Like Black Panther's Wakanda salute or V for Vendetta's Guy Fawkes mask, recognizable symbols from movies and TV shows sometimes take on a life of their own. These aren't just symbols that exist in the fictional universe; they've become living symbols that have been used in the real world for a variety of purposes, both lighthearted and serious.
People assign different meanings to symbols, and fans have co-opted and reused them for their own purposes. Sometimes that can be as innocent as deploying a hand gesture to tease a friend. But some symbols have been repurposed for political causes. Activists, for example, have used the Hunger Games symbol to signify their resistance to tyranny. Other times, the repurposing of these pop culture symbols has gone against the original intention of the creator, such as when men's rights groups appropriated the term "The Red Pill" in a way that the creators of The Matrix straight-up denounced.
These symbols, born in film and disseminated by fans, have been used to unite and divide, inspire and intimidate, build up communities and poke fun at authority. In other words, they've all gained currency off-screen.
The Three-Finger Salute From 'The Hunger Games' Became A Symbol Of Protest In Southeast AsiaPhoto: The Hunger Games: Mocking Jay Part 1 / Lionsgate Films
In the film series The Hunger Games, residents of Panem show a symbol to express solidarity and defiance in the face of oppression: They raise their middle three fingers. When heroine Katniss Everdeen flashes the three-finger salute on television, she strengthens a resistance movement against the tyranny of President Snow.
The Hunger Games' salute has gotten a life of its own outside of the film franchise. In 2014, General Prayuth Chan-ocha led a military coup against the Thai government. The move drew widespread condemnation, especially from students.
To signal their resistance to the coup, protestors turned to a recognizable pop-culture symbol: the three-finger salute. As Sirawith Seritiwat, a Thai activist, explained to The Guardian:
We knew that [the three-finger salute] would be easily understood to represent concepts of freedom, equality, solidarity. [...] It was partly because the anti-coup situation back then felt similar to scenes in The Hunger Games film, where people put three fingers up towards President Snow.
Thai protestors aren't the only activists tying the symbol to their movement. In Myanmar, activists protesting a coup there likewise deployed the Hunger Games salute.
- Photo: The Babadook / IFC Films
In Jennifer Kent's 2014 horror film The Babadook, the titular monster invades the home of a grieving widow and her troubled son, laying bare their psychological torments.
Two years later, an unlikely internet joke helped the LGBTQ+ community embrace the monster as one of its own. It all started with a Tumblr post that positioned the Babadook as a gay character, and the idea took off, unleashing a torrent of memes and tweets.
But what did the LGBTQ+ community see in a horror monster? As gender studies scholar Karen Tongson explained to the Los Angeles Times:
[The Babadook] lives in a basement, he's weird and flamboyant, he's living adjacently to a single mother in this kind of queer kinship structure. [...] For many LGBT people, that's what it feels like to be in your own families sometimes.
For many who embraced the Babadook as a queer symbol, the absurdity was precisely the point. According to Vox's Alex Abad-Santos:
The Babadook's queerness could be both a satirical take on cinema's ongoing failure of representation and a sardonic response to the media and social media's "hot take" economy. Further, it could also function as an acerbic joke about the nature of "gay icons," and how quickly and arbitrarily some gay icons (see: Nick Jonas) are anointed.
- Photo: Avengers: Infinity War / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
When it was released in 2018, Marvel's Black Panther was heralded as "a groundbreaking celebration of Black culture," in the words of Vox's Tre Johnson. The film takes place largely in Wakanda, a fictional African kingdom. Wakandans celebrate their love and loyalty for their homeland with a salute: They fold their arms - right on top of left - across their chest.
Why the crossed arms? Director Ryan Coogler explained that it evoked West African and Egyptian symbols of royalty. The fact that the gesture was also the American Sign Language word for "hug" added warmth to the salute.
The Wakanda salute took on a life of its own outside the films, as fans and Black activists used it to signal Black solidarity and power. Black athletes have even taken up the gesture. For example, tennis player Sachia Vickery gave the sign after a win. As Vickery told the WTA, "That was definitely Wakanda forever. I'm so obsessed with the movie."
Similarly, tennis pro Gaël Monfils gave the salute. He explained that the sign, and the movie that birthed it, is more than mere entertainment:
I think that movie is great, it's great for the community, for our community, it means quite a lot. It's not just a sign. It's everything. It's everything going on and definitely it's a shout-out saying that I'm supporting the Black Panther's community.
Women Have Donned The Signature Red Dress And White Bonnets From 'The Handmaid's Tale' To Protest Restrictions On Reproductive RightsPhoto: The Handmaid's Tale / Hulu
The Handmaid's Tale is an adaptation of Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel that imagines the United States as a totalitarian theocracy known as Gilead. In this patriarchal world, the handmaids' function is reduced to reproduction: Fertile women are farmed out to elite families in order to bear children on behalf of rich wives. These handmaids are reminded of their station by wearing red dresses and white bonnets that shield them from the world.
According to costume designer Natalie Bronfman, this was purposeful, since it curtailed the handmaids' individuality and freedom of movement. As she recalled trying the costumes out for the first time:
It was eerie. The veiling for The Handmaids themselves, on the back of them there are big fur hooks and they snap shut. As soon as that thing went on, you had no option but to look down on the floor - you just became silent. It's eerie to see that. It's powerful.
Ane Crabtree, another costume designer on the series, told Vanity Fair how uncomfortable the creative process was: "It was kind of twisted to think about how I would hinder women - their body shape, and also their movement and their freedom with the clothing."
The costumes resonated with viewers and activists in equal measure. Women advocating for reproductive rights have actually worn the costume to protests at statehouses and capitols across the United States and the world - by restricting reproductive rights and taking away a woman's right to bodily autonomy, they argue, the government is no better than Gilead.
Keishia Taylor, an activist in Northern Ireland, explained to The Guardian why she used the costume to protest:
In Ireland, it was used in context of the ban on abortion, because women had a sense that the state thinks of us like vessels and incubators. The image used in The Handmaid's Tale cuts right to the heart of the toxic relationship between church and state. [...] The bonnet makes you feel very vulnerable, because your hearing is cut off.