted to fight fire with fire. While punks, hip-hop kids, and culture jammers didn’t invent the art of the remix, they popularized it. On the surface, remixing seems pretty innocent. Take a sample of culture—an instrumental hook, an image, or word from a magazine—cut, paste, and make it your own. Most memes (and their variants) do this for a laugh, but it can be seen as an act of defiance. Those who remix refuse to passively consume. They insist on answering the nebulous assertions of mass media, however small their voices may be. It’s a fine line, though, between remix and copyright infringement.
Enter Anonymous. The group has emerged as a leader in defense of democratic control of information threatened by corporate copyright and money’s influence on Capitol Hill. Anonymous understands the value of open-source culture and has fought to protect it. In its own gesture of sampling, the group turned a mask worn by the fictional protagonist in V for Vendetta into a real-world icon of rebellion. The mask has a complex history of evolving meaning, explains Molly Sauter on HiLobrow, beginning with Guy Fawkes’ involvement in a failed plot to assassinate King James in 1605. Though Fawkes was killed, his legend lived on through folk tradition, a comic book series, and that series’ Hollywood film adaptation. The popularity of the Guy Fawkes mask sold in costume shops post-film was waning when an internet forum playfully revived it to serve as the face of Epic Fail Guy, “a stick figure who failed at everything,” writes Sauter. “It’s unclear whether this association had anything to do with the historical story of Guy Fawkes (whose Gunpowder Plot was, in fact, an EPIC FAIL), or whether it was due simply to the marketing blitz for V for Vendetta. Either way, the initial popularity of the mask within the Anonymous community was directly due to its association with Epic Fail Guy, and only indirectly (if at all) to political sympathy with either the historical Guy Fawkes or V for Vendetta.”
When Anonymous began its sidewalk protest of the Church of Scientology, the mask was worn mockingly to expose the religion as an “epic fail,” suggests Sauter. However, as Anonymous’ actions gained recognition, offline embrace of the mask caused its meaning to shift again:
“The symbolism of the mask itself, adopted by anti-authoritarian protesters from [Occupy Wall Street] to the Arab Spring, seems to have reverted to more closely embody the meaning in the V for Vendetta comics and film. Rather than overtly mocking those targeted by the protesters, the mask (an anarchic folk hero with a smile and curved mustache) serves as a political identifier. The wearer is identified as anti-authoritarian, a member of an online generation that values the freedom of communication and assembly that the internet has so powerfully enabled.”
The meaning of the mask was influenced by many, but controlled by none. It became a sign, a word in the language of resistance. Far from simple imitation, this transformation seems to have happened almost by chance.
Though the mask signifies rebellion, it has not escaped the constructs of copyright and consumption. Nick Bilton of The New York Times points out that every time a mask is purchased, protesters strengthen one of the world’s largest media companies, Time Warner. There is no denying this claim, but Bilton misses the point. Rather than inventing a new icon of resistance, which would in time be packaged for the masses and sold à la peace signs, Che Guevara, and the Obey Giant, protesters have reclaimed an item that media companies had rendered all but meaningless. It’s a product, sure, but it gives dissidents something no advertisement sells: temporary anonymity. In freeing its wearers from identity, the mask also frees them from their individuality, allowing them to be subsumed, for a fearless moment, by a greater cause. It’s almost the reverse of Bilton’s argument—critics of corrupt capitalist practices have found a way to exploit the system, which distributes the face of their protest.
The Guy Fawkes mask is not the only example of this leap from mass media to the streets. In an article for Guernica Rebecca Solnit wrote that a friend arrested at an Occupy protest had posted “Max gave me the Hunger Games salute in jail today. It was awesome,” in a status update on Facebook. “In this way,” writes Solnit, “do fiction and reality meld in misery and triumph […].” It seems people are expanding the vocabulary of the 99 percent, and symbols spread wide by mass media make for a convenient starting point.
The messages contained within film, television, and books inevitably infiltrate public thought and discussion. The more aware we are of their influence, the more control we have over it. In the hands of engaged audiences, mass media have the potential to contribute to a broad language of protest. By using the internet and streets as a public forum, people create and change this language, and the gap between citizen and consumer narrows. Rebellion can be co-opted by consumerism, but the reverse might also be true.
Images, top to bottom: "televisión lado A" by Ángel Raúl Ravelo Rodríguez licensed under Creative Commons; Epic Fail Guy; Anonymous crop, from a 2008 photo with Graham Berry at the Hamburg conference on Scientology, licensed under Creative Commons.