How did a glorified prop in an average film come to be seized upon by both sides of the political divide?
There isn’t much in the way of imagery or iconography that vehemently opposed ideologies claim equally claim as their own. Few libertarians associate themselves with the Red Flag, any more than unreconstructed Marxists will feel an affinity to the torch of liberty. Yet the V for Vendetta Mask has managed to achieve precisely that.
It’s unlikely the designers of the mask had such broad appeal in mind when they first put pen to paper, especially as the graphic novels were originally rather narrowly written as a critique of Thatcher’s Britain (Norse Fire taking it’s initials from the then very active National Front). But it was the 2005 movie that made it mainstream, and it’s from there that the popularity of the image can be traced.
For the Left of this generation especially, the V character is lionised as much because of what he opposes as what he promotes. The foil to V is personified in the character of the High Chancellor, arguably the most interesting character in the movie. Embodied in the High Chancellor is everything the modern Progressive Left reject, principally racism, islamophobia, homophobia, militarism, jingoistic patriotism, police brutality, economic inequality, and the more subtle hints of a political elite dominated by white men.
The Classical Liberal or libertarian appeal of V is centred less on the figure-head, and more on the scope and style of government in general. The Norse Fire state is Leviathan incarnate. It is as vast as it is oppressive, with omnipresent surveillance, censorship, paternalism, social conservatism, corporatism, legislative hyperactivity (with an over-developed enforcement arm), social engineering, and yes, state run television.
Yet the appeal of V goes deeper than cheery-picking Norse Fire policies you don’t agree with. Both libertarians and the Progressive Left identify with V in part because a fundamental facet of their world views demands that they always be the underdog. As this magazine touched on recently, it is not uncommon for opposing ideologies to feel that the British political system is inherently biased against them. The Progressive Left see an Establishment still run by a privileged white male elite, socially reactionary, and in the pockets of corporate greed to detriment of the workers.
By comparison, the libertarian looks upon the government of Britain with resigned exhaustion, as government, by its very nature, continues to expand in size, reach and cost. Every new Parliament seems to bring with it another fit of activity, with statutes and regulations driving us inexorably towards an Orwellian nightmare where every conceivable activity is banned or compulsory.
The mask of V, blank, save for a smug grin that comes with a feeling intellectual superiority, can be co-opted by any angry and self righteous activist and worn to convey the idea that they are plucky under dog taking on the corrupt and wicked establishment. The ubiquity of the image is perhaps most evident on Twitter. If you follow a decent number of politics accounts, you’ll come across at least dozen with the V for Vendetta mask as their avatar, all with markedly different views and opinions, the most famous of which is probably Old Holborn.
So established has the V Mask brand become, that it now spans continents. Anonymous have shamelessly appropriated V’s televised addresses, right down to plagiarising entire lines of script from the movie. Photos of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Arab Spring protests all include V mask wearers, like a Where’s Wally of organised protest.
At the risk of mixing franchises, the V mask is like Dr Who’s psychic paper; it is held up, and each one of us reads only what we want to read, and by extension, we can paint the High Chancellor in whatever political colours we want.
But say what you will about the High Chancellor, he still let you smoke in pubs… England Prevails.