Behind the Mask: the Collective Face of Protest

How did a mask become become a global symbol of public protest? Collections Officer Yvonne Carrillo-Huffman explains.

Behind the Mask 1

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From the financial cradle of the world markets in Wall Street, to Madrid, London and other European cities, many ‘Occupy’ protestors are wearing masks inspired by Alan Moore’s 1982 graphic novel V for Vendetta. The film adaptation, made in 2006 by Joel Silver, presents the version of the mask used by the demonstrators today.

V for Vendetta tells the story of a theorised future of Britain as a fascist state, where one person takes it upon himself to organise a passive revolt against the State. He does so wearing a Guy Fawkes mask.

Who is Guy Fawkes? He was a British catholic who plotted to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London in 1605 as a protest against the treatment of British Catholics by the government and the Anglican Church. Fawkes and his co-conspirators were captured and executed. Since then, it has become a British tradition to celebrate Guy Fawkes Night every November 5th, when an effigy ‘of the Guy’ is burnt, accompanied by fireworks.

The Guy Fawkes mask featured in Moore’s graphic novel and its later film version has gradually become a global symbol of public protest; first as the online symbol of the Anonymous Movement, and now as one of the major symbols of the worldwide ‘Occupy’ movement against the greed and inequalities of the global financial and banking systems. From Madrid, New York, and London, to Athens, Rome, Rio, and beyond to the recent G20 and G8 meetings, hundreds of the masks have been worn. Even Wikileaks’ Julian Assange made an appearance briefly wearing one of these masks during a massive ‘Occupy’ public debate recently in London.

One might say that the mask’s bleached skin, pink cheeks, pencil beard and half-shut eyes above a mysterious smile has become a symbol of the hope for freedom from the financial oppressions of current times. The theatrical role of masks recognised for their symbolism and entertainment values applies in this case of the V for Vendetta global phenomenon.

The actors, in this case, are the people – global citizens who have identified with and transformed the identity of a specific character, adopting and transforming it into a symbol of hope and liberation from the world’s current financial system.

The growing global phenomenon of wearing the V for Vendetta mask is part of a collective empowerment to assist in social change by bringing people together in a global theatrical act. As the actor Hugo Weaving (wearing the mask) says in the 2006 film, ‘Beneath this mask there is more than flesh…and ideas are bullet-proof’. The mask serves more than disguising personal identity. As Alan Moore says in a November 2011 interview, the mask’s growing popularity ‘…turns protests into performances. The mask is very operatic; it creates a sense of romance and drama’.

Wearing the mask can help empower individuals to join in a people’s rebellion that is shared with every citizen, to be part of a collective action, to protest behind anonymity, and to also have fun and enjoy the pleasure of not being recognised. This can send a powerful message for change. It also brings the topic of the relevance of masks and their use today to the forefront of the public stage – in this case as a world stage symbol for hoped-for change and transformation and as a powerful communication tool and a prominent emblem of modern activism. It can represent, in Moore’s words, Vox populi, ‘the Voice of the People’.

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Michael Hugill , Online Producer
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