article and photo by Geoff Olson
It’s an image you may have seen around lately. You might recognize the pale, goateed face with the ear-to-ear grin from the 2006 film V for Vendetta. To disguise both his identity and disfigurement, the central character wears a mask representing Guy Fawkes, a 17th century Englishman who plotted to blow up the Houses of Parliament.
From the cobbled streets of Madrid to the mirrored canyons of Manhattan, this grinning face is now a fixture in street protests. Demonstrators around the world are donning plastic masks inspired by the film. A report in the New York Times quotes Howard Beige, vice president of the New York-based Rubie’s Costume Co., who claims his company produces the item and sells more than 100,000 a year, 20 times more than its other masks.
A shadowy group of Internet activists, Anonymous, were first to employ the image of the V mask in their online communiqués. This widespread network of hacktivists captured media attention with their launch of an Iranian Green Party site, in response to Iran’s disputed 2009 election. Other Anonymous schemes included “Operation Payback,” a series of cyber attacks against Visa and MasterCard in 2010, for withdrawal of banking services to WikiLeaks. This past August, they targeted San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit after the organization attempted to block cell phone communications during a public protest against the shooting of a homeless man by a BART police officer.
Anonymous’ first major target, the Church of Scientology, was sparked by a video by church member Tom Cruise. In 2008, V-masked demonstrators appeared in street protests in London against the religious organization. Were the masked demonstrators members of the loosely affiliated hacking collective or just fellow travellers dog-piling on a very litigious cult? That’s the thing about masks – no one knows for sure. What we can say with some confidence is now everyone, from slacktivists to soccer moms, are wearing V masks in street protests.
So why V? How has this image attained so much visual currency, both online and off?
The V image dates back to a 1982-1985 comic book series by writer Alan Moore and artist David Lloyd. This dystopic tale, set in a future fascist Britain, begins with a young working class girl walking the streets of London after curfew. Desperate for money, Evey approaches a group of men in an attempt to prostitute herself. The men, who belong to the feared security police, threaten to rape and kill her. V arrives just in time to finish off the men and save Evey. He then whisks her to a nearby rooftop to witness his timed bombing of the Old Bailey, the London courthouse.
V’s mask, black cape and wide-brimmed hat are a period-piece nod to Britain’s first homegrown terrorist, Guy Fawkes. According to historians, Fawkes and a group of Catholic co-conspirators engineered their “Gunpowder Plot” to spark a revolution in England in 1605. V intends to stage a similar attack on Parliament, in an effort to spark revolution among the fearful masses.
Early in their film career, the Wachowski Brothers penned a screen adaptation of Moore’s comic book series. During postproduction of the second and last films of their Matrix trilogy, they returned to this project, soliciting James McTeigue for directorial duties. The all-star cast of the completed production included Natalie Portman as Evey and Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith in the Matrix) as the masked character, V.
The comic book V is an anarchist archangel of vengeance, with no reluctance to kill. The Hollywood V remains an anarchist, but he tries to avoid collateral damage as he seeks out his targets. It is left to the viewer to decide if V is a hero or a villain, sane or insane. “You’re a monster,” Evey says to him after discovering his campaign to kill those who took part in his internment and medical experimentation. “What they did to me was monstrous,” he replies from behind his mask.
In both versions, V lives underground in an abandoned, but lavishly decorated, subway cavern, complete with works of art stolen from the ‘Department of Censorship.’ He speaks in poetic monologues and sociological soundbites, going from mad to verse as he prepares breakfast or practises his swordsmanship against an empty suit of armour. “A revolution without dancing is a revolution not worth having,” he tells Evey, paraphrasing anarchist Emma Goldman. “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people,” he adds, adapting a line from John Basil Barnhill.
In the film version, the US has collapsed into chaos, a victim of its own accidentally unleashed bioweapons. As fear spreads across an economically ravaged world, the British people respond by electing into power a fascist political party, Norsefire. The regime then sets out to ‘disappear’ enemies of the state, including the activist parents of the child Evey. Writer Alan Moore cleverly employed the Hobbesian metaphor of the state as a gigantic body. The police force is “The Nose,” the secret police “The Finger,” the visual surveillance branch is “The Eye” and the audio surveillance branch is “The Ear.” The media, in charge of broadcasting propaganda, is “The Mouth.”
Partway through the film (spoiler alert!), we learn 80,000 British lives were lost years ago in a virus outbreak. The virus was developed through medical experiments on social deviants and political dissidents at a detention centre that also held V. The head of “The Finger,” Creedy, turns out to have been responsible for the lethal outbreak and the resulting panic atmosphere that swept Norsefire to power. Completing this conspiratorial circle, a cure for the bio-attack virus has been developed by a pharmaceutical company with ties to Norsefire.
The film raises troubling issues about truth, justice and that Machiavellian puzzler: does the end ever justify the means? What is terrorism and who are the real terrorists? Just as the protestors’ V masks have leapt from colourful pages of an eighties comic book, today’s headlines seem to have been ripped out of Moore’s paranoiac, mid-eighties vision of widespread electronic surveillance, black sites where terrorism suspects are rendered and tortured without legal recourse, media-mediated mass fear, rampant corporate unaccountability and a global elite floating through life in a bubble of privilege.
In the film, V mails out thousands of Guy Fawkes masks across London in preparation for his final act of resistance/terrorism; the destruction of the empty Houses of Parliament on the evening of November 5, the anniversary of Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plot. Tens of thousands of Londoners, emboldened by the chaos V has unleashed, don the masks and march toward the Parliament.
In the final scene, the people successfully face down the police without violence and witness Parliament’s destruction. They take off their masks, revealing the faces behind them. The idea and the people – thesis and antithesis – come together in a synthesis.
