The real-life use of a fictional gesture led to five students' arrest in Thailand Wednesday when military police detained protesters holding up the District 12 three-finger salute from "The Hunger Games." Though the hand signal ban is new, using popular culture as a platform for social change isn't. Activists have connected their messages to music, books and movies for centuries as a way to explain their point of view.
"Symbols or songs or people or dates take on almost magical properties," political science professor Eric Selbin from Southwestern University in Texas told International Business Times. "The effort to take stuff that's happening and marry it to real-world stuff as a vehicle for change obviously has the potential to be incredibly powerful."
The "Hunger Games" movie and book series follow teenager Katniss Everdeen as she works with oppressed citizens to overthrow an authoritative and violent government. The latest installment, "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1," comes out in theaters Friday, but its themes have long been a rallying cry for protesters worldwide.
Thai protesters first adopted the District 12 salute -- one of the "Hunger Games" characters' favorite symbols of rebellion -- in May as a silent symbol of their resistance to a military coup. In response, police banned the hand signal from being used in large groups and arrested five students when they used it Wednesday during a speech by the new Thailand prime minister, Quartz reported.
At a fracking protest in Oklahoma last year, environmental activists reprised two "Hunger Games" symbols: They reportedly unrolled a giant banner featuring the Mockingjay with the motto "the odds are never in our favor."
In China, officials said the release of the new "Hunger Games" movie would be delayed until at least January. Rumor had it the premiere was canceled as a result of the continuing anti-Beijing protests in Hong Kong, the Globe and Mail reported.
Protesters pull themes from "The Hunger Games" to make their point because knowledge of the anti-government plot is so widespread. Articulating the reasons behind movements can be difficult when trying to appeal to a diverse population, but revolutionary ideas tend to resonate when people watch familiar characters go through similar experiences on screen. Viewers grasp the concepts quickly, which allows them to spread fast, Robert Thompson, a pop culture professor at Syracuse University in upstate New York, told IBTimes.
Easy-to-consume media becomes shorthand for otherwise lengthy explanations of political stances. "If it's really pop culture, it means a wide number of people are going to understand," Thompson said. "Once upon a time, one might have tried to get a rebellion going by quoting Plato."
Personal perception plays a big role. People heading into the "Hunger Games" movies looking for validation of their anti-government feelings will find it. People who aren't, won't. "Interpretation is definitely key, because art forms and pieces of pop culture don't really have any fixed meaning," Timothy Brown, a history professor at Northeastern University in Boston, said.
In most cases, however, pop culture is a response to a movement, not the cause for it. Ohio University contemporary history professor Kevin Mattson said "it's usually more complicated than, say, a work of pop culture directly leading to people deciding that they're going to take action."
For example, when students in Taiwan organized the Sunflower Movement against a trade act last spring, they asked the band Fire Ex to write them a song. "Island's Sunrise" eventually became the protesters' anthem, Straight.com reported. Decades earlier, Woodstock musicians like Jefferson Airplane sang about peace because their audience loved being a part of the 1960s counterculture. Serbian rock music in the 1990s took on tough topics like the draft as rebels pushed against against then-President Slobodan Milošević's rule.
Occasionally, though, pieces of pop culture can actually provide the final push to incite a revolution. Thompson pointed to Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin," which portrayed slavery in the U.S. so realistically that it rallied the abolitionist movement and was cited by some for starting the American Civil War. White Guy Fawkes masks from the "V for Vendetta" movie inspired hacker group Anonymous to attack establishments like the Church of Scientology in 2008. The TV show "Will & Grace" kick-started gay rights conversations in the U.S. by showcasing same-sex relationships.
But in the end, movies, music and books alone don't cause social change. Humans do. "It's not a case of people being dumbfounded and brainwashed by these cultural goods, but rather people putting their own meanings in [them]," Brown said.