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Guy Fawkes: A Fitting Symbol for Contemporary Protest Movements?
Matt Schneider, NYU Florence student
La Pietra Dialogues
April 18, 2012

Guy Fawkes was a British Catholic revolutionary during the 1600s who attempted to destroy the British parliament building in an attempt to restore a Catholic monarchy to the throne after England broke from the Catholic Church and established the Church of England. His attempt was thwarted and he was caught and beheaded. The day of his arrest is celebrated every year in England as Bonfire Night.

In the 2005 film "V for Vendetta," based on Alan Moore’s book of the same name, the main character, V, uses Guy Fawkes as inspiration: not because of Fawkes´ ideals, but, rather, because Fawkes stood up against a government he believed to be overstepping its bounds and acting in a tyrannical manner. V does not have a religious affiliation, nor does he want a monarchy; instead, he uses Fawkes as a symbol of the people and wears a mask in his likeness during attempts to topple a future British regime with a government similar to that found in George Orwell´s 1984. V sends out a message to the people of Britain to meet him at the parliament building on the fifth of November, the anniversary of Guy Fawkes´ gunpowder treason wearing Guy Fawkes masks (A British poem commemorating the date reads: Remember, remember/ the fifth of November,/ the Gunpowder Treason and plot./ I know of no reason/ why the gunpowder treason/ should ever be forgot). V proceeds to destroy the parliament building and to destroy the tyrannical government, with a giant crowd of people standing in watch, showing their support.

In 2008, Anonymous, the hacker organization, adopted the mask as a symbol while protesting Scientology and what Anonymous viewed as the brainwashing methods used by the group, as well as their attempts at censorship. Since then, Anonymous has used the Guy Fawkes mask more widely in many different protests.

During the Occupy movement, which Anonymous heavily supported, Guy Fawkes masks were worn by many protesters (both members of and those separate from Anonymous). There were also a great number of Guy Fawkes masks worn during protests of Internet censorship legislation, such as SOPA, PIPA, and ACTA. The mask is used as a symbol against corruption, tyranny, and censorship. It is a symbol recognized by the majority of youth, with its roots in pop culture, and it also encapsulates many of the ideals of these modern protest movements.

There has been much discussion about the use of Guy Fawkes as a symbol. Today, the Guy Fawkes mask is more synonymous with the film "V for Vendetta" than the actual historical figure. Its connotation is more closely associated with the toppling of tyrannical regimes and standing up to dictatorial governments, rather than fighting for the restoration of a Catholic monarch. None of the demonstrators at these current protests are attempting to restore a Catholic monarch to the throne of England. Most of them probably do not even know what Guy Fawkes actually stood for; however, this does not matter when considering what the symbol is intended to represent.

The meaning behind the Guy Fawkes masks has changed drastically over time. Most people today only think of “V for Vendetta” when they see the mask. The protesters use the symbol to represent their objection to tyranny, much in the same way that V in the film did. Because of the intent behind the mask, it can be said to be a legitimate symbol for these protests. During the Occupy protests, the mask was a symbol against economic tyranny imposed by Wall Street and the economic system. During the SOPA, PIPA, and ACTA protests, the masks were used to protest censorship and tyranny over Internet freedoms.

In summary, because of the intent behind the masks, because of public perception of what the masks represent, and because of the disassociation of the mask with Guy Fawkes’ conservative Catholic motives, Guy Fawkes masks can be said to legitimately encapsulate the ideals and motivation behind these contemporary protest movements.

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