Why the mask?

So, earlier PZ posted a picture that has been widely shared around the internet, this one, from a Michigan protest:

Michigan Ohio protest photo, with protestor wearing Guy Fawkes mask in the 2nd rank of persons pushing at the door of the Michigan Ohio capitol building.

While I was over reading Wonkette (where I first encountered this photo) someone asked a question to people generally about why such a protestor would wear a Guy Fawkes mask unknown in the United States until the movie V for Vendetta, especially given the peculiar situation in the fictional setting was so different from that of the present day United States. (For later clarity, the movie was referred to as the “normal context” of the Guy Fawkes mask for Americans by the person asking the question).  I actually took some time to think about and respond to it, and thought people here might be interested in reading what I wrote over there…

I think it’s like this: the “normal context” of that mask in the USA doesn’t come from Guy Fawkes Day celebrations, but rather from the movie (no, not the comic book) V for Vendetta. In the movie, V is portrayed as a superhero, a Batman-like figure. He is immune to pain because of damage previously done to him. He’s smart as a Batman. He has effectively infinite resources, gadgets, money, etc. And, finally, he has his secret V-Cave.

But V doesn’t set himself to clearing the streets of common criminals, no. The streets are already cleared of them by the fascist government that enforces curfew. V is after the fascist government itself. By attacking secret policemen and other targets of special privilege inside the government V (again, like Batman) inspires fear in the people who make up the government.

Now, we could take a turn here and talk about how the disease in the movie is caused by the government and the crisis is then used to impose fascism. We could point out that even in the movie the quarantine wasn’t the problem but that the government used the time of the quarantine to achieve its fascist ends. And, of course, we could point out that the governors are only doing the quarantining, and it’s Trump who is actually using fear of disease to increase his own power in myriad ways, from stealing states’ own supplies to asserting infinite executive power including the power to (temporarily) dissolve a Congress.

But ignore all that for a moment, because we want to know why this idiot wears the mask, not what motivates the protest more generally (which the idiot could attend without a mask).

In the movie, only V is superhuman, but because he wears a mask that is already well-known and mass-produced, anyone can get hold of V’s costume, and if they walk down the street wearing that costume, the government officials terrorized by V will be equally terrified by the random wearer of V’s costume … at least until someone shoots the normal person and they don’t go all super-human fascist-stomper.

So from the point of view of a random normal person in the movie who dons Guy Fawkes’ face, the point of wearing the mask is to cause someone else to be afraid.

And I think for this person the most important point is exactly the same. Though also I think the idiot thinks that wearing the mask somehow makes the wearer “cool”. But that’s secondary. Lots of things could make you cool. This mask is intended to make others afraid.

In the movie, V tried to target the fear, but there’s no denying that the average Security Bear in the final scene was very afraid. To make V heroic they had to play up the fear of the most powerful and play down the fears of every day contributors to the functioning of the government. How could the unemployment clerk know that V wouldn’t target the unemployment office? The clerk couldn’t. V, even if bringing down the fascist fictional Brittain was a good goal, acted like a terrorist. He acted deliberately to inspire fear, to terrorize. And the movie made that seem cool, because in fiction land we don’t have to deal with unintended, undesired consequences. The writers just skip that part and move on.

And so… V for Vendetta, in the midst of a post-9/11 world that appears to uniformly condemn terrorism, provides seemingly the only cultural reference that permits the possibility of the good-guy terrorist, the cool terrorist. There is a reason why the right wing calls every mildly-left wing proposal tyranny. They were raised with the KKK as heroes, able to kill others just for wanting to vote while the wrong race or the wrong party. They’re nursed on dreams of ethnic cleansing and genocide, looking forward to the time when they reestablish a permanent theocracy or permanent white ethno-state. But denying people the right to vote isn’t cool anymore. The right to murder racial others no longer inheres to white skin.

Some of them tone down their dreams. They gerrymander. They call vote-by-mail corrupt. They pass new voter ID laws during a fucking pandemic when the DMV isn’t open to provide new IDs.

