“I’m so angry that I made a sign”: Selfhood and Media Reflexivity in Occupy Protest Signs
by Lyndsey Beutin — University of Pennsylvania, Annenberg School for Communication
May 03, 2012 – 00:00
Personal stories popped up everywhere during the first two months of the Occupy protests. News coverage and social media outlets included protest signs toting individual anger and motivations for occupying public space. Autobiographical messages ranged from printed “Lost my job; found an occupation” signs to extensive, handwritten accounts of the calamities of expensive healthcare. These messages are multiply autobiographical and digital: they are produced by the individuals physically holding them; they are captured with digital photography and circulated on digital news platforms; and their individualism and autobiographical impulse reflects trends in digital media authorship. The handmade aesthetic - far from a visual cliché simply signaling left politics - signifies the presence of the body, of the lived, amidst the digital and global distribution of images. In this way, selfhood is understood and publicized not just through the autobiographical statement on a placard, but remains in the frame through the embedded mark of one’s hand when the protest sign is digitally reproduced.
The first five images in the slideshow illustrate this pattern. “I am 84 and mad as hell” uses demographics to simultaneously legitimize and highlight frustration while challenging ageism. “I can’t afford a lobbyist so I organize” declares a protester’s motivation and economic situation while decrying a corrupt political system and educating the media and the public about why people are mobilizing.
As Occupy spread, “top 10” lists of signs proliferated. Digital news sources began recognizing the signs as objects themselves - not only as political symbols, delegitimizing signifiers, or the means to understand the occupation. Ironically, many of the media’s favorite signs contained statements challenging representations of the movement. The protesters used media reflexivity to capitalize on the press’s love of covering itself. Media literate activists made autobiographical interventions in the mediascape with placards like “not a jobless anarchist,” “I DO have a job,” and the double entendre “give me some credit.” The final image is a one-two punch of selfhood and media reflexivity: an infant’s first-person sign shames the greedy 1% through innocence and common sense; her father’s sign mocks the media who question the goals of the movement by turning the common refrain “we want justice” into a direct address, “we want justice, stupid.” Denied visibility and then ridiculed by the press, the protesters turned their critical and creative thinking skills on the media itself. And the media took the bait.
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