In 2008, the group Anonymous protested against what they perceived as internet censorship, gathering in front of Scientology centres in several countries. Many protesters donned a specific mask, which since then has variably been called the Anonymous-, Occupy- or Guy-Fawkes-mask: a white face with rosy cheeks and the hint of a smile, accompanied by a black goatee and moustache (fig.1). At the same time comical and slightly menacing, it seems to have emerged from the world of theatre or vaudeville. Yet, it is used, labelled and discussed as a generic symbol for dissent against a panoply of evils: governments (democratic and despotic), corporations, religious institutions, “the system.”
The mask’s historical trajectory is rooted in a historical event: On 5 November 1605, a group of Catholics was arrested on charges of having plotted to blow up the Protestant English king James I and the Houses of Parliament. One of the arrested, tried and executed was Guy (sometimes also: Guido) Fawkes, and the foiling of the plan – the so called “gunpowder plot” – left important traces on the English collective memory: It not only served as the backdrop for a well-known nursery-rhyme, but also as the starting point for Bonfire Night, celebrated by children by tossing effigies of Guy Fawkes and other undesirable figures into public bonfires. What the gunpowder plot did not yield, though, was a clear visual memory of Guy Fawkes. Several images circulated (see Sidney) until the 1841 publication of Guy Fawkes: Or the Gunpowder Treason; an Historical Romance by British best-selling author William Harrison Ainsworth. Ainsworth employed illustrator George Cruikshank – famous for his illustrations of Charles Dickens novels – and Cruikshank’s sketchings congealed the visuals of Guy Fawkes into the image of a prototypical 19th century Gothic adventurer: long black hair, moustache and goatee, svelte figure; spiky hat and long black cloak. Ainsworth’s romance formed part of a range of novels and short stories that re-imagined the gunpowder plotters as upright patriots acting against a religiously oppressive government and had a lasting impact on both the contextualisation and visualisation of the gunpowder plot. It was in extension of this archive that Alan Moore and David Lloyd created the comic V for Vendetta between 1982 and 1985.
In it, the main character V starts a vendetta in a dystopian, hyper-surveillance, post nuclear-war England against the dictatorial ruling party, which is responsible for a facial disfigurement that he hides behind a mask; a mask that harks back at Cruikshank’s images. The gunpowder plot is mirrored in V’s actions: Attempting to stir the population to revolt against the regime, V blows up the Houses of Parliament. He achieves his goals thanks to Evey, a young girl he rescues and moulds into his alter ego. When V dies, Evey takes over his role by wearing the mask, thus initiating a second generation of mask wearing revolutionaries.
The comic was turned into a highly successful film in 2006 (dir.: J. McTeigue) in which the Fawkes mask features prominently. Contrary to the comic, V sends out his mask to the citizenry of England, encourages people to don it, mimic his revolutionary behaviour and engage in subversive acts. The film culminates in a scene in which a multitude of masked citizens overcomes police lines to congregate and watch V’s demolition of the Houses of Parliament while unmasking themselves.
The mask in the comic can be regarded as an exclusive token for heroes (V and Evey), while in the film it is a rather mundane artefact that serves a distinct purpose, a commodity that allows people to participate in a collective act of dissent. It momentarily levels the differences between the oppressed, masks them in the initial steps of formulating their dissent, and has served its purpose when they achieved their goals.
It was the usage of the mask in the film that has appealed to protesters in several recent waves of protest: purged of almost all specific historical traces it is regarded as a universal symbol of rebellion, an icon of the good-guy-against-the-system narrative. In its stylised simplicity it parades its very quality as a mask and makes it easy to inscribe it not into real-world politics and complicated narratives of historical resistance, but into simple binaries of good vs. evil.
In spite of the fact that the comic was sutured with allusions to contemporary political issues – nuclear proliferation, fear of a third World War, Thatcherism, consumerism, the AIDS panic of the 1980s – the ease with which the main visual component of the comic – the mask – was re-appropriated in the film and in subsequent protests testifies to the decontextualising powers of worldwide mediascapes (to use Arjun Appadurai’s term), transforming a “very British” icon into a generic signifier of dissent. Attempting to avoid the pitfalls of and expand upon the 1990s identity politics of the altermondialisation movement(s), the new cultures of dissent (mainly Occupy, fig.2) employ the Fawkes mask to portray their opposition against ever-changing facets of “the regime.” Like other masks, the iconofied face of Guy Fawkes makes it possible to symbolically hide or erase one’s own identity and inscribe oneself into narratives of resistance, heroism and (male) power. That this mask is perceived as free from specific anchorages in the political dualisms of left vs. right – and of its visual representations – appeals to a generation of dissenters who claim to overcome old ideological chasms. Such a claim, though, is only possible by ignoring the (religious and political) contexts that preceded the current simulacrum of the mask – namely the story of the gunpowder plotters and Guy Fawkes. It might thus be more productive to get rid of the misnomer Guy-Fawkes mask and rename it “the V-mask” to reflect its proper referent.
|fig. 1: Paul Williams, n/a, 10 February 2008, London, Wikimedia, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/11/ Anon_London_Feb10_TCR_Protesters.jpg|
|fig. 2: Pawel-Kopczynski, Occupy Berlin, 12 November 2011, Berlin, Reuters, http://www.businessinsider.com/where-the-guy-fawkes-masks-come-from-2013-11?IR=T|
- Ainsworth, William Harrison: Guy Fawkes: Or the Gunpowder Treason; an Historical Romance. London: G. Routledge and Sons 1841.
- Keller, James R.: V for Vendetta as Cultural Pastiche: A Critical Study of the Graphic Novel and Film. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland 2008.
- McTeigue, James: V for Vendetta. Warner Home Video 2006.
- Moore, Alan, and David Lloyd: V for Vendetta. New York: DC Comics 1989.
- Sidney, Philip: A History of the Gunpowder Plot: The Conspiracy and Its Agents … with Facsim. Illus. from Old Prints. London: The Religious Tract Society 1905.
About the author:
Andreas Beer holds in PhD in American Studies and is a postdoctoral fellow at Constance University (Germany). His current research examines symbolic practices of (non-)representation in contemporary cultures of dissent. For more information on his person, project and publications, please visit: www.andreasbeer.info.
Reference / Quellennachweis:
Andreas Beer: Guy Fawkes Mask, in: Aesthetics of Resistance, Pictorial Glossary, The Nomos of Images, ISSN: 2366-9926, 3 December 2015, URL: http://nomoi.hypotheses.org/265.