But predictably, some of them yearn for the days when terrorizing others was cool. In a time when the USA has gone out of its way to erase distinctions between freedom fighters resisting occupiers and “aggressive” terrorists who launch violence from behind a wall of privilege, when the USA itself denies that bombing weddings and fruit-pickers on siesta might have a terrorizing effect since it was done while wearing the flag, V for Vendetta is the only model the alt-right has of the popular terrorist.

And they yearn, they yearn existentially both to create fear in their enemies and to be popular, not the pathetic and fringe movement that they are.

So idiots like this wear the mask, not to fight fascism. They don’t know what that is, and don’t oppose fascism itself anyway.

Idiots like this wear the mask to be the bully, to be king of the elementary school again for just a moment, to inspire fear and worship. In a word, to be awesome.

Idiots like this wear the mask because they are terrorists.

Edited Above: Corrected erroneous protest location, replacing mentions of Michigan’s capital with Ohio’s.


  1. mikey says

    Ohio. The Michigan dickheads were in their cars, gridlocking the capital, and keeping employees from the local hospital.

  2. Ridana says

    That photo is from the Ohio protest, since the woman on the left is Melissa Ackison, a Republican running for Ohio state Senate.

    Btw, photo credit to Joshua Bickel of the Columbus Dispatch.

  3. says

    I think the closer association is Anonymous, a hacktivist group that rose to prominence over a decade ago, initially for protesting the Church of Scientology. They all wore Guy Fawkes masks. Since then, I think the masks are a common sight at protests of all sorts, maybe because those people identify (or used to identify) with Anonymous, or maybe just because they saw Anonymous do it and they liked the idea.

    To be honest, I never really understood why Anonymous wore the masks in the first place, I’ve never watched the movie. Your analysis retroactively explains some things for me. I don’t think Anonymous is particularly associated with the right-wing though. They used to support Occupy Wall Street. But neither are they clearly left-wing. I don’t really understand what their deal is, I’m sure someone else could explain it better than me.

  4. says

    @Ridana & Mikey: Thanks for the correction.

    @Siggy: I don’t remember Anonymous ever using the masks in public protests. In fact, I remember them using a graphic of the mask without even a person wearing it. Does Anonymous even do public protests?

    I’m not saying that there couldn’t be an Anonymous connection, just that it seems … much more tenuous. But again, I don’t hang out with those groups so this is amateur armchair psychoanalyzing at best anyway. I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t believe it, but I also am aware that I could be wrong.

  5. brucegee1962 says

    Good point about Anonymous using the mask. And yeah, I think that being strongly anti-government was more traditionally a leftist thing to be. Right wing anti-government hatred is newer — Reagan laid the seeds for it, but it was obvious he never really meant it.
    It took a few decades for a Republican to come along who actually took seriously the idea of blowing the whole thing up. The only reason he hasn’t done more is that his laziness and incompetence exceed his malice.

  6. says

    sez brucegee1962 @7:

    It took a few decades for a Republican to come along who actually took seriously the idea of blowing the whole thing up. The only reason he hasn’t done more is that his laziness and incompetence exceed his malice.

    I disagree that the Angry Cheeto actually wants to blow anything up. My mental model fo the Cheeto posits that he’s a sociopathic narcissist; he does what he does solely and entirely because he thinks it will make him look good, and whatever harmful consequences may occur don’t even enter his mind.

    It’s the other guys in Trump’s inner circle… people like Mnuchin and Bannon… who want to blow everything up. And they will quite happily grasp at any opportunity the Cheat gives them to do just that.

  7. says


    Interesting, but again, that’s London, and they have a much longer tradition with the Guy Fawkes mask in the UK, which therefore means that its meaning isn’t reduced in complexity the way that it is in the USA. In fact, the event was held on the 5th of November, which further muddles the distinction between recent popular culture (the movie) and Brittain’s longstanding Guy Fawkes Day traditions. A similar event, even if held on Nov. 5th, outside of Brittain would have been much more supportive of the view that the mask has a meaning in the USA separate from the V for Vendetta franchise.

