Priceonomics

A Guy Fawkes Mask and a Richard Nixon Mask, as sold on Amazon

If you’ve been to a political demonstration, or switched on the television, or used the internet within the past six years, chances are good you’ve seen a mask of Guy Fawkes's face. While coordinated protest costumes are nothing new (Boston Tea Party, anyone?) Guy Fawkes masks are the hit political disguise of the century. The funny part is, they have almost nothing to do with the historical Guy Fawkes -- a 17th century political dissident who tried and failed to blow up English parliament.

The same was the case for the predecessor to the Guy Fawkes mask: the Richard Nixon mask. In 2002, decades after his presidency, Nixon masks were still the best-selling political mask according to Harper's magazine. Popular with protesters, pranksters, crooks -- and these characters' portrayals in Hollywood -- Nixon’s jowly caricature somehow became the American anti-hero’s default disguise. Even though Nixon’s fame was orders of magnitude more recent than Fawkes’, the mask itself had become more famous than the man. In both cases, the masks ran away from the historical figures they represented.

The ‘Anonymous’ Face of Political Unrest

The cover to V for Vendetta (Amazon)

Although the 5th of November -- the day of Fawkes' capture -- was still celebrated by many as a reason-for-fireworks-and-effigies, his face and plot had been all but forgotten by as early as the 1980’s. That’s when a writer named Alan Moore and an artist named David Lloyd decided to pick it up. It was 1981, and after a summer of political unrest in England, they were coalescing on an idea for a graphic novel. Their lead character was a “one-man-against-the-state” type, and he needed an emblem. So, Moore wrote the BBC in 2012, they bought a cardboard Fawkes mask:

“To our great surprise, it turned out that this was the year (perhaps understandably after such an incendiary summer) when the Guy Fawkes mask was to be phased out in favour of green plastic Frankenstein monsters geared to the incoming celebration of an American Halloween.”

“It was also the year in which the term "Guy Fawkes Night" seemingly disappeared from common usage, to be replaced by the less provocative 'bonfire night'.”

“At the time, we both remarked upon how interesting it was that we should have taken up the image right at the point where it was apparently being purged from the annals of English iconography. It seemed that you couldn't keep a good symbol down.”

Their book, V for Vendetta, was published in 1988 to critical acclaim. It revived the symbol for the kind of people who read graphic novels. But in 2006, the book became a major motion picture, and the image spread to millions. You could buy a Guy Fawkes mask in almost any costume store that year, even in the US. As the mask was used by political demonstrators in the film to conceal their personal identities but also identify with one another (and the besieged hero), they started being taken up by actual demonstrators in actual protests.

Members of Anonymous, wearing Guy Fawkes masks (Wikipedia)

But the widespread use of the mask, and it’s astronomical sales (the licensed manufacturer sells “well over 100,000 a year” and it’s currently the second best-selling mask on Amazon), owes a lot of credit to it having been adopted by the hactivist group Anonymous, partially through coincidence. When they were planning their first demonstration, it was less than two years after the release of the V film. Not only was the symbol relatively fresh in the public consciousness, and had been adopted by a popular (albeit usually apolitical) internet meme, but the mask was still in stock. As Gregory Housh, a former Anonymous member, told the Atlantic:

“Anons weren’t convinced that the Fawkes mask was right, so they made a short list of alternatives: a Batman mask, classic masquerade masks, a few others. “Then we called comics and costume shops, all over the world,” Housh says, checking availability and price, and the V mask won out: “It’s available, it’s cheap, and it’s in every city.” (The actual Fawkes had “nothing to do with it, for us,” Housh says.)”

Current wearers of the mask are now are referencing an activism group, referencing a film, referencing a comic book, referencing a myth, referencing a historical figure. If Guy Fawkes were alive today, it’s unlikely he’d recognize himself everywhere he’s represented. In fact, a sticky lawsuit might arise -- Warner Brothers owns the rights to the mask design and gets royalties with every sale.

The Scandal that Sold a Million Masks

Richard Milhous Nixon, 37th President of the United States (Wikipedia)

In 2012, The Atlantic asked the owner of the US’s top costumer, Scott Morris of Morris Costumes, what makes for a good political mask. Here’s what they learned:

“Mask appeal is partly a combination of being physically distinct and fun to caricature. It also comes from staying in the spotlight. An outgoing personality -- or even a scandal -- is a great way to keep your likeness on sale at a costume store. ‘I'll be selling Bill Clinton masks for the next 30 or 40 years!’ Morris says.”

If we’re just judging based on Nixon, Morris’ math is perfect. But he might be wrong that a simple scandal will do the trick. If you attended a protest, switched on the TV, or watched a movie any time in the 30 years following Watergate -- the scandal that revealed the Nixon administration had been secretly surveilling the offices of political opponents, and using the FBI, CIA and IRS to harass activist groups -- you probably saw a Nixon mask.

Was this just due to Watergate, or was there something about Nixon and the spirit of the time that made his the perfect face for mischief-makers to hide behind?

In Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image, David Greenberg discusses a scene in the 1997 film “The Ice Storm” in which two adolescents have a sexual encounter while one of them -- portrayed by Cristina Ricci -- is wearing a Richard Nixon mask:

“The sight of two forlorn teenagers fumbling through a sexual initiation is unsettling, but by hiding behind Nixon’s grotesque visage, Wendy makes the scene almost too eerie to watch. A tender rite of passage becomes an ordeal of awkwardness, alienation, and human coldness […] Although Nixon has always been an evocative symbol, in this scene it’s the Nixon mask that’s compelling.

Greenberg’s thesis is that, “the Nixon mask is powerful because it’s redundant -- the mask of a man who seemed to be wearing a mask already.”

In any case, the film is a latter-day appearance for the mask. Nixon’s disembodied face has a long and relatively glamorous history. It was parodied on protesters as early as his 1969 inauguration.

Protester wears Nixon mask at a Kissinger demonstration, Ottowa Citizen 1980

In 1972, fifty feminists staged a “kiss-off” in front of Nixon’s campaign headquarters, many wearing the masks. In that same year, John Fryer, a psychiatrist and a homosexual, spoke about what it was like to be a gay and in a profession that classified homosexuality as a ‘disease’ that had to be ‘cured’. He had recently been fired under suspicion of homosexuality, and so he gave his talk in disguise:

“He gave his talk in an oversized tuxedo, Nixon mask, and fright wig, speaking through a voice-distorting microphone. He was introduced as “Dr. H. Anonymous,” beginning his talk by saying, ‘I am a homosexual. I am a psychiatrist.’”

In 1973, the Watergate scandal broke. In 1974, Nixon was impeached and resigned, and he became the kind of figure parodied by used car salesmen in commercials. Protestors kept wearing the mask, with renewed vitriol, but his face also became a pretty regular prop. In 1975, Bob Dylan opened a performance wearing a Nixon mask, which he wore through the first song. He went on to use footage of this performance as the opening sequence to his 1978 film, Reynaldo and Clara. In 1980, Bill Murray, portraying Hunter S. Thompson, sported one in Where the Buffalo Roam. A whole airplane full of passengers wore the mask in “Airplane II: the Sequel”:

"Airplane II: The Sequel", 1982 (Youtube)

Then the criminal element got involved: In 1986, some minor characters in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns donned Nixon masks for a bank robbery. The writers of ‘Point Break’ took up a similar concept, and gave the film’s robber gang masks representing several ex-presidents, including Nixon (“We’ve been screwing you for years so a few more seconds shouldn’t matter should it?”) That film has been referenced, complete with Nixon masks, in several other places -- including science fiction television, music videos, animated children’s programming, and by a number of real bank robbers. 

"Point Break", 1991 (Youtube)

In terms of “real people” using the masks en masse, one poster writes in an etiquette forum of a wedding he or she attended:

“After dinner, the team of DJs began a laser light show complete with a strobe light and smoke machine. Finally, for reasons that were never revealed, these DJs put on mariachi sleeves and latex Richard Nixon masks (?!?!) before leading the conga line under the limbo bar. At this point someone began handing out plastic leis and fluorescent colored sunglasses (most of the pictures of the reception show the bride with a pair of pink sunglasses tucked into the front of her gown). As we choked on smoke from the smoke machine and watched all the Richard Nixon clones dance past us, my date whispered to me: ‘LSD could add nothing to this experience.’ He was so right.”

The Masquerader’s Election

Halloween superstore kingpin, Spirit Halloween, released a story last election year that mask sales of politicians were “a ‘scary good’ predictor of U.S. presidential elections” -- they’ve correlated to the winners of the last five elections.

If we count Guy Fawkes masks as “political”, Nixon masks have long been unseated as best-sellers. Today, the top-selling Nixon mask ranks #6,966 in Amazon’s “clothing” category, which is pretty astonishing when you consider the range of more-commonplace items the category encompasses. The top-selling Guy Fawkes mask ranks at #78.

Fawkes and Nixon have a surprising amount in common. They’re both political figures remembered for their failures. They’ve both been media villains, some might say scapegoats. But the Guy Fawkes mask was given a myth in comic books and film, and took on a message of hope or at least righteousness. Nixon’s grotesque mask is better known as an emblem of the more cynical, selfish, or absurd. And apparently, these days, sincerity sells.

This post was written by Rosie Cima; you can follow her on Twitter here. To get occasional notifications when we write blog posts, please sign up for our email list



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