The Popular Geopolitics of the Umbrella: From Spy to Democracy Protester (with US presidents and campaigners along the way)

Recent news from Hong Kong has been filled with stories of protests, police dispersal and widespread use of tear gas, pepper spray and violence. The protests were stimulated by fears that the Beijing government was not going to honour the terms and conditions of the 1997 handover from the UK and the specific expectation that in 2017 the people of Hong Kong would be able to elect their chief executive (there might be economic and geographical factors at play as others have noted). But something else more mundane has also loomed large in the protests; a particular object in fact. The umbrella  has become a vital accomplice of those protesters, as they seek refuge from the pernicious effects of pepper spray. So widespread was the use of the umbrella that social media users started to use the hashtag #umbrellarevolution to recognise the importance of this particular object. It is not the first time the umbrella has attracted the association with revolution. Just ask citizens of Latvia.

It all seems a far cry from the Cold War when the umbrella rather than shielding a democracy protester from the ill effects of pepper spray could be used for something quite different. Most infamously, a Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was killed by an unknown third party using a deadly umbrella. In this case, the umbrella has been fitted with a firing mechanism and a tiny pellet containing ricin entered his leg while walking across Waterloo Bridge in London. He died some three days later but was able, before his death, to tell police that he had felt a sharp jab in his leg and saw a man walking away with an umbrella. The assassin was never captured. But years later a name emerged of a Bulgarian agent who might have been responsible for the murder. A model of the deadly umbrella can be viewed in the International Spy Museum in Washington DC.

The umbrella, in popular culture, has been a vital accomplice of some spies such as John Steed in hit TV series The Avengers in the 1960s. Equipped with bowler had and umbrella, Steed was the classic gentleman British spy. In Steed’s capable hands the umbrella could be transformed into a fighting sword, and on other occasions was shown to accommodate a sound recorder, a hidden camera and even a modest reservoir of whiskey. In James Bond, the umbrella makes an appearance occasionally; as something to be found in Bond’s flat and in For Your Eyes Only (1981) a device invented by Q, which is capable of clamping on the head of a potential assailant. And, finally, in The Persuaders a TV series starring Roger Moore and Tony Curtis, the umbrella is an occasional accomplice in perpetuating again an image of the spy as an impeccably dressed, class-conscious gentlemen serving Queen and Country.

The association between the umbrella and the figure of British gentleman spy was never entirely straight forward, however. The Penguin in the Batman series showed that the umbrella could contain an extraordinary range of features including guns, missiles, gas, sword, flame thrower, parachute and helicopter. Over the decades, the Penguin’s umbrella has proven to be one of the most versatile objects. Unsurprisingly, he is rarely to be found without his umbrella (or in Batman Returns it is clear that he enjoys the usage of several umbrellas). Appropriately enough perhaps, he died when he picked up the wrong umbrella. The umbrella contributes to his positioning as simply monstrous.

There is much more, I suspect, to write on the popular geopolitics of the umbrella. It might not enjoy the contemporary immediacy of the wire-tap or the CCTV camera, but it has been an important accomplice in politics, spying and popular fiction. Sometimes umbrellas can feature strongly in presidential etiquette, as President Obama found in May 2013 when a minor furore erupted over the image of a male US Marine holding an umbrella while the president addressed reporters outside the White House. Critics weighed in saying that it was outrage that a male Marine was made to hold the umbrella. Apparently, female marines are allowed to hold umbrellas in some limited circumstances hinting at a particular gendered and class-based understandings of the umbrella. Critics accused the president of making the marine in question look like a ‘butler’. But if the president is the commander-in-chief then presumably countless marines and secret service agents have held umbrellas for their leader?

Presidents have also held their own umbrellas for themselves and others, and been criticised and pilloried for doing so. George W. Bush was photographed looking somewhat hapless when a gust of wind folded up his umbrella after leaving his official helicopter. President Clinton was lampooned when shown holding an umbrella over Senator Ted Kennedy’s head while at a rain-affected funeral in 1994. And Jimmy Carter, who was frequently accused of being feeble was teased by commentators for holding an umbrella for US Senator Jennings Randolph during a West Virginia State Forest Festival in 1978. What is interesting about these examples is how the umbrella became both a test of competence (or lack when the umbrella folded or failed to perform its basic task of keