A few years ago, the Occupy movement appropriated Guy Fawkes masks as a symbol of resistance against an all-seeing state. The masks served two purposes – to anonymize participants in protests that were being filmed and shared around the internet, and to create an image of solidarity. While Guy Fawkes has been a symbol of resisting authority for hundreds of years (ever since his attempt to blow up the houses of Parliament), the mask that was used had been popularized by Alan Moore’s graphic novel, “V for Vendetta,” which was later made into a film of the same name.
Now, it looks like Thai protesters against the military coup have taken on a symbol from another film: the three-fingered salute from The Hunger Games franchise. While the exact meaning of the salute (in the context of Thai political protesters) isn’t precisely clear, its use as a symbol of resistance to authority is. So much so that the military has made statements saying they will arrest any group of more than five people using the sign if those people refuse to disperse and desist.
The Guardian published an article deriding the appropriation of mass-culture symbols as displays of political protest, finding the gestures “intellectually bankrupt” as compared to the gestures of the past, and this seems unfair. Isn’t the point of a political hand gesture that it requires no outside resources and can be performed by anyone wishing to take part in resisting authority? That it’s widely recognizable by members of society, while perhaps escaping the notice of authorities? Reading from the Canadian Globe & Mail, it would seem that the junta isn’t even sure of what the protesters are symbolizing when they use The Hunger Games’ three-fingered salute.
While I’m no fan of The Hunger Games novels, finding fault with a mode of expression available to those under military rule seems petty and unnecessary. If The Guardian finds the Thai protesters’ use of Suzanne Collins’ fictional gesture, like that of Occupy’s use of the Fawkes mask, to be intellectually bankrupt, their insistence is intellectual naval-gazing:
Images have meaning. The clenched fist of Marxist revolutionaries was not just a gesture. Behind it lay a history of revolution going back to 1789 and a huge body of serious political thought from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte to the writings of Antonio Gramsci. But what does it actually mean to claim allegiance to The Hunger Games?
Whatever its literary quality, The Hunger Games enjoys widespread recognition thanks to its blockbuster success as a film, and the gesture adopted by these protesters is instantly recognizable to teens and young adults bound up in the franchise, around the world. If the writer of this article thinks the Thai protesters are “claim[ing] allegiance” to the franchise, they’re either being deliberately derogatory or else unprofessionally obtuse. With limited resources and few opportunities for group gatherings, what better way to get a message out about how the protesters feel their rights are being trampled on than to use a pop-culture gesture that’s loaded with weight and meaning?
The hand-gesture symbols of the 20th century were just as manufactured and have gained widespread respect over time. From Wikipedia, regarding the “V-for-victory” sign that gained popularity during WWII:
On January 14, 1941, Victor de Laveleye, former Belgian Minister of Justice and director of the Belgian French-speaking broadcasts on the BBC (1940–1944), suggested in a broadcast that Belgians use a V for victoire (French: “victory”) and vrijheid (Dutch: “freedom”) as a rallying emblem during World War II. In the BBC broadcast, de Laveleye said that “the occupier, by seeing this sign, always the same, infinitely repeated, [would] understand that he is surrounded, encircled by an immense crowd of citizens eagerly awaiting his first moment of weakness, watching for his first failure.” Within weeks chalked up Vs began appearing on walls throughout Belgium, the Netherlands, and northern France.
Buoyed by this success, the BBC started the “V for Victory” campaign, for which they put in charge the assistant news editor Douglas Ritchie posing as “Colonel Britton”. Ritchie suggested an audible V using its Morse code rhythm (three dots and a dash). As the rousing opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony had the same rhythm, the BBC used this as its call-sign in its foreign language programmes to occupied Europe for the rest of the war. The more musically educated also understood that it was the Fate motif “knocking on the door” of the Third Reich. ( Listen to this call-sign. (help·info)). The BBC also encouraged the use of the V gesture introduced by de Laveleye.
Using pop culture, art and the will of the people to manufacture ways to express dissatisfaction with political leadership is a technique that’s been used through the ages, around the world.
By criticizing Thai protesters for using the methods of protest readily available to them and insisting they adopt an intellectually-sanctioned (Western) gesture of political protest instead, the Guardian article only demonstrates its own ethnocentrism and ivory-tower intellectualism, showing its own irrelevance when it comes to commenting on the right of oppressed people to choose their own method of showing dissatisfaction with their ruling over-class.