‘Money Heist’ and Protests: An Insight into Politics and Modern Popular Culture

Protestors donning the ‘Dali masks’ from Money Heist in Puerto Rico.
(Source: Kari Kari via Twitter)

In the last year, public demonstrations have become increasingly recurrent around the world, from protests in Hong Kong to Iran. As protests increase, we have also witnessed the growing popularity of TV shows as symbols in the political world, such as people dressing like the handmaids in “The Handmaid’s Tale” to protest for womens’ rights, to wearing red overalls like in “Money Heist”. This growing popular culture symbology in politics raises the question of whether what we watch in the comfort of our homes — our favorite series, movies or documentaries — alters our political behavior and provides us with powerful political tools.

Popular culture and political history

For centuries, popular culture has been a medium for ordinary people to externalize political frustrations even prior to the existence of advanced technologies. It was one of the few forms of soft power used by the public to catch their governments’ attention, and examples of these are found across cultures and times. However, with developments in digital technologies beginning in the 21st Century, the sites where popular culture manifested itself, multiplied and expanded. This has resulted in a blurring of the lines between what is considered to be cultural, political and ‘popular’. The cinematographic industry, for instance, provided, and still provides us with narratives that shape our thoughts and hence, our behavior. More specific examples such as the “Birth of a Nation” expressing entrenched racism in America, show how the industry contributes to shaping our behavior. The movie, in fact, had a large impact as it further normalized racist behavior and incentivized the re-emergence of Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in America. This shows how popular culture symbols can serve to channel beliefs and give strength to them.

The Symbolism in Money Heist

Casa de Papel (or ”Money Heist”), a Spanish Netflix series, has been used to explore the extent to which popular culture and politics interact. The well-known series reached 34 million households and became the platform’s most-watched non-English-language show. The story portrays a group of criminals that break into Spain’s Royal Mint to print their own money. A masterplan, orchestrated by ‘El Professor’, was aimed at robbing the bank without harming the 67 hostages in an attempt to maintain a positive public image.

During the series, viewers become immediately intrigued by the peculiar disguises worn by the heist group; a pair of red overalls and a Dali mask. What fans might not have realized is that by no means were these costumes random nor accidental. The Dali masks, in fact, were symbolically portraying one of the main recurring themes of the series: rejecting modern capitalist society. His symbolic presence is likely due to the fact that Salvador Dalí gave life to anti-capitalism in many of his artistic works such as the melting clocks in the painting “The Persistence of Memory”. This concept is extremely appealing to people today because it rejects how society is constructed, a recurrent movement in politics. On the other hand, the famous red coveralls were used as a constant reminder for the criminal group to fight back. Amongst many colors, red is a symbolic representation of resistance. Historically, in fact, this color has been chosen as representative of socialism, and metaphorically also reflecting the struggle, passion and blood behind it. The series was filled with symbolism, emerging in all forms and shapes such as the recurring use of the song ‘Bella Ciao’. Originating from World War Two, ‘Bella Ciao’ was an Italian bipartisan cry for freedom against the fascist regime but has been used all over the world as a cry for resistance, indignation, and skepticism towards the system.

Symbolism in recent protests

These might seem like minor details to the casual viewer. However, they became important building blocks for protesters around the world. Recently, examples have emerged in unexpected scenarios. In Iraq, for instance, ‘Bella Ciao’ was used during anti-regime protests last November. Protesters used popular culture, in particular Casa de Papel, to fight for change, asserting that, in this way, justice was given to the Iraqi people. The song was tweaked to accommodate the geopolitical realities, changing the words from Bella Ciao to “Blaya Chara”, meaning ‘No way out’ in Arabic. An activist even said: “The symbolism of this revolutionary song and the original words inspired us to produce an Iraqi version”.

Similarly, the Dali masks and red overalls appeared at the Puerto Rican protests this year. The protests demanded the resignation of the Puerto Rican governor, Ricardo Rosselló. These actions were taken after hundreds of messages were leaked, which revealed that the President and his inner circle have consistently mocked and provoked their supporters. This was the last straw for Puerto Ricans dealing with widespread government corruption, and a debt crisis that has increased unemployment. During the protests, banners showed lines from the series such as “Somos la p*ta resistencia” (We are the f*cking resistance), one of the main characters’ famous sentences.

Similar attributions to the show also emerged in Italy in 2019, where ‘Bella ciao’ was sung in Emilia Romagna, considered the most left leaning region of Italy, against Matteo Salvini, who was campaigning there. Salvini, is famously or infamously known as the leader of the Lega Nord, a far right Italian party. Hence, the rally, counting 7,000 attendees and organized by the “Sardine” grassroots movement, was opposed to his defined political stance. In fact, the Emilia-Romagna poll was essential for Salvini, the right wing leader of Lega Nord, as success could force national leaders to call an early general election. This would have determined whether his party would go to power given the wave of support it was enjoying at the time. The participants sang ‘Bella Ciao’ in an attempt to show Salvini that the opposition was alive and strong. Multiple examples can be witnessed around the world, and especially in Europe, where the song has become a favorite among anti-fascist protesters.

Regardless of the political background of such examples, popular culture elements are helpful tools for protesters. Not only do they mirror common concepts that bring together all protests but they provide relatable images (such as the Dalì masks and the red overalls) that the public can associate with. Since Money Heist is a very popular TV series, people can easily understand the intentions of such protests and are more willing to reproduce them in domestic environments or social media. Such peculiar elements become, therefore, necessary to increase visibility and public solidarity in line with what is showcased in the TV series.

Popular culture: A reflection and a catalyst of politics

What we watch and what we experience on the big screen, therefore, can ultimately, change our political behavior through powerful symbolism. With cases spreading as far and wide as Iraq and Puerto Rico, Money Heist is a powerful testament as to how cultural symbolism materializes itself into courage, hope and resistance. Thanks to these elements, protesters can create a perfect cocktail to engage the public and propagate the message of their fight.


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