With a pithy mix of humor and combativeness, this is protest art for the social-media era. While many kept their messages serious and straightforward — “Refugees Welcome,” “Keep Abortion Safe and Legal” — it was the new breed of signage that went viral long after the crowds dispersed. Gaining wide circulation on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or various “best protest signs” listicles, they reached a vast audience that never went near a march or rally.
Protest signs have been around since the American Revolution, says Ralph Young, a Temple University history professor and the author of “Dissent: History of an American Idea.” But now that signs can have a long digital afterlife, the pressure is on to create ever-more memorable and creative messages.
“It became far more prevalent after photography was invented, and then even more so because of television,” Young says. “And now, even more so because of social media.”
The Twitter generation is well versed at crafting sharp, short messages, seeking the biggest impact with a limited amount of space.
There were plenty of clever signs on display during the civil rights and anti-Vietnam protests, Young says, and a smattering of pop-culture references too. But today’s protest signs are a veritable celebration of favorite characters from movies, TV and literature.
Princess Leia, Xena the Warrior Princess, the Cat in the Hat and sitcom heroines from “Arrested Development” and “Parks and Recreation” were all poster-boarded for the various women’s marches. Marchers also made reference to “Harry Potter” (“Even Slytherins find Trump Too Evil”) and “Game of Thrones” (“Even the Lannisters Pay Their Debts”). There were Beyoncé quotes (“Okay, ladies, now let’s get in formation”), ’80s music puns (“Girls just wanna have fun-damental human rights”) and music-snob disses (“Trump Likes 3 Doors Down”).
“Politics and pop culture have converged more” since the 1960s, says Randall Lake, an associate professor of communications at the University of Southern California. “Especially as politics becomes more like entertainment, I think the crossover is easier.”
But many signs have gone viral without pop-culture cred or incisive wit — even if the message was more meta than pointed . . .
. . . or didn’t display actual words. . .
Many of the boldest signs aren’t printable in a family newspaper — and some activists have fretted that raunchy jokes and offensive language could undermine the gravity of the cause or the protesters’ moral ground. But those qualities aren’t new to protest, Young says — consider the famous image of an anti-Vietnam protester raising a sign that says: “Bombing for Peace is like F—— for Virginity.” And many veteran protesters embraced blunt messages. Flocks of “Nasty Grandmas” and middle-aged women holding signs declaring “I can’t believe I still have to protest this s—” have been spotted at demonstrations across the country.
Plus, as many protesters would point out, protest is supposed to make people uncomfortable.
“The norms of appropriateness have kind of loosened up, but there are still norms, and they’re still constraining,” Lake says. “And almost by definition, protesters have to push the boundary in order to challenge the norm.”
There is a long tradition of humor in dissent, adds Young, from medieval court jesters to the 20th-century satire of H.L. Mencken to modern-day stars such as Jon Stewart and John Oliver.
But: “You don’t want people to get a good laugh, and then go home and forget about it,” Young notes. “You want to stir people to action. As with all things, you’ve got to think through how you’re giving out your message, and you want to do it in an effective way.”
This election has “made dissent and protest a lot more popular,” he says. “And that’s really good to see, people taking democracy seriously, no longer taking it for granted.”
Or, in the words of one sign recently spotted outside the Trump hotel in the District: PROTEST IS THE NEW BRUNCH.