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Guy Fawkes was a Catholic who attempted to blow up the House of Commons on 5 November 1605 by stacking explosives in the cellar. His initial act was, then, conducted in secret. When captured, as was common at the time, Fawkes’s body was exposed to torture and public execution in 1606. The man from the shadows was brought into the light, with the spectacle of the scaffold a very public display of the power of the state. The visibility of the notorious would-be regicide continued long after his death. For reasons that may seem obscure, given the manner of his actual execution, effigies of Fawkes have long been burnt on a bonfire on the 5 November, accompanied by a fireworks display.
V for Vendetta has a protagonist, known only as ‘V’, who wears a mask to hide his disfigurement, which we later learn is from a fire. His mask is a caricature of Fawkes, with goatee beard and moustache, rosy cheeks and painted eyes, accompanied with a wig and black cloak. Initially V stands out from the crowd because of this outfit, but in two striking scenes of the film there are multiple people wearing this disguise. In the first V has dressed a number of security guards and others in the mask against their will, thus making it impossible for anyone to know who he is, and who is simply someone disguised as him. In the other scene, towards the end of the story, thousands of ordinary people have donned the uniform to show their solidarity and opposition to the neo-fascist government that V has challenged throughout.
The V masks were initially given away to promote the film, and then sold as a toy, but they became popular with protest groups. Initially they were used by the ‘Anonymous’ group in their campaign against the Church of Scientology, but have been picked up and used by other campaigns since, of which the various Occupy movements are the most visible. At the Territorial Masquerades blog, the anonymous ‘Jester’ has tracked some of these changing uses. One of the most interesting elements of the analysis is the way that the use of the mask is related to the Zapatistas, who declare that “With our faces exposed we were invisible. We cover our faces in order to be seen.”
In The Guardian, Jonathan Jones suggested that the mask was a symbol of ‘festive citizenship’. Yet it is one that plays with notions of anonymity and public display; disguise and visibility. People wearing one can send a signal of solidarity and opposition, yet remain unidentified. It has been suggested that the commercial gains made by the mask—Warner Bros. gets a commission for each one sold—negate the protest. But it is precisely the use of the tools of capitalism against capitalism that is one of the most striking elements of the protests—Blackberry, Apple and Facebook can be used for many purposes, just as tents can be used for camping or occupation. Among a range of wonderful artwork and slogans, the Guy Fawkes mask is a powerful symbol of a nascent movement. It hides its wearer’s face, but it makes their protest all the more visible.
[A longer and updated version of this piece can be found in the journal Interstitial]