The Joker to Guy Fawkes: Why Protesters Around the World are Wearing the Same Masks

Jerri-Lynn here. Note that today the South China Morning Post reported Hong Kong’s mask ban has been ruled unconstitutional; see  Anti-mask law to quell Hong Kong protests ruled unconstitutional by High Court:

A Hong Kong court has declared the government’s anti-mask law unconstitutional.
High Court judges on Monday found the mask ban introduced under emergency legislation was “incompatible with the Basic Law”, the city’s mini-constitution.

Justices Anderson Chow Ka-ming and Godfrey Lam Wan-ho ruled in favour of the 25 pan-democrats who challenged two laws that brought the ban into effect on October 5.

The high-profile constitutional challenge centred on the colonial-era Emergency Regulations Ordinance and its derivative, the Prohibition On Face Covering Regulation, introduced by the government on the grounds of “public danger” in a bid to quell the wave of protests sparked by the now-withdrawn extradition bill.

The controversial move sparked six constitutional challenges, including the present two, testing the ordinance in the courts for the first time since it was enacted in 1922.

In a 106-page judgment handed down on Monday afternoon, the judges declared the ordinance “incompatible with the Basic Law” to the extent that it empowers the chief executive to make regulations on any occasion of public danger.

They also found the measure that gave police the power to require a person to remove his or her mask at public places a disproportionate measure given its “remarkable width”.

“There is practically no limit on the circumstances in which the power under that section can be exercised by a police officer,” the judges wrote.

But they left open the question of whether the ordinance is constitutional when used in times of emergency.

The judges will hear further submissions on Wednesday morning to decide the appropriate relief and costs for the legal challenge.

By Aidan McGarry, Reader in International Politics at Institute for Diplomacy and International Governance, Loughborough University. Originally published at The Conversation

From Hong Kong to Chile and from Lebanon to Iraq, people around the world are taking to the streets in protest against their leaders. Across these myriad different protest movements – with their different contexts, histories and goals – people are wearing the same masks. The grinning faces of Guy Fawkes from the film V for Vendetta and of the Joker have become ubiquitous. But why?

A mask is a form of self-presentation, it is the face we choose to show to others. Masks have been used by humans for millennia for a variety of purposes from rituals to theatrical performances in order to entertain, to protect and to disguise.

Protesters have long used masks, from demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq to protests against the World Trade Organisation summits in the 1990s. They have a communicative and performative power to help protesters make demands, raise awareness and offer a degree of protection.

A mask is useful in authoritarian regimes, providing a degree of anonymity for those taking to the streets. Authorities in Hong Kong banned the use of masks in early October, arguing that they nullify the facial recognition technology used to identify and prosecute protesters. This led protesters to engage in creative ways to subvert the law including using hair to disguise their faces.

Becoming Someone Else

But as well as giving people anonymity, masks have a transformative quality for the person wearing them. They afford people the opportunity to be braver, stronger and less acquiescent in the face of political power. When worn by protesters, masks can encourage people to do something extraordinary, to take to the streets in order to challenge those in power, to render themselves visible and vulnerable alongside others doing the same.

When we wear a mask we become someone else – and so they help to protect and embolden the individual. But behind the mask are faces and bodies, made of flesh – and acutely vulnerable. In recent weeks, people have been shot in Chile, Iraq and Hong Kong. A mask offers little meaningful protection against state violence.

Part of the appeal of masks to protesters is that they are relatively easy to make. the Joker mask requires a few simple colours, five minutes of face painting, and a relatively steady hand. Protest movements over the past ten years, from Sao Paolo to Madrid, have possessed a creative and handmade quality as protesters seek to showcase their authenticity. This handmade quality demonstrates that movements are from the grassroots and a reaction against the political elite who occupy grandiose buildings in the capital.

The Guy Fawkes mask popularised by the hacker collective Anonymous and the Occupy movements has become synonymous with 21st-century protest. Anytime a protest springs up, there is someone selling mass-produced versions of these masks, paradoxically undermining the critique of neoliberal capitalism articulated by both Anonymous and Occupy. The mask has become an anti-establishment trope wielded by ordinary people to register their dissatisfaction with the ideas and policies of the political elite.

