First published in 1982, the graphic novel series “V for Vendetta” told the tale of a masked vigilante’s attempt to bring down a fascist British government. It was a symbol of the times; politics has always been riddled in sleaze and dirt, but during the Thatcher years many felt that their voices were not being heard. V for Vendetta was an attempt to make something from the mood of the times.
Yet it is a timeless story – thirty years on, one thing stands strongly above all else – V’s mask. At the time, Guy Fawkes Night was being phased out, replaced with a more friendly ‘Bonfire Night’ tune, and the mask – whilst it was certainly nothing that hadn’t been used before – became a sensation. And, today, that mask has become an icon greater than the singular work of fiction which spawned it.
Some of you may have seen the movie, and understand the implications of the mask. V was an anonymous man who had been tormented, tortured and scarred. He had no face, no identity, save the number he was assigned – or rather, the roman numeral he was assigned, V. And yet, his mask – an attempt to have an identity, of one of the countries most notorious attempted murderers who was executed some three centuries ago – became an icon, a symbol, as was demonstrated when the masses turned out in force wearing this singular display of unity. United behind his ideal.
This is the power and prestige of the V mask today, and why everyone from campaigners against the SOPA, PIPA and ACTA legislations to the hacktivist group Anonymous use it. It symbolises more than anonymity; it is more than an attempt of hiding ones appearance. It has become the face of rebellion, of freedom, of fighting against oppression and injustice. It has become something more than it once was – but the irony is, this is an icon that has a darker side.
For a start, the movies conclusion was in equal parts a hopeful message of defiance and a damning and barefaced sarcastic reflection of the times (and a shocking foresighted glimpse into the future). People had that power all along; and here they were, hijacking the identity of a man – who had no identity of his own, let us not forget, the mask was his attempt to give himself a face – for their ideals. They always had that ability. And they jumped on this ideal – hopeful, revolutionary and yet in a sick way, naive and foolish.
Then you have to look at the reality the look of the mask, its design is actually trademarked. Time-Warner were smart enough to trademark the stark, leering look, and when people buy these masks – they are buying a commercially-licensed product. Where so many are fighting against the one percent, the rich and powerful, the very identity that they use being owned by Time-Warner is amusing if not tinged with a sad, awful irony. They make the rich richer in their own way.
The next point is the power of anonymity. Derren Brown did a very interesting experiment last year, where he gave an audience of people a chance to invade the life of a normal man. Swayed by a few choice morsels of information – which wasn’t flattering on the poor guy – they were given the power to dictate how his night out would go. And at every opportunity, they chose to make his night out the worst of his life. They encouraged a potential fist-fight in a bar, made him pay a tab that wasn’t his, framed him for shoplifting and encouraged a man who was in his flat to destroy his belongings. Their anonymity empowering them, they were justice. They had a mans life in their hands, and they were serving up a vengeful meal based on prejudiced, biased information. Very few were even remotely aware of this; that he may indeed have good qualities and feelings. He had to suffer for his transgressions.
All this for fifty minutes or so was unscripted, meaning the poor chap was living this with no idea of what was going wrong. What was meant to be a nice night out with his mates went from bad to worse and even more worse. But, slyly, Derren Brown had known this might happen, so he played a cruel trick on the audience – after the fifty minutes of “genuine” footage was up, he pounced. As the crowd bayed for him to be kidnapped by a bunch of thugs, they watched as the man whose life they were ruining struggled against the masked thugs and ran down the street for his own life – and was then hit by a speeding car.
This scenario was acted. Derren Brown had asked the mans girlfriend to make sure he wore a shirt similar to the one that the stunt man in this clip wore to make it all the more plausible. But the power of it was stunning and moving in ways that that audience will struggle with for the rest of their lives. There were a few minutes of awkward silence after the footage, which they believed was genuine and live, for them to take it all in. Many removed their masks, a look of sheer self-loathing on their faces. Others angrily demanded the cameras be turned off to protect their identities. Others showed a genuine case of remorse, asking if the man was okay.
He was. But it was an experiment that was shocking and yet told the very real tale of the power of anonymity, and how easily we can be swayed when we have no personal identity to call on in a situation. Many of us would have balked at framing someone for shoplifting; yet they didn’t. Getting the man arrested? Yes. Or rather, actors arrested him, although he didn’t know that until after. They even wanted him to believe that he had lost his job. And for what? Because he cheated on his girlfriend? Because he liked a practical joke? Seeds were sown to prejudice their judgement, and with no identity, a mask to hide behind, they forgot he was a human being – flawed, but like them. With feelings, and emotions, and a life which they were happy to ruin.
Anonymous are the epitome of this; whilst they do indeed have a bunch of core beliefs, many of their attacks have been misdirected on very careless information, and in some cases, caused real financial damage. Before Christmas, I reported on a very notable example. Whilst on the surface it seemed a good idea, the reality is this inevitably cost the charities who received the money more; they ended up paying to return the money. That is not clever.
Nor are the attacks on services people legitimately pay for. Exposing security flaws is one thing; gloating over taking services down for days or weeks at a time is another. Their core beliefs may be valid, but behind their masks, they too are easily swayed by rumour, gossip and speculation, taking on targets that may deserve it – but may not, equally.
And yet, so many hide behind this face to do their things – often of questionable ethical, moral and legal stature. Whilst the world isn’t perfect and we all long for an ideology and identity to rally around, we must take a lot of care that we do not cheapen the power of the V mask. That it is used carefully, responsibly and with a degree of decorum. For it is a modern symbol of unity against oppression. It is a powerful image. It has every right to be.
But if we’re not careful, that image can and will be associated with illegal hacking, squatting and general crowd violence. It will be an image for the darker side of ourselves; doing that which we would not do otherwise. It will become a symbol of the underbelly of the world, and of questionable moral and ethical standing. The face of criminality in a modern era.
It is a difficult and worrying trend that fills me with great concern. V is one of the most complex and brilliant anti-heroes of the modern era, and his status in the pantheon of icons is assured. But his legacy – the legacy of his creator, Alan Moore – should not be associating with often petty, ridiculous schemes that are doing more harm then good.
V was a man who gave himself an identity – inspired by a man from the past who reflected his aims and ambitions. He embraced his shortcomings – he was V. A man whose identity, life and world had been destroyed, taken from him cruelly by people in a position of power. He was also merciful and generous as well as vengeful and devious. He is a character of complications, but a man who wanted his land to be free. He longed for it. Was prepared to do anything for it, regardless of the consequence.
Now, that mask he wore represents multiple ideals – from the hopeful to the downright dangerous. It has become a shield, a tool, a defense against the world of conscience and consequence. It has become mired in controversy, an exploitative symbol of corporate greed and the people fighting against it unwillingly playing a part in that greed, and an anonymous calling card for those who wish to leave no identity. It is being used for the greater good, and the greatest of evils. And above all else, it is being used without thought to what it represented in the novel; a man whose identity was stripped from him, wanting one to call his own. We all have an identity. We can all change things if we want. And we’re hiding behind the face of a fictional revolutionary who was happy to die for his beliefs – so that others would not have to do the same.
Somehow, I don’t think V would approve of what we’re doing with his face. We can fight the good fight. We just need to use a different face for it…