The mask hides the original body and covers it with an invented one. This process means that the participant can do things that they cannot usually as they have created something which is separate from their usual lives. Johnstone identifies this anonymity which masks create: “In normal life the personality conceals or checks impulses. Mask characters work on the opposite principle: they are childlike, impulsive, open” (Johnstone, 1981: 173). In normal life, the personality maintains a consistent ‘façade’ which keeps the individual ‘in check’. The mask covers the face and body, and also the personality, and allows the wearer to be ‘possessed’ by feelings and impulses which would normally be unacceptable and deviant. Johnstone (1981) identifies this ‘possessed’ condition as being a ‘trance state’: not ‘trance’ in terms of hypnosis, but rather as a difference from the ‘public’ state which keeps the individual functioning as part of society.
Masks and costumes, because of this anonymous state which they create, also allow a high degree of spontaneity. Without the stigma attached to actions which the personality fosters, participants using masks and costumes feel more able to act spontaneously. It is this impulsiveness which perhaps leads many people to distrust people cloaked in costumes and masks, as Johnstone identifies: “We distrust spontaneity and try to replace it with reason” (Johnstone, 1981: 149). When we see someone who appears anonymous or ‘dressed-up’, we worry about what they may do. Without the identifying factors of appearance and the regulating elements of personality, we fear that people may act in a deviant manner.
In protest the use of costumes and masks create a very similar impression. The participant creates a character separate from themselves which can then be used to perform transgressive/controversial acts which they wouldn’t usually be able to do. The play of ‘dressing-up’ illustrates the differentness and secrecy of play at their highest levels: “the disguised or masked individual “plays” another part, another being. He is another being.” (Huizinga, 1949: 13)
One particular mask which has gained popularity and notoriety is the ‘Guy Fawkes Mask’ which was featured in both the comic book and film version of V for Vendetta. The mask is an idealised representation of Guy Fawkes’s face, with an ambiguous grin, pointy beard and moustache and rouged cheeks. The mask has become extremely popular as a ‘shield’ protecting anonymity and as a symbol for revolt and protest. Some protest movements have become particularly associated with the mask, mainly the ‘hacktivist’ group Anonymous and many protestors associated with the international Occupy movements. An Anonymous member protesting outside a Scientology church in San Francisco gives a succinct answer to why the mask has gained such popularity among protestors: “It’s a symbol of what Anonymous stands for, of fighting evil governments,” (Bilton, New York Times, 2011). The use of the Guy Fawkes Mask is here being used to symbolise a protest movement’s ideology and as a symbol of shared identity for a wide-ranging protest group which is ‘joined’ by simply turning up for protests. Although, for Anonymous, the mask has become a uniform of sorts, a ‘calling card’ which people can identify as part of their wider ideology, it is the unthinking appropriation of the mask by other activists and protestors which has made it into more of a ‘branding’ for protest. The original creator of V for Vendetta’s imagery and mask, graphic artist David Lloyd, offers an interesting comment on the popularity of his image: “The Guy Fawkes mask has now become a common brand and a convenient placard to use in protest against tyranny – and I’m happy with people using it, it seems quite unique, an icon of popular culture being used this way,” (Waites, BBC News Magazine, 2011). Here Lloyd is identifying the notion that his imagery has become a ‘brand’ and a useful symbol which protestors can simply buy and ‘transform’ themselves into instant revolutionaries. This identification and appropriation of counter-culture figures by protestors can also be seen in the popularity of ‘Che’ Guevara imagery. Both Guy Fawkes and ‘Che’ Guevara offer a quick and easy trademark of revolution and protest which protestors can buy and appropriate for their own forms of protest. In this way, the brands of these two symbolic revolutionaries are expected at protests, in that they have become part of embodied practices and gestures which society can associate with protest. They serve a conservative function in protest as they support pre-identified notions about protest: they serve to support the status quo which protects the current state of things. It is very interesting, then, to note that the image of the Guy Fawkes mask is owned by Time Warner who produced the V for Vendetta film. This means that for every sale of a mask, a small, but significant, amount of money goes to Time Warner, which further supports an artistic status quo created by entertainment giants (Bilton, New York Times, 2011).
Bilton, Nick. (2011). New York Times [online] Masked Protestors Aid Time Warner’s Bottom Line. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/29/technology/masked-anonymous-protesters-aid-time-warners-profits.html?_r=2&ref=technology&. Accessed on: 9th February 2013
Huizinga, Johan (1970). Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. Paladin: London
Johnstone, Keith (1981). Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre. Methuen. London
Waites, Rosie. (2011). BBC News Magazine [online] V for Vendetta Masks: Who’s Behind Them? Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-15359735. Accessed on: 9th February 2013