    I’m not saying that I know I’m right, and you’re right that in the UK Anonymous-sponsored gatherings have included use of the mask in a more widespread way that can’t be pigeonholed to people adopting imagery from the movie (or the comic book). But the “million mask march” seems to be almost non-existent in the USA based on your link and browsing the sources listed on Wikipedia. There was one picture of one person from 2015-16, something like that, who was said to be in DC, but no articles about that protest. So it appears that protest must have been small, I guess? In any case, the meaning and context of the mask in the USA continue to appear quite different from their meaning & context in the UK.

  8. avalus says

    That woman on the right really scares the shit out of me.

    I can’t help seing their flags as red-white-black…

  9. brucegee1962 says

    @9 cubist
    I agree that Trump doesn’t seem to be ideologically driven to destroy the government, or have much of any ideology other than “Trump is great.” But he DID manage to appoint an EPA head who actively wants to destroy all government regulation, a Dept. of Education head who hates public education, and a Dept. of Energy head who is most famous for saying the department he heads ought to be eliminated. Maybe you could say he’s passive-aggressive when it comes to the government.

  10. says

    Wearing Guy Fawkes masks at protests was definitely a thing that Anonymous did, it was part of their brand. In addition to whatever symbolic significance it had, it was thought to be a practical necessity for protesting the CoS who might retaliate against people whose faces appeared in photos. You can find occasional examples of Guy Fawkes masks in a google image search for “Occupy Wall Street” even though Anonymous obviously wasn’t the main force there. And… I knew one or two people who had Guy Fawkes masks themselves.

    That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of masked protestors in the US were greatly exaggerated, perhaps boosted by photos coming from the UK.

    This doesn’t really contradict your analysis. I think it’s likely that the person is participating in a tradition popularized by Anonymous, but that still doesn’t explain what the symbolic significance of the mask is, or why people continue to use it.

    The interesting thing is that your analysis goes in a different direction than I might have gone, because you started by assigning negative valence to the mask (justifiably based on the present context). So you’re offering a perspective that would not have been available to me, and one that I think has truth to it even when applied to older uses of the mask.

  11. StevoR says

    FWIW Guy Fawkes was also a specifically Catholic terorist.


    Funnily enough no one seems to remember Robert Catesby much here..

    WARNING : Yeah, some of these are really not so funny and pretty horrific if you think about them. Torture and gruesome excution references albeit in a kids show format.


    Poetically thinking :


    In Oz we have a cynical old saying that Guy Fawkes was the “only man toenter Parkliament with honest intent.” Hah.

    Back when that Church was out of power and couldn’t burn others at the stake or do so many other horrendous things they do to people.

    Wonder if that “protestor” even knows that or what they think of Catholics?

    “Remember remember the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason and plot ..

    Oh & please those who can, remember, remember round the 5th~ish of November to vote coz that Fawkes lady will.. :-/

  12. StevoR says

    D’oh. Italics fail. Guess y’allcan guess where. Mea culpa. Too late in my night / early morning sorry..

  13. lochaber says

    I also tend to associate that mask with the Anonymous group, and I remember seeing a fair number of them at the Occupy protests. I do think I live in the same general area as Siggy, so we might both be reporting the same minor incident.

    I believe Anonymous grew out of 4chan, which also has ties to some of the uglier parts of current American politics, so I can kinda see where a weird link might happen.

  14. says

    Not everyone who’s anti-government/anarchist is a progressive. There are some anarchists who are outright fascist. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, being anti-something does not make someone pro-what-you-want.

  15. says

    “Anonymous” is also not your friend. They’re not your enemy, either. They’re an amorphous bunch of people with a variety of political agendas ranging from “your friend” to “really, seriously, your enemy” depending on who you are and how they feel this week. Another problem, in particular with Anonymous is that some of the anarchists in the group feel that vigilante justice is theirs to mete out, which is problematic depending on their interpretation of “justice.”

  16. khms says

    #18 @Marcus Ranum

    There are some anarchists who are outright fascist.

    WTF? That sounds a bit like “dry water”.

    Anyway, I just wanted to mention that I remember, a while back, some Youtube atheist commenting on some Youtube Christian apologist who made use of that mask, for no reason I could back then imagine. I think our host’s analysis might actually explain it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *