When pop iconography turns political

Over the years, many images and symbols from pop culture have been appropriated for political causes

Any good protestor knows you can find a wealth of witty and inspirational ideas by looking at your favourite movies, TV shows, books, and music. That’s why the sea of signs at any kind of demonstration will always have some kind of pop culture reference, no matter the cause. But some moments of pop iconography are bigger than just signs – they demand costumes, or make-up, or maybe even gestures to really get their point across. Here are some of the most iconic and impactful political appropriations of some of our biggest cultural touchstones.

Joker

Symbol: The Joker’s distinctive face make-up.
From: Joker, Suicide Squad, DC Comics etc.
Appropriated by: Protestors in Lebanon demonstrating against the government’s new austerity measures, which include a 20¢ tax on calls made via WhatsApp.
Why?: One protestor said they related to the character, telling Wired: “Before he painted his face he was just living that miserable life. Nobody cared about him, nobody would listen to him. He’s upset, he’s angry, and it just drove him to madness and that’s what’s happening [in Lebanon].”
What did the creators say?: Nothing so far.

Pepe The Frog

Trump sign Pepe The Frog

A sign at a Trump rally in 2016

Symbol: Pepe’s big green head.
From: The comic series Boy’s Club by Matt Furie.
Appropriated by: The alt-right, including those close to Donald Trump as well as Trump himself, who tweeted a meme of Pepe during the 2016 US presidential election. 
Why?: The reason is unclear but possibly Trump’s usage of Pepe was an attempt to appeal to the youth or to give a nod to the right as if to let them know he was just like them.
What did the creators say?: He’s not happy about it. Furie killed off Pepe in a 2017 comic, has sued multiple people and companies for using the frog in hateful imagery, and wrote an essay for TIME in 2016 in which he said: “It’s completely insane that Pepe has been labelled a symbol of hate, and that racists and anti-Semites are using a once peaceful frog-dude from my comic book as an icon of hate.”

Hunger Games

Thai protestors

Thai protestors using the three-finger salute

Symbol: The three-finger salute.
From: The Hunger Games.
Appropriated by: Protestors in Thailand who stood against the military takeover of the country’s civilian government in 2014.
Why?: Katniss Everdeen led a rebellion through the districts in an attempt to take down the Capitol, with she and her followers both using this gesture as a symbol of respect and silent resistance. The Thai protestors used it as the latter, with the salute later being made illegal.
What did the creators say?: Author Suzanne Collins hasn’t commented but Francis Lawrence, who directed some of the films in the series, told the New York Times: “When kids start getting arrested for it, it takes the thrill out of it, and it becomes much more dangerous, and it makes the feeling much more complex. When people are getting arrested for doing something from your movie, it’s troubling.”

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Symbol: Three billboards demanding justice.
From: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Appropriated by: Campaigners seeking answers in the Grenfell inquiry, eight months after the blaze in the tower block killed 71 people and displaced many more. Other activists across the world have also employed the Three Billboards tactic.
Why?: In the movie, Frances McDormand’s character pays for three billboards to be put up demanding to know why the police hadn’t found out who killed her daughter.
What did the creators say?: “I appreciate a well-organised act of civil disobedience, and I am thrilled that activists all over the world have been inspired by the set decoration of the three billboards in Martin’s film,” McDormand said at the 2018 BAFTAs.

V For Vendetta

Symbol: Guy Fawkes mask.
From: V For Vendetta.
Appropriated by: Anonymous, the controversial online group who stage actions against companies, individuals, and groups, including the Church Of Scientology, the Canadian government, and ISIS.
Why?: In the film, the V mask is worn by an anti-establishment anti-hero who tries to destroy an authoritarian government.
What did the creators say?: In 2012, director James McTeigue said he liked that the mask was being used by Anonymous. “I think it’s good that you can have discussions around things that are anti-establishment if the mask makes you anonymous,” he said.

The Handmaid’s Tale

Handmaids Women's March

Women dressed as handmaids at the 2018 Women’s March

Symbol: The Handmaids’ red dresses and white-winged hats.
From: The Handmaid’s Tale.
Appropriated by: Women’s rights protestors across the world, demonstrating against anti-abortion bills and other proposed laws designed to take away women’s autonomy over their bodies.
Why?: In the book and TV series, the handmaids have to wear the uniform under the law of Gilead, the dystopian country created by the Sons Of Jacob and in which fertile women are used to provide children to the Commanders and their wives.
What did the creators say?: Author Margaret Atwood said earlier this year: “It is a brilliant protest symbol because nobody can kick you out for causing a disruption – you’re not saying anything – and nobody can kick you out for dressing immodestly because you’re very well covered up. But everybody looking at you knows what it means.”

Avatar

Symbol: The blue bodies of the Na’vi.
From: Avatar.
Appropriated by: Five Palestinian, Israeli and international activists who protested Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian village of Bil’in in 2010.
Why?: The indigenous Na’vi were oppressed by the Sky People in James Cameron’s movies, as the protestors said the Israeli forces were doing to the people of Bil’in.
What did the creators say?: Director James Cameron hasn’t commented.

Princess Leia

Symbol: Princess Leia.
From: Star Wars.
Appropriated by: Protestors at the first Women’s March in 2017
Why?: In the movies, Princess Leia was a leader of the Rebel Alliance and later founded the Resistance private military force. The character was shown as a strong woman with resilience who never gave up hope for her cause. 
What did the creators say?: Carrie Fisher had sadly died before the march took place, but her co-star Mark Hamill tweeted: “I know where she stood. You know where she stood. Such an honour to see her standing with you today.”