By Tanya Silverman
Photo courtesy of David Shankbone.
What did Guy Fawkes think of his own face circa the 17th century?
While that’s hard to say for sure, the historical figure had no way of predicting how his visage would be appropriated into an iconic, mass-produced mask popularized by assorted contemporary activist and antiestablishment movements.
Likewise, Fawkes could not have forecasted that his face would conceal that of the rebellious main character in the 182 comic, V for Vendetta, and subsequent 2005 film adaptation–or that it would be the signature emblem of the 2013 Million Mask March, a global protest.
The Million Mask March took place last November 5th and back on that very night in 1605, Guy Fawkes was caught by British authorities with 36 barrels of gunpowder in an attempt to blow up the House of Lords and assassinate King James. Involved with a Catholic dissident group that was acting against their religious persecution, Fawkes was also opposed to British unification with Scotland.
Guy Fawkes may have been executed shortly after his group’s plot fell through, but his legacy has carried on strong throughout more than four centuries following his death, evolving in various ways throughout. Ever since authorities caught Fawkes in 1605, November the Fifth has been acknowledged as “Guy Fawkes Day” or “Bonfire Night,” a celebration that has entailed various malleable interpretations.
Anonymous, a loose collection of hackers and activists, played a significant role in launching the Million Mask March in 2013. When it took place, demonstrators wore Guy Fawkes masks while making statements on a variety of causes: corrupt politicians, billionaires, banks, fracking, mass surveillance, GMOs, and others. Protests occurred in various international cities, from Washington DC, to Tel Aviv, to Dublin.
The Guy Fawkes face is well embraced by the Anonymous movement both online and off. Wearing it for public protest (as per recent years) dates back to 2008, when some members of the group decided to organize an event against the Church of Scientology.
“It started initially as an online campaign, but then some of the members of Anonymous decided that it would be fun to, as they said, ‘make the internet go outside,’” Lewis Call, Associate Professor of History at Cal Poly Sal Luis Obispo, says of the 2008 anti-Scientology demonstration.
Call–who has written extensively on post-modern anarchy–adds that ever since the 2008 event, the mask has remained an important symbol of the politically active portion of Anonymous, noting that some participating hackers are involved more for recreational purposes.
Alluding to the 2012 documentary about Anonymous, We Are Legion, Call discusses how many members utilized the mask for the practical purpose of concealing their identities. Certain interviewees would only appear online or in videos, sometimes using software to distort their voices, while disguised as Guy Fawkes.
On a collective scale, though, a cohesive community of Guy Fawkes faces fosters interesting political symbolism, allowing wearers to unite in a combined outlet to express their insights and perspectives.
“While each one of them might have slightly different political views, I think that because they all have the same appearance–when they’re all behind the Guy Fawkes mask–it creates this feeling of political unity for the movement,” says Call.
Anonymous certainly isn’t the only movement to sport the iconic face. Occupy–some of whose members took part in the Million Mask March–has also incorporated the mask since the 2011 protests, on Wall Street and well beyond.
Call mentions his attendance at some local Occupy protests in his California college town, when he noticed some people on the security committee wearing the Guy Fawkes masks. He considers the disguise a “sensible precaution.”
“These are the people who would be most likely to have encounters with the police, or run into legal trouble, so it’s tempting to use [the mask] as a way to preserve their anonymity,” he tells BTR.
In early 2008, Call published an article, “A is for Anarchy, V is for Vendetta,” arguing that since the events in 1605, Guy Fawkes’ face has been offset as a “free floating signifier,” entailing fluid, undetermined connotations.
Though its text discusses aspects of the movie and post-structuralist theory, it also brings up several historical episodes. Interestingly enough, Call’s article actually predates not only the Million Mask March and Occupy, but even the initial 2008 Anonymous protest against Scientology.
The analysis of Guy Fawkes’ face offering a loose meaning has held true since the article was published–and perhaps even more so in recent years.
Beyond famously recognized movements like Occupy and Anonymous, many more localized events have taken place in which the masks have been incorporated. In 2012, a collective of Japanese hackers got together donning the masks and cleaned up garbage in Tokyo to protest the nation’s laws against illegal downloads. The following year, in Saudi Arabia, officials tried to have the Guy Fawkes mask banned in their country, as they argued it instills violence, extremism, and chaos. When anti-government demonstrators took to the streets of Venezuela a few weeks ago, some of them painted their mustached masks red, blue, and yellow to represent the national flag.
Even the word “guy,” as Call brings up in the 2008 article, has long been a “free floating signifier” as well, being nameless and largely androgynous. In protests, these linguistic connotations also appear evident these past few years. So many individuals display themselves as the same “Guy” Fawkes, standing for loosely coherent causes that can even be titled ambiguous words like “Anonymous”–not to mention the hundreds of different dissident directions the “Occupy” title has gone to date.
What’s the future of Guy Fawkes imagery?
“I’m fairly confident that we will continue to see the Guy Fawkes mask and the Guy Fawkes image showing up in all kinds of places in all different political and cultural contexts,” reasons Call, “but I don’t think I would want to make any specific predictions beyond that. It’s very hard to anticipate how it might manifest.”
Perhaps Guy Fawkes is here to stay in our collective consciousness and culture in countless ways. Whatever becomes of his facial image, it’d still be incredibly interesting to know how Guy Fawkes would react.