Ultimately, protests are struggles to be seen and heard. The use of cultural artefacts and symbols such as the distinctive red and white hood and cloak from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale help people to speak up and speak out. Masks are also a way to foster identity with others and communicate strength against a defined foe.

Aesthetics of protest

My own ongoing research has focused on the aesthetics of protest: elements such as masks, use of colour, art, symbols, slogans, clothes, graffiti and objects that comprise a material and performative quality which is often captured in photos and videos and shared across media platforms. The mainstream media tends to focus on dramatic and carnivalesque imagery, knowing this generates attention. Protesters play along, understanding that this attention is important if the mobilisation is not to fizzle out. Masks help with this media exposure, ensuring that the ideas of the protesters are sustained a while longer.

Masks also help protesters to show solidarity with one another, and the mask becomes a common language to register dissent. Even though protesters in Chile, Iraq and Lebanon have very different objectives, be that fighting corruption or challenging unjust policies, they have painted their faces like the Joker for the same purpose: to show that those who are abused, oppressed and ignored are no longer passively accepting their lot.

A protester in Chile dressed as The Joker on October 30. Alberto Valdes/EPA

Due to the film’s global release and the narrative arc of its main character Arthur Fleck, the Joker mask has rapidly emerged as a symbol of the subaltern being empowered, of somebody from the “lower” ranks rising up. The garish face paint cuts across linguistic frontiers, cultural backgrounds and state boundaries. It has become a symbol of unity, where people come together, for a time suspending their differences and societal cleavages to make themselves seen and heard together.

Masks such as this speaks on behalf of the protester, while anchoring each person in a wider struggle. Protesters use such masks as a way to build a counter culture, express unity, claim visibility and to challenge those in power. As such, these masks have become a mainstream vehicle with which to communicate subversion.

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  1. Louis Fyne

    (as a psych layman)…..surprised that author didn’t directly mention wish fulfillment.

    Arthur Fleck’s character arc moves from an anonymous nobody to revolutionary Robin Hood-ish anti-hero. With the non-politically correct moral of “if you want to make an omelet, you gotta break some eggs”

    1. hemeantwell

      To me the Joker is an excellent example of a rebellious as opposed to a revolutionary figure. Alongside the manifest anti-establishment stance is an equally manifest vagueness about what should replace it, we’re left with a vision of turmoil that will go on as long as there are cars to burn. As writers such as Siegfried Kracauer pointed out, the rebel latently looks to a paternal figure to step in to put something back together. The same line of interpretation Kracauer used for some Weimar films applies here, nb how the film is awash in yearning for the absent father.

  2. Harold

    Masks & broad-brimmed hats were banned in many countries during holidays because people would use them to commit crimes. This is one reason instead of masks, mummers wore blackface or glued strips of paper to themselves. So I read while researching Christmas customs. In the great Greek film, Rebetika, a famous singer is knifed to death by revelers during Carnival. Fact or fiction, I always think of this when the topic of masks and veils comes up.

    1. shtove

      Tying in with the link to hair over the face in HK, the English used to complain of Irish foot soldiers wearing a type of long fringe to disguise themselves, and even prohibited the style by statute. English sources are always a bit hysterical, so here’s Durer’s observation (the two fellas on the right, soldiers called kern):

      The adoption of the Guy Fawkes mask puzzles me – seems like an emblem of hierarchy – but I suppose the ease of copying the design explains the popularity.

      1. lyman alpha blob

        Fawkes was the guy who tried to blow up the British Parliament but was caught before he could do so and was executed for his troubles.

  3. Wukchumni

    From a 1989 Spy magazine article on the Bohemian Grove:

    Late in the Low Jinks the elevator doors opened and a man came out wearing a rubber Henry Kissinger mask. He had a dumpy body a lot like Kissinger’s. A “heifer” asked him why he was there. The man peeled off the mask to reveal that he really was Kissinger, and he said in his familiar gravelly accent, “I am here because I have always been convinced that the Low Jinks is the ultimate aphrodisiac.” (This joke is funny because Kissinger was famous for saying that “power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”)

    FD: I’m a Bohemian’s Bohemian, but not that kind of Bohemian.

