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Thai Military Bans Hunger Games Salute: What Protesters Can Take From Hollywood

We may not live under a military junta, but we can still take capitalism's representations of revolution for our own purposes.

by Natasha Lennard
Jun 3 2014, 8:10pm

Photo by AP/Wason Wanichakorn

The Hunger Games did not birth the revolutionary salute. Viewers and readers of the franchise had to already recognize that when Katniss Everdeen stretches out her arm and raises three fingers in the air, this is an implicitly defiant act.

Without some awareness of what resistance might look like, those stirring cinematic moments would not have pulled at the rib bones of millions of moviegoers. We know insurrection when we see it. And, as the multi-billion dollar success of The Hunger Games film franchise makes clear, Hollywood perhaps knows this best.

But what happens when a fictional symbol of resistance like Katniss' salute spills out beyond the multiplex, outside the pages of young adult books, and onto the streets? In Thailand, protesters are learning the hard way. The Hunger Games salute has reportedly become the unofficial symbol of opposition to the military junta established in last month's Thai coup. The Associated Press on Tuesday reported that military rulers have announced they will mass arrest protesters who refuse to lower their saluting arms when ordered.

In a statement, a spokesman from the ruling junta announced, "If it is an obvious form of resistance, then we have to control it, so it doesn't cause any disorder in the country."

The salute is certainly an "obvious" form of resistance — obvious insofar as it is recognizable to anyone around the world who has been in contact with Western popular culture in recent years. The Hunger Games has become a global phenomenon, with its second film installment, "Catching Fire," grossing $838.2 million worldwide as of earlier this year.

But Thai protesters have also wrenched the symbol from its pop cultural context for their own purposes. Some saluters have said that, for them, the three fingers pointing skywards stand for 1. No Coup, 2. Liberty, 3. Democracy.

The Thai protesters are using a hand signal from a blockbuster to express their own resistance. Colonel Weerachon Sukhondhapatipak, a spokesman for the junta, told the AP, "We know it comes from the movie, and let's say it represents resistance against the authorities."

This particular form of silent resistance has thus in some ways been prepackaged by the entertainment industry. But that certainly doesn't mean it can't be threatening. If the Thai military rulers saw it as no threat, no arrest edict would have been issued.

It's as The New Inquiry's Max Fox noted back in 2011:"Just because capital has brought a thing inside itself doesn’t mean that thing can’t be threatening to it."

Fox is pointing out that products of capitalism — say, a hand gesture from a blockbuster movie — can be used in resistance. If there were no desire for dissent, there would be no reflection of that desire in the mass media. It works as a symbol of protest because of its global legibility. At the same time, it only works as a symbol of resistance within the confines of popular culture because the language of and desire for dissent is already present.

There are plenty of examples of insurrectionary affect in pop culture. As I've highlighted in previous essays, there are riot scenes in Jay Z videos, Miley Cyrus sings "we run things, things don't run we," Justin Bieber croons "I never thought that I could feel this free," and Axe produces "Anarchy" body spray. This is insurrectionary sentiment put to the service of selling shit — riotousness recuperated by capital — but the sentiment is there nonetheless, ready to be plucked from the safe confines of songs and cinemas and put to radical political action.

The French situationists coined a term for the technique of using items from capitalist media for antagonistic purposes: détournement. For media to be détourned, it must already be widely recognizable, so that the impact of its use in circumstances of dissent is not lost. Whether the use of The Hunger Games salute constitutes détournement is an interesting question. Certainly, a Hollywood artifact has been put to use in street protest, in real life dissent. But not by virtue of protesters shifting the essential meaning of the salute. Katniss' three-finger salute always meant revolution. Which is not to say that Hollywood meant to incite protest. As Malcolm Harris once wrote, "If Hollywood could talk, it would probably admit that the box office on V for Vendetta wasn’t worth the hackers in Guy Fawkes masks."

Thai coup protesters present a slightly different example — they are anti-coup, not anti-capitalist. But the pattern is the same: An artifact of resistance offered up by the consumerist Hollywood machine is taken up for the purposes of protest. We might not share the Thai saluters' circumstance, but we can apply the lessons from their resistance to the Thai military to our own efforts to resist oppressive systems in the West.

Reports of a military junta cracking down on salutes from a movie likely feels to many like a very foreign situation to our own. But fierce police crackdowns on protest gatherings, the introduction of laws banning masks, the ability for authorities to deem areas protest-free zones, and to search demonstrators without cause for suspicion are all realities of the contemporary United States. Nationwide efforts coordinated through fusion centers worked to monitor and stymie Occupy protests. A Levi's jeans ad featuring a denim-clad protester squaring up to police was pulled from British television during the 2011 London riots. Rest unassured, if protesters in the US actually embodied Katniss' revolutionary spirit, then The Hunger Games-inspired symbols would be policed.

We have a glut of cultural products screaming messages of dissent. If these messages didn't resonate, they wouldn't be so very consumer-friendly. They appropriate desires and spit them back at us in the defanged form of articles of mass media. Lionsgate, the studio behind The Hunger Games franchise, wants the movies' popularity to resonate, too, but in the most counter-revolutionary direction possible. Discussions are already underway with theme park creator Thinkwell Group to develop a touring Hunger Games exhibition. Kids enamored with Katniss' defiant spirit will be able to funnel their dissenting desires into a capital-friendly, high production Hunger Games playground. Potentially potent stories of revolution are that easily contained.

Until, of course, they are not. It is thanks to this massive production machine that we recognize the pop cultural origins of a three-fingered salute in protests thousands of miles away. But, crucially, we recognize that these salutes mean dissent. We can let insurrectionary messages live and die in movie theaters and Spotify accounts, or we can run with them, out of the multiplex, into the streets.

Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard