Guy Fawkes and Other Cultural Icons the Public Can’t Decide About

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Today is Guy Fawkes Day, the 406th anniversary of British folk hero Guy Fawkes and his cohorts’ foiled Gunpowder Plot to blow up part of the British Houses of Parliament and assassinate King James I. Guy Fawkes is one of those figures that the public can’t seem to decide about — was a he a hero for fighting what he deemed to be tyranny or a villain for trying to kill a bunch of people? Perhaps he’s a little bit of both, which only adds to his appeal as a folk hero. To celebrate the holiday, we’ve collected a list of Fawkes other cultural icons, from pop stars to presidents, that have split the public opinion on whether they’re heroes or villains. Be sure to let us know which you think are which in the comments.

Guy Fawkes

Despite the fact that Guy Fawkes was essentially an anarchist terrorist, and that Guy Fawkes Day traditionally involves burning the man’s effigy around a bonfire, the likeness of Fawkes has been taken up by many to stand for protest in the face of tyranny all over the world. For instance, if you’ve been in the lower half of Manhattan in the past few weeks, you might have seen quite a few replicas of the sinister, smiling Fawkes mask was worn by V, the leader in the comic book (and then film) V for Vendetta on the protesters at Occupy Wall Street, and the Guy Fawkes costumes were certainly in full force this Halloween. In America especially, he has become a sympathetic figure, though the crowd is still split: no matter how good the intention, that mask looks pretty sinister to us.

Michael Jackson

It’s undisputed that Michael Jackson is the king of pop, and catalogued in the Guinness Book that he was the most successful entertainer of all time. However, beginning in 1993, accusations of child sexual abuse plagued him, and these allegations, coupled with his changing appearance, began to make the public uneasy. In 2004, South Park characterized him as an insane Peter Pan figure who only wants to play with children, asking them to climb his ‘wishing tree,’ sneaks into Stan’s bed and then pays off his parents to keep quiet. When Michael Jackson died, there was a global outpouring of support for the pop star, but it seems as though some stages of his life will be mourned by the public more than others.

Richard the Lionheart

According to historian John Gillingham, Richard I’s reputation has “fluctuated wildly” over the years. He was a king but also a knight, which seems to have been the first instance of such, and was widely renowned in his own time and in ours for his prowess on the battlefield. However, he also was in many ways an absentee king, never learning English though he ruled England for ten years, and only staying there for about six months out of his reign. In many Robin Hood tales, Richard the Lionheart is portrayed as a friend to the outlaw, who was only driven to his thieving ways by the rule of Richard’s evil brother John, who corrupted the land and the crown while Richard was away at the Crusades. The stories often end with Robin Hood in a pickle and Richard returning to save him and mete out justice to the sniveling John, which is rather satisfying. However, there is no evidence in the earliest ballads to support this idea.

Steve Jobs

In Walter Isaacson’s new biography of the recently deceased computer visionary, he opens by comparing Jobs to Henry V, calling him a “callous but sentimental, inspiring but flawed king.” Many hailed Jobs as the bringer of the future, and in many ways he was that, but in both his personal and professional lives, he betrayed an extremity that put his colleagues on edge, and led some of them to wonder if he was bipolar. He had a strained relationship with his eldest daughter, seemed to treat women harshly, and was a control freak, but he was also capable of great kindness. We think we can only wait to find out what history’s final verdict on the man will be.

Andrew Jackson

Now, who does this remind you of: some people celebrate Old Hickory as one of our greatest leaders, while others think of him as an “American Hitler.” Jackson’s term was bloody, you can say that for sure — he was aggressive and often abrasive, but his time in office was marked most famously by his enforcement of the Indian Removal Act, which essentially forced tens of thousands of American Indians West. However, he was a staunch supporter of popular democracy and individual rights, and his followers founded what would become the modern Democratic party. At least some people have decided on him, though: in the musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (inexplicable tagline: History just got all sexypants), the president is redefined as a punk rock populist champion who yes, is conflicted, but is mostly just awesome. We’re fine with that, as long as he can keep singing.

Julian Assange

The Australian journalist and political activist rose to notoriety as the publisher of WikiLeaks, a website that provides “an innovative, secure and anonymous way for sources to leak information to our journalists.” Assange has been called a ‘high-tech terrorist’ by Vice President Joe Biden, but he also won the Readers’ Choice award for TIME magazine’s 2010 Person of the Year. After WikiLeaks leaked information on the war in Afghanistan, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen said, “Disagree with the war all you want, take issue with the policy, challenge me or our ground commanders on the decisions we make to accomplish the mission we’ve been given, but don’t put those who willingly go into harm’s way even further in harm’s way just to satisfy your need to make a point. Mr. Assange can say whatever he likes about the greater good he thinks he and his source are doing, but the truth is, they might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family.” He is hailed by some as an innovator in journalism and a champion for free speech and by others as an irresponsible, near-treasonous publisher. Then, of course, are the allegations of sexual misconduct. Sigh. Always!

Mata Hari

Though she was probably a spy for Germany, the Dutch courtesan’s public popularity probably has something to do with the 1931 film Mata Hari starring Greta Garbo. The film held very loosely to actual biographical evidence, and since then her story has only become more warped in public understanding, with most modern representations being accurate only to the point that she was a femme fatale. Beautiful women just can’t be evil spies, and if they are, we forgive them.