  4. Eustache de Saint Pierre

    Facial recognition technology apparently all over the place in the UK & I believe the US, which of course is innocently just protecting the citizenry from criminals & would of course not be used to identify people at demos, as is the case with those awful authoritarian regimes.

    1. xkeyscored

      Police stop people for covering their faces from facial recognition camera then fine man £90 after he protested – January 2019
      -‘The force had put out a statement saying “anyone who declines to be scanned will not necessarily be viewed as suspicious”. However, witnesses said several people were stopped after covering their faces or pulling up hoods. … “He simply pulled up the top of his jumper over the bottom of his face, put his head down and walked past,” said director Silkie Carlo. … a plainclothed police officer follow[ed] the man before a group of officers “pulled him over to one side”. She said they demanded to see the man’s identification, which he gave them, and became “accusatory and aggressive”. “The guy told them to p*** off and then they gave him the £90 public order fine for swearing,” Ms Carlo added. “He was really angry.”’

  5. Barry

    A standardized mask is more anonymizing than a unique, custom-made mask. In a protest situation, there are severe constraints on the value of self-expression while trying to hide your identity.

    1. Massinissa

      The masks have a special significance. They aren’t merely a way to hide identity.

      From Wikipedia: “In modern lucha libre, masks are colorfully designed to evoke the images of animals, gods, ancient heroes and other archetypes, whose identity the luchador takes on during a performance.” It supposedly dates back to old Aztec practices.

  6. Wukchumni

    A lot of times we’re captive to movies, as they turn into real life (i’d mentioned on the links thread what an inspiration the movie Wild was to young women backpacking) all too often.

    The first time I ever experienced Guy Fawkes was in NZ, which was their day to shoot off fireworks, nothing wrong with that.

    But the movie V For Vendetta was such a powerful statement, the ending a primer on how to go about being anonymous while making a statement.

    1. Massinissa

      The graphic novel by Alan Moore it was adapted from was even better, if you enjoyed the film. Generally considered one of the greatest graphic novels of the 20th century. Also Moore wrote Watchmen which is considered the greatest graphic novel of the 20th century, and is also a solid read (though the film based on it was absolutely terrible, don’t watch that movie. Director Zach Snyder was an objectivist who didn’t understand that parts of the novel were a parody of objectivism…)

  7. a different chris

    The downside of masks, surprisingly not mentioned at all, is that every decent protest has a smattering of hooligans along for the ride. And a mask will just make them braver.

    So show your face and maybe make a statement, maybe get arrested the next day. Don’t show your face and maybe somebody also masked will pointlessly smash windows, completely overshadowing your attempt to get your message out.

    I have no solution, as usual.

      1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        A ninja, or a shinobi, I think, but not a samurai.

        His tono-sama would never have allowed it. Nor could he wield his sword in the daimyo’s palace. That was what led the the tale of the 47 ronins.

  8. Carolinian

    I’ve read that the anti mask rule was a British HK law, now being revived.

    So are the protestors going to tunnel under the Hong Kong legislature and blow it up with barrels of black powder?

  9. xkeyscored

    The English words person, personality, etc. are derived from the Latin persona, a mask worn in plays and rituals.
    From the OED:
    [a. OF. persone (12th c. in Littré), mod.F. personne, a personage, a person, a man or woman, = Pr., It. perˈsona:—L. persōna a mask used by a player, a character or personage acted (dramatis persona), one who plays or performs any part, a character, relation, or capacity in which one acts, a being having legal rights, a juridical person; in late use, a human being in general; also in Christian use (Tertullian c 200) a ‘person’ of the Trinity. Generally thought to be related to L. personāre to sound through; but the long ō makes a difficulty. The sense mask has not come down into Eng.; and the other senses did not arise here in logical order, the earliest being 1, 2, 4 b, and 7. See also parson, a differentiated form of the same word.]
    I. 1. A character sustained or assumed in a drama or the like, or in actual life; part played; hence function, office, capacity; guise, semblance; one of the characters in a play or story. (Now chiefly of the dramatis personæ or characters in a drama, and in phr. in the person of = in the character of, as representing.) †to put on a person, to assume a character (cf. personage 7 b). Also, persons of the drama [tr. dramatis personæ] lit. or fig.

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