Is popular culture’s protest tide a movement or a moment?

Ifra Shams Ansari

A “cultural divide” can lead to a “political divide”.

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Certain years in history evoke images of mass demonstrations and revolutionary ferment but the year 2019 will go down in history as a year of worldwide unrest. In the last year, protests have raged in India, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Columbia, Spain, France, the Czech Republic, Russia, Malta, Algeria, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, and Sudan- and this list is not comprehensive.

Protests play an important role in the civil, social, cultural, economic, and political life of all the societies. They are an indication of underlying discontent with the prevailing status quo. By protesting, we have the ability to alter the agenda for the debate. Mostly non-violent direct action has played an important role in ending slavery, curtailing exploitation of labour, extending rights to women and minorities and influencing various freedom movements. Many of the so-called normal channels for working through the system, which are often recommended as prior to or preferable to direct action, have themselves been established through direct action. Many of the constitutions which embody the rights and restrictions which have come to be identified with the status quo were established not in calm contemplation but in the aftermath of social revolution or turmoil.

While some of these protests have made international news, others have come and gone with less attention. As the number of protests rose, we witnessed a growing acceptance of Novels, Poetry, TV shows, Movies as metaphors in the political world. The quality and acumen behind the signs, slogans, and costumes are distinct, prompting people to think of social movements in a new light. The importance of popular culture in the political world has given way to wider discussions about critical issues. In this essay, I am going to argue how Popular Culture is being increasingly used to drive politics. I do this by looking at the increasing use of symbolism in popular movements and how it plays a role in propelling the impact of those movements. In the final section, I draw on these examples to conclude that cultural differences, influenced by popular culture, manifest themselves in protests, which are increasingly being split into the lines of culture than politics alone.

On October 17, Lebanon’s “October Revolution” began with a handful of protestors. Gradually the movement distended into the largest anti-government protests that the government had seen since the civil war ended in 1990, in terms of numbers, geographical spread, diversity of class, and religious sectors of the society. The protestors accused the political leadership of corruption and nepotism that failed to make the most basic services available in the country. The protests moved from calling for social and economic reforms to demanding a new political system. Amid the protests, few protestors drew parallels between Beirut and the Gotham City (setting for the movie Joker). The face of Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker representing the power struggle between ordinary people and elites resonated with many demonstrators getting dressed like him and smearing the city’s walls with his face. A central theme of the movie is class warfare with the elite branding protestors as “clowns”. Thus, Joker has come to be recognized as a symbol of the downtrodden in a town where social services are being denied leaving the residents disillusioned, while the wealthy elites have the privilege to respond with oblivion.

In an interview with Inside Over, Cynthia Aboujaboude, the first person to explain the concept through media said; “I decided to wear the make-up of the Joker during the protest because it seemed right to me. Wearing the mask of the Joker allowed me to express my feelings without having to speak to anyone. We are hurt and simply disappointed. I think that what is most obvious and what connects us most to the figure of the Joker is his outlook on life. Now life teaches you just to lie and cheat if you want to survive. You don’t have any other choice. And this is not the life that I and the others want”.

To fight challenging unjust policies, protestors in countries like Iraq, Chile, and Hong Kong among others also painted their faces like Joker to show oppression and passive acceptance. The iconic Handmaid’s uniform has also emerged as a sign of protest for women’s rights around the world. It is inspired by the 1985 dystopian novel called The Handmaid’s Tale authored by Margaret Atwood who searches for the consequences in situations where all the rights of the women are seized. It offers the existence of a world which has been undone by contamination and unproductiveness. The Handmaids in the novel wear a red cloak with a white bonnet, together described as a “modesty costume” to rip them off of their individuality and opinion- intended to function as a sign of female subservience and its association with the oppression of women. The trend began as a marketing strategy when Hulu hired numerous women to dress as handmaids to promote the premiere of the TV show that goes by the same name.

Designer Ane Crabtree who translated the work of fiction, in an interview with British Vogue said, “The poetic fluidity of the dresses meant that the handmaids looked like lifeblood moving through a grey concrete dystopian world.” Other design decisions were more personalized and emotive. “I did an inverted female vagina in the design of the Aunt’s collars. If you look subtly, you’ll see that,” Crabtree says. “It’s sort of my way of saying, ‘Fuck you.’ I have to design this in a way to oppress women, but I can give them their own pleasure — whether it’s metaphorical or real, physically. I had to oppress women, but I wanted to free them mentally, through design.”

