Written by Steven Fielding.
Across the world members of the Occupy movement are wearing the same mask.
It is the one worn by ‘V’, the main character in a comic book first published in Britain in the early 1980s but which became more widely known though the movie V for Vendetta released in 2006. As anyone can see, V’s mask was based on Guy Fawkes the man who tried to blow up Parliament in 1605.
It is ironic that someone who wanted to restore the power of the Papacy to England is linked to those protesting against capitalism. But these things happen: appropriation between politics and popular culture (and back again) occurs all the time and in the process the original meaning is usually lost, transformed or enhanced. Therefore, David Lloyd, one of the creators of V is wrong to think the protestors’ use of the mask to be ‘quite unique’. It is older than Guy Fawkes himself.
It is unlikely therefore that those who today wear the V mask have the same specific intentions as Lloyd and his collaborator Alan Moore. According to Lloyd, their comic book, written in the early days of Thatcherism, was, ‘for people who don’t switch off the News’. This elitist take was evident in the book itself – the people were not depicted in a very flattering light, being manipulated first by the authorities then by V himself. It could be incredibly didactic, as illustrated here:
The novel was arguably written for a small minority of readers, ones more ready to identify with V the ‘terrorist’ and his battle against authority than those poor lumps he ostensibly sought to liberate. It also ends on a downbeat note, the authoritarian regime had been overthrown but the future unclear.
With the Cold War and Thatcherism long gone, the 2006 movie implicitly argued that the War on Terror was being used to keep the people dumb. It was also much more populist: it is rare for film-makers to go out of their way to insult their potential audience. The film consequently ends on a more optimistic note than the novel, with the people in V masks marching on Parliament to watch it explode to the strains of the 1812 Overture.
Both novel and movie are subtly different but both argue that we all should be politically responsible: V is the means for making us realise that. Quite where that leaves those presently wearing the V mask is not clear. Claiming to be the 99% is one thing, being the 99% is another: it’s those who are presently not wearing the V mask – and not watching the News – that will ultimately decide what happens. How does the Occupy movement propose getting its message through to them?
Steven Fielding is a Professor of Political History at the School of Politics and International Relations. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.