V himself remains a mystery in the film. His identity and survival don’t matter, he insists. It’s the idea he embodies, of free individuals living in mutual aid, which cannot die. “Beneath this mask, there is more than flesh,” V tells his nemesis in the film. “Beneath this mask, there is an idea, Mr. Creedy, and ideas are bulletproof.”
Evey offers a tender rebuttal to this seductive intellectualism. “I’ve witnessed firsthand the power of ideas. I’ve seen people kill in the name of them; and die defending them. But you cannot kiss an idea, cannot touch it or hold it. Ideas do not bleed; it cannot feel pain and it does not love. And it is not an idea that I miss, it is a man,” she says of V in a monologue at the close of the film.
By 2008, the V for Vendetta-inspired Guy Fawkes mask had become the default face of Anonymous. The organization’s monkey wrenching efforts extended to the 2011 Arab Spring, and their old-school overloading of Egyptian government fax machines in response to Mubarek’s crackdown on the Internet. “Egyptians referenced V for Vendetta more frequently than any other work of art,” observes Cairo activist Wael Khairy. “On the internet, Photoshop was used to alter Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s face into a Fawkes’ smile.”
There are dozens of videos on YouTube of computer-generated V’s, slowly intoning demands of Anonymous in a synthesized voice. The most recent videos are directed against the big banks, in support of Occupy Wall Street. What remains of Anonymous after an alleged series of arrests is probably like the Guy Fawkes mask – it is a placeholder, not for one identity, but for a persistent idea of V-like justice held by an unknown number of sympathizers across the world.
By late 2011, themes out of hacktivism began to merge with the above ground elements of the activist culture, such as the Vancouver-published Adbusters, which sparked the call to Occupy Wall Street. As it turns out, the “We Are the 99 Percent” meme has been one of the sharpest objects ever to come out of the media-jammers’ toolkit. It began as a riff on an analysis by economist Joseph Stiglitz of US income disparities – one percent owns 40 percent of private wealth – which was inverted into a figure showcasing the vast majority. Anonymous included the “We Are the 99 Percent” meme to online communiqués, propagandizing their solidarity with the masses. Adbusters kicked it up a further notch in visibility and Anonymous quickly endorsed the notion of Occupy Wall Street.
With social disparities on the rise in industrial democracies around the world, the 99 percent meme has gone global to the ‘Occupy Everywhere’ movement. It fits seamlessly with the 99 percent alluded to in the final scenes of V for Vendetta where the “restless many” peacefully confront the truncheon-wielding protectors of the “prosperous few.” The V mask now shows up in photos of protests of all kinds across the world, from Santiago to Seoul to Seattle.
The Hollywood V creates chaos in an attempt to spark a new order. Needless to say, the agenda of anyone wearing a V mask to a public protest is as cryptic as his or her identity. An undercover cop, an agent provocateur, a weekend activist with nightmares about facial recognition software, a comic-book fanboy – one size fits all. At the Occupy Vancouver event on October 15, about a dozen V’s sprinkled the crowd, from adults to kids. After approaching a few for a photograph, I felt slightly creeped out by the pale, grinning face – the same way clowns creep me out. The mask seems to carry a tacit reproach to power. As John F. Kennedy once said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”
Critics insist a store-bought plastic mask endorsing revolutionary beliefs is a contradiction in terms. Especially considering that every V mask purchase makes a profit for one of the world’s largest media conglomerates, Time-Warner. Ironically, the company owns DC Comics, which published the Alan Moore-David Lloyd miniseries in the United States. It also owns Warner Brothers, which released the film adaptation. The vertically organized company “owns the rights to the image and receives a licensing fee for each mask sold,” according to a recent report in the New York Times.
The Times piece hints this contradiction delegitimizes Guy Fawkes-masked protestors. Yet it’s a trivial truth that almost anything anyone does is within the orbit of the military-industrial-financial-entertainment complex, including protesting against it. The marketing world is very good at capturing and repackaging dangerous dissent as safe hipster cool. Consider the iconic photo of Che Guevara in a black beret, which has gone from a dorm room poster to a T-shirt design to the soda drink Revolution. Perhaps the V for Vendetta mask will become another tiresome visual cliché as its visibility grows – a pop-culture meme emptied of its original meaning. Or perhaps it will retain its archetypal, Trickster-like power, taking on a darker or lighter aspect depending on the next stages of global activism.
Writer Allan Moore, unhappy with the film adaptation of V for Vendetta, had his name removed from the Wachowski brothers’ slick product. His collaborator, comic artist David Lloyd, was happier with the film and its social effects. He recently told the blog Comics Alliance that activists are “resisting oppression the best way they know how” by employing the image of his mask. He hoped the character V would continue to be a “symbol of protest for all those who feel they need to use it as such.”
The word “person” derives from the Latin “persona,” or mask. In Classical Greece, a Greek chorus was a group of masked performers who would stand on the side of the stage, commenting on the dramatic events in narration and song. “In many of these plays, the chorus expressed to the audience what the main characters could not say, such as their hidden fears or secrets. The chorus often provided other characters with the insight they needed,” according to Wikipedia.
You could say the ambiguous image of V performs a similar function in postmodern dissent, calling attention to fears and official secrets that are marginalized in mainstream discourse. The growing numbers of demonstrators wearing the V masks may be as much a symptom of our troubled times as a symbolic vector for change.
Perhaps one day, the plastic V mask will become a nostalgic artifact, a fondly remembered relic from the first time the restless many – masked and unmasked – peacefully rose up across the globe and demanded accountability from the prosperous few. With Occupation Everywhere, the template for unified global dissent is now out there. It’s been beta-tested in hundreds of cities across the world. Perhaps what the world witnessed on October 15 was the initial ripple, rather than the first wave.
As V said, you can’t kill an idea.