Whatever Happened to the Heroes?
Updated: Apr 9, 2021
Punk, Trotsky, Che Chic and the consumption of revolutionary icons
by Jessica Lee McMillan
Wandering down steaming ramen shopping alleys from Tokyo’s Koenji to Ueno in the mid-aughts, I was overcome by the ubiquity of Che Guevara’s image on t-shirts in cheap military gear and punk shops. In the suburbs of Saitama, his likeness also punctuated the crowded roads lined by Marui and Seibu department stores. The irony of Marxist iconography being commodified is well known, but I couldn’t help feel perplexed with Che’s presence in a culture more conformist than my ganga-infused, DIY, punk East Vancouver home city where Che shirts seemed a right of passage, once upon a time. This is not to say the image of Che belongs any more in Vancouver. In fact, the appropriateness of using his image to signify revolution at all should be called into question given his thirst for murder and his homophobia. But how does the imported icon of Che Guevara relate to the logo worship of Kitty-chan and brand fetishism of Louis Vuitton in Japan? Especially with emerging trend of uniformity of no logo in brands like Muji and Uniclo. In my hometown, I have always wondered why and how icons of revolution project the views of wearers. Is it earnest social consciousness with awareness of the history behind the image? Irony? Naive rebelliousness? Further, why do we need to import our heroes and do those heroes signify truly subversive revolution?
The Stranglers song “No More Heroes” mourns the lack of sufficient revolutionary representatives by asking “whatever happened to Leon Trotsky…” a Marxist ledgend listed among several famous figures such as Lenin and Shakespeare. The 1977 punk song, as well as the punk movement, seemed to sense an absence of contemporary examples as it sought to cleave itself from the mainstream. Indeed, of cultural and ideological movements such as Literature, Trotsky argues continutiy of literary expression is dialectical and a series of reactions to and from which it is trying to break. The foundation of Punk was a break from the reliance on old, conservative forms that were less relevant to an increasingly restless urban culture. If one were to align punk with Trotsky’s idealized proletariat, the revolutionary individual is one who changes culture and history by seizing and modifying it. But wearing a mass-produced Che shirt feebly hints at the wearer’s rebelliousness. Even worn in sincerity, the ubiquity of the image alone has deadened the meaning. In most cases, the emergence of what Newsweek called “Che Chic” seems a non-revolutionary act of consumerism.
“No More Hereos” cites other famous figures such as Elmyr de Hory, famous for forging great paintings and it seems ironic that the Stranglers exalt a copyist, but I believe it references de Hory’s ability to master the art of copying and undermine the legitimacy of the original paintings. Furthermore, the song “No More Heroes” itself became embattled in copyright litigation a few decades later against Elastica’s too-familiar sounding “Waking up” echoing the tenous legitimacy of original, revolutionary art.
The key point of contention is whether or not the wearer of any pop or cult image is fully aware of the history of the signs they use. In the postmodern, capitalist exchange of icons and logos, the individual is too often worn by the logo. (I marvel, for instance at the prevalence of Disney paraphernalia and its cult of innocence in Japan, despite the company’s historical use of characters as Japanese stereotypes in anti-Japanese WWII propaganda). One can be a chameleon without much accountability to the idea from which the image or cultural use emerged. This is as potentially liberating, as it is a meaningless repetition of mass culture. The rift between images and their origins allows us to use them in a way that can potentially challenge long-stale stereotypes or challenge rigid meaning to make it dialectical. It is not a given that the image of Che is one we should revere, given the accounts of his less-celebrated brutality. My excursions to Tokyo’s goth Mecca, Harajuku as both spectator and spectacle confirms that repetition of subculture can turn into a completely different expression from some of the same inspiration. A subculture like Goth in Japan is multiply-removed from one of its iterations via late 70s punk in the UK, yet is uniquely expressive of youth culture in its colourful Japanese interpretation, which itself has now been (mis)appropriated by North American pop idols. But does Guevara, transfigured to a silk-screened face, long-since separated from the contested history of the “hero” himself, a hint of global consciousness? The rash of Che paraphernalia became popular in the 1960's and more recently spawned by the popular film The Motorcycle Diaries. Che Chic does not seem to capture the revolutionary spirit it had in the past because his image has been generally resurrected through consumerism and fashion, rather than ideological means. He has been donned by everyone from celebrities to left-wing college idealists. Is it possible to be aware of the irony, dismissing the claim that image never had authentic meaning? I am aware of my own hypocrisy here purchasing the 150th Anniversary Communist Manifesto from a huge, Canadian retailer Chapters, instead of my local, non-profit, socialist bookstore that had a cheeky sign at one point to liberate any books they did not have in stock at one of the bookstore giants. Yet, I have also delighted in buying American soda with Che’s image on the bottle and own a tin Lenin lunchbox (barcode and all) as a playful comment on the exchange between communist ideology and capitalist reality. How can one be ironic or visibly expressive as a means to counter the mass replication and homogeneity of culture?
The last few decades has brough more playful incarnations of Che, allowing for the questioning of his image and legacy. Challenging monoculture and heternormativity, Comedian Margaret Cho modeled her likeness after Che in her one-woman show Revolution, using Guevara’s icon as a new means to express multiple cultural revolutions. Cho’s appropriation may be the most subversive because the parody of Cho wearing Che calls attention to the lack of representation of women and people of colour among revolutionary icons. The only female icon on t-shirts I can think of is Rosie the Riveter, who is not only fictional, but her edginess has been lost in a deluge of blasé, retro imagery on mugs and magnets aimed at women including “wine mom”. At least more humorous play with Che’s image recently includes drag, artisitc reinterpretations and commingling with other political heroes. For instance, Obama wearing a Che shirt wearing an Obama shirt hyperbolizes casual use of political iconography including Obama’s 2008 Hope poster in an endless play of signifiers.
While a conscious play with Che’s symbolic meaning gives a glimmer of hope, I question how the image of revolution is being sold or misused as part of the mass culture of the individual. Revolution, transgression and anti-conformity can all be worn, but do they challenge or repeat? In a tacit responsibility for the individual to be a wearer and a thinker. We just may never know which it is until we open a dialogue about it.