Art poster in Lebanon created by Ashekman

By Mariya Mubeen 

Protests and activism are always about a cause, or a change. It involves imagining the world as a better place, even if the ‘better’ changes from protest to protest. At the end of the day, protests represent a group of people coming together to change something and usually this involves the use of imagery, flags and symbology, to either enunciate the message of the protests better or to hold the protest to a standard. This article will be focusing on two fictional characters and their symbology as they relate to two respective protests, to argue that fictional characters and associated symbology, similar to memes, can be a valuable tool to associate within activism and protest efforts. They echo sentiments and encapsulate the woes of the protesters into a resonating cultural figure. The two characters/symbology of characters and their respective protests are as follows: Guy Fawkes mask, worn by V in V for Vendetta by Moore and Lloyd, in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the Joker, specifically from the Joker movie, in the Lebanese protests. The guy Fawkes masks were also seen during the George Floyd protests, especially after the hacker group Anonymous made its appearance in the midst of the protests.

Guy Fawkes was a British soldier who was a part of the gunpowder plot in 1605 that was against the oppression of Roman Catholics in England. He was executed, but his legacy lived on in the Guy Fawkes mask that was designed by David Lloyd as a plot element in the popular graphic novel V for Vendetta. In the graphic novel, the mask is used by the mysterious V with anarchistic tendencies towards a fascist and oppressive political environment. In the graphic novel, V used to be held in a concentration camp by the totalitarian British government and eventually makes a bomb to set it ablaze and escape. He then spends his life plotting to kill the guards that survived, all while wearing the mask to remain anonymous. Because of this association with anonymity, anarchism and the ideology to stand up against and oppressive government, the Guy Fawkes Mask has showed up in many protests all around the world, usually those that are against wealth inequality and corrupt governments.

The Occupy Wall Street movement was a movement started in New York city to protest economic and social inequality, corruption and the influence of corporation on the American government. The movement spread all across the globe as these issues transcended geographical boundaries. The OWS became one of the most popular places that the Guy Fawkes Mask started being used in the context of protests. It became a symbol used all around the world during the OSW and even after. It also became a recognizable symbol of the hacktivist group Anonymous and was used widely during the 2020 BLM protests as well. Masks embodied a few different sentiments that the protesters felt.

Firstly, the mask provided them with anonymity from surveillance cameras, media and the police, thus protecting their identity as they protested the authority. The Guy Fawkes Mask was primarily used for anonymity by V as well. Second, the mask also embodied V’s discontent with the oppressive government, a sentiment echoed in the protests as they protested the accumulation of wealth in the hands of the corrupt as the people suffered. Finally, the masks’ ubiquitous use strike fear into the authority. As large groups of people showed up wearing them, there was a sense of eeriness to the protesters and made onlookers (the police, the media and the authority that inevitable consumed the media). This is again associated with the character V’s way of intimidating the authority as he slowly chipped away at the guards. The symbology of the mask incited fear into those that perpetuated the corruption and inequality that day to day people experienced. These three elements of the Guy Fawkes Mask were used to encapsulate the wants of the protestors, to safely be able to tell their woes, to represent a cause and to show their power in numbers to scare the despotic ruling class.

Occupiers in Guy Fawkes masks camped out at St. Paul’s cathedral (Source: Time Magazine)

The Joker is a very famous DC comics villain who is Batman’s long-term nemesis. He is often depicted as an insane serial killer that enjoys torturing people and terrorizing Gotham City. The new Joker movie takes a different take on the character. In the movies, before he became known as the Joker, Arthur Fleck was a comedian with a disorder that caused him to laugh at in appropriate times and depended on social services for the medication due to poverty. Over the course of the movie, changes in the political system that slashed social services, maltreatment from folks of higher classes (he is attacked by businessmen who work for a wealthy corporation) cause unfortunate ripple effects in his social life. Feeling isolated from those her loves, betrayed by the system and powerless to change any of it, Arthur is slowly nudged onto a violent path.

Around the time this movie was released, Lebanon’s citizens had taken to the streets to protest corruption, economic inequality and the dropping standards of living. Protesters were stirred due to the unnecessary sectarian divides in politics and burning forests that could not be maintained because the ruling class had been lining their pockets instead of investing in the welfare of the country. Due to similar feelings of loss of dignity and neglect from those in power, the Lebanese protestors identified with his plight and donned the face paint themselves. Walls were filled with art or Joker wearing the Lebanese flag on his shirt and Lebanese protesters with joker face paint flocked to the streets. Lebanese artists photoshopped him into images from the protest.

Cynthia Aboujaoude painted her face to resemble the Joker during a protest in downtown Beirut on October 19 (Source: CNN)

The image of Joker embodies three ideas that resonated with the Lebanese. First, it (quite literally) gives a face to the downtrodden. The face of the Joker is embodied by all those that came out to protest. That irrespective of who they are and what sect they belong to, they are all experiencing the same thing, the same issues that the Joker did. They have all lost their dignity, irrespective of who they are. Secondly, it embodies the feeling of powerlessness. The idea of being abandoned by their government, the entity that was responsible to take care of them. The same sentiment experienced by Arthur under the political environment of Gotham City and the concentration of wealth in the hands of the elite as the city devolved into crime and squalor. Finally, it is a representation of the same downtrodden being forced into ugly means to survive because of the way the system is built. The Lebanese people were forced to turn out in masses to protest and sometimes the protests turned violent as people clashed with the police. Similarly, Joker was forced into violent actions as he slowly lost his grip on sanity due to a lack of medication. In both cases, the trail of chaos leads directly to a greedy elite class, in Gotham it is the Wayne Corporation and in Lebanon it is the politicians and its affiliates.

These cases are not the only ones that express the use of fictional characters and symbology to express their views. There’s the Punisher skull that is often used by white supremacist and the Blue Lives Matter counter ‘movement’ (for lack of a better word), an anti-hero who often killed his victim, thus implying that the police were willing to do the same. The symbol of the Punisher was widely displayed by police in the form of bandanas or flags, disseminating the chilling prospect that those who opposed them would be killed. Another example is the three fingered salute from Hunger Games, a fictional symbol of protest against the elites living in the Capitol with excess and opulence, being used in the Thailand protests this year to fight for democracy. These fictional characters and their symbology are multipurpose and multi-faceted, which make them a valuable tool, both use physically in the form of body protests by using masks and face paint.

The symbols are immediately recognizable and therefore act as a visual tool to recruit those individuals that resonate with the message and alienate those that do not. This helps protestors build a visual brand and expedite recruitment for the activism as those that identify with the symbol in the context of the protest will be willing to rally behind it. Due to the versatility and visual nature of the symbols, it is easy to disseminate in different formats, like facemasks for the Guy Fawkes masks or face paint and graffiti for the Joker. A protest’s views can be encapsulated into one visually striking symbol that can then be printed and painted on walls, stickers, flags, posters and published online. They are similar to memes that they retain a similar polyvocality and multimodality. People resonate with the ideas of fictional characters and symbology, irrespective of geographic bounds, making it easier to boost their view.

Mariya Mubeen is a fourth year Communications and Media studies student. She has a passion for storytelling, writing, photography and illustration . In her free time, she likes playing video-games and taking care of her plants.