Offbeat 27 March 2015
Once upon a time, there was a comic book called V for Vendetta. The antihero took issue with fascism in the UK, and donned a smiling mask as he or she wreaked havoc with bombs and various acts of civil disobedience.
At the outset of publication, it was not widely known, but it gradually gathered a following and became a cult classic. A movie followed, then came Anonymous, the hacktivists. Flash froward to the past few years, and everybody has adopted the mask, a form of pret-a-porter rebellion. Wear the mask to signify your generalised anger. Wear the mask to be anonymous. But do understand that you are not one individual, like the protagonist in the original Vendetta. If you wear that mask now, you are little more than a clone.
Hacktivists aside, the quality of the masses associating with the mask leaves a lot to be desired. Firstly, there is no obvious individualism in selection of the cause. ‘If I am angry about something, I will show the mask, and leave it at that.’ Secondly, it feels as if the people who adopt the mask, fleetingly as is normal, are less committed to finding ways to bring about change, and more committed to wearing the mask as a signal.
Thirdly, probably most importantly, the mask is associated with disruptive expression of anger. There is little mention of the constructive side of things. Not cool. Breaking things leaves broken things, and vacuums that will inevitably be filled with further abuses. By analogy, if a car is not running right, it needs to be fixed rather than rendered completely in operable.
There is a lot of debate about this matter that is not happening. I doubt though that it is wanted by any of the sides. The world needs its protagonists and antagonists, and if they sat down at the same table and hammered things out, the stories would get distinctly boring.
The mask is rooted in popular culture. Call it pop culture, because that is what it is.
The interesting thing about pop culture is that it is generally unreasoned. It spreads into heads by general agreement. If someone likes something, someone will decide to like that thin as well, because it creates an association, typically with the other person, not with the expression of culture.
Here’s an example. Somewhere along the way, someone decided to dislike Justin Bieber. The meme spread rapidly. Today, long after Justin Bieber has evolved, the meme persists. The meme is inevitably out of context, relating to boyish prepubescence and androgyny, not the way he sings anymore.
Here’s another example. Barbie still seems to be vilified for the portrayal of the dependent, somewhat ditsy blond gitl, an image that prevailed in the Sixties and Seventies. The evolution of Barbie in the Nineties, into an independent and capable young adult is not considered.
Why anyone who doesn’t have kids should be watching Barney enough to hate him defies belief. And parents who don’t appreciate the dinosaur obviously haven’t spent enough time watching him with their toddlers.
There is an interesting idea in all of this, the dark side of popular culture, anger and hate borne out of shared culture.
Given that this dark side is unreasoned, it seems that it has to emerge from the dark corners of the psyche. Pop culture not only brings happiness, but it also gives release to anger and hatred where it is needed. That is, in some way, healthier than hating your neighbours or being consumed by prejudice found in the perception of a stereotype.
Perhaps, within reason, it is a healthy impulse, but the question is how far does it go?
Pop culture can be given expression in life with modes of dress and closer association through lifestyles, but that can lead to bullying and savagery, as has been seen repetitively with attacks on goths, for instance, punks and hatred of the so-called ‘beliebers’.
There is no easy answer to this, no simple and conclusive ending. The only thing that can be said is that the dark side of the psyche should be factored into thinking about pop culture.