Today, this costume has come to be known as the visual lexicon of dissent; the most visible articulation of the subjugation of women. In Margaret Atwood’s words, “What the costume is really asking viewers is: do we want to live in a slave state?”

Handmaids have been seen at the Women March in Washington DC, against legislators who voted against measures to curb violence against women in Croatia and California, against the presence of Donald Trump in Poland and UK, reproductive rights campaign in Alabama and Georgia, abortion rights campaigns in Argentina, and pro-choice protests in Northern Ireland.

2019 also saw protestors in Hong Kong who took to singing, “Do you hear the people sing?’ from the musical ‘Les Miserables’ based on a novel by Victor Hugo (who captured his experience of getting sheltered from the bullets between barricades) as they fight to uphold democracy. The book led to the musical which was performed in French and staged in Paris in 1890, and then an English version followed five years later. The play is set before and during the Paris Uprising of 1832, making the song a call to arms for revolution.

The song was adapted by Herbert Kretzmer in English. In an interview with the Daily Mail, he said: “The original French lyrics for the signature song warned of the ‘will of the people’. To me, that felt like political grandstanding — so I rewrote it to link the idea of liberty and democracy with the song title itself.” “But I never imagined ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’ might become an anthem for protesters everywhere.” “When people ask me why the song remains so popular, I answer that I tried to tell the truth about one of the key issues of all time: injustice, which can turn men and women into slaves, cause anger and humiliation and crush the human spirit”. “Yet it ends with the words ‘when tomorrow comes’ because I truly believe that hope can never be extinguished.”

The song was sung in Turkey during the Gezi park protest; in Taiwan during marches over the death of a soldier, in Ukraine during anti-government Maidan demonstrations. Shortly after this, it gained popularity in Hong Kong during the Umbrella Revolution.

Similarly, poetry by Faiz Ahmed Faiz written in 1979, titled “Wa yabqa wajh-o-rabbik” popularly known by its refrain “Hum Dekhenge” battled tyranny across time and place. The poem gained popularity in 1986 after a public rendition by a celebrated singer Iqbal Bano in Lahore. The poem was written by the communist revolutionary poet as a medium of protest itself to criticize General Zia-ul-Haq, a military dictator who rose to power through a coup in 1977. At many protests, the mass reading of the Preamble to the Constitution gave way to Hum Dekhenge –‘we the people’ to ‘we shall see’. Protest songs are the literature of people’s movements who decided to take on the oppressive regime.

Moneeza Hashmi, daughter of Faiz Ahmed Faiz narrated an anecdote. She said that someone asked Faiz in the 1980s how he felt about his poetry, written years ago, remaining relevant and contemporary. He replied, laughing: “Hamne to likh diya, ab aapke halaat nahin badle to kya karen (I wrote what I had to, now if your circumstances are the same, what can one do).”

The poem gained importance in protests against Pervez Musharraf in the early 2000s and has been sung widely across a variety of protests in South Asia. The people of India took to singing this song at protest rallies and demonstrations that were called to reject the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Across the country, the poem was translated into regional languages to express the spirit of their protest.

Further with the release of the 2005 film V for vendetta, which centers on an avenger’s efforts to destroy an authoritarian government in a dystopian future United Kingdom; Guy Fawkes masks have appeared at protests around the world. The masks are a stylized depiction of Fawkes which has come to represent anti-authority and anti-establishment sentiment. ‘Guy Fawkes’ masks were made famous by Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s 1980 graphic novel “V for Vendetta” and the 2006 Warner Bros. film of the same name. David Lloyd, the illustrator described the masks as a “convenient placard to use in protest against tyranny”. Guy Fawkes has become synonymous with the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The failure of the plot is observed as ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ in the UK since November 5, 1605, when his effigy is burned on a bonfire (coming from bone-fire) accompanied by fireworks. Hacktivist collective Anonymous, Occupy Wall Street, Arab Spring Activists, Hong Kong anti-government protests, and even anti-vaccine protestors — have all donned the mask. This has emerged as a global symbol of resistance.

Recently in April, just after 4 months of being added to the platform, “La Casa de Papel”, popularly known as Money Heist became the most-watched series in a foreign language on Netflix ever. The robbers are disguised in Salvador Dali Masks and red coveralls. Salvador Dali was a famous Spanish artist and a lot of his works took place during Zurich’s Dada Movement and was about rejecting the modern capitalist society. His philosophies are in alignment with those of the heist group. The costume was not only a disguise for a crime, but it serves as a physical symbol of what the show stands for, “the resistance, indignation, and scepticism” towards “the system”, as El Profesor says in episode 1 of season 3.

The show is charged with symbolism; including the recurring use of the song “Bella Ciao”. Originating from World War 2, this popular Italian song was sung by the partisans fighting against the fascist regime. The song has been used as a carrier of resistance where it is no longer about the money as much as it is about its representation. The song was adapted in Iraq as “Blaya Clara” meaning ‘no way out’ in Arabic.

Creator Alex Pina embraced the spirit of revolution at a time when the governments continued to discredit the power of protests. From the masks to the red overalls to the song, all have been used all over the world as a cry for resistance, dissent, and skepticism towards the system. During the protests, banners showed lines such as “Somos la puta Resistencia” (we are the resistance) said by the professor. The show’s iconography has appeared at protests in Lebanon, Iraq, France, and Chile. This has become such a phenomenon in France that Paris’ Musee Grevin has added statues of the heist group to its wax museum.

What such use of Popular Culture means?

Symbolism has become a part of social movement strategies. There is a multidirectional relationship between Popular Culture and Protests beginning from a broad scale of inherited cultural repertoire which leads to its use within politics. For centuries, Popular Culture has been an opening to self-expression and it’s in times of dissent that it’s needed the most. It is the need for an exchange of information and projection of an image that resonates with the public and thus, calls for an association between the two. This combination of a story and discourse creates narratives. Barthes and Bremond recognized the narrative as a “semiotic phenomenon that transcends disciplines and media” (Herman, Jahn and Ryan eds., 2005: 344). Creating narratives is a strategy that allows us to understand the world, as it is a way in which we organize information. Social actors have always found narratives spun in popular culture to be effective. Engagements with the cultural codes of “the people” give legitimacy to drive mobilization. Mobilization through cultural medium proves an important push factor for political demands which promote identity formation by providing support and securing members of the protest group firmly together. More than the construction of legitimacy, protestors operate a selective, strategic, and rationalized use of repertoires inherited from culture; which further then gives rise to new ideas. It is necessary to understand the message that is being conveyed using popular culture to discover the impact of using popular culture in politics. Whatever be the medium, stories are narrated in a given context, and knowing the discourse it communicates is extremely essential. Popular Culture and Politics cannot be seen as two separate things that have occasional clashes but rather an extension of each other. The cultural values are manifested in popular culture and embody political values because “the personal is political and the political is personal”.

Cultural criticism has proved to be an influential approach for driving change in the face of problems faced by the people. This sense of powerful symbolism has changed the political behaviour of the people. It contextualizes social protest and cultures of dissent in larger socio-cultural-political transformational processes. Further, it is very likely that a “cultural divide” can lead to a “political divide”. Popular culture draws representational practice through which identities are established, and power dynamics are constructed. Ignorance of cultural differences based on internal factors like ideological differences, stereotypes, and social identity theory and external factors like propaganda, media, social pressure among others lead to communication failure giving birth to political divide. A study by Saunders (2011) [1] establishes how the experiences and education received by the American President’s influenced their actions in Vietnam. Similarly, a study (Toye, 2008) [2] acknowledges how Winston Churchill not only read the works of H.G. Well but altered his policy responses based on his speculative works. Thus, it is our responsibility to understand that the purpose of analyzing entertainment is not only to get entertained but also to lay hold on the power of entertainment.


[1] Saunders Elizabeth N. 2011. Leaders at War: How Presidents Shape Military Interventions. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

[2] Toye Richard. 2008. “H.G. Wells and Winston Churchill: A Reassessment.”In H.G. Wells: Interdisciplinary Essays, edited by McLean Stephen, 147–61. Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.


Ifra is a third-year student of Economics at Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Delhi University.

Picture Credits: Christiaan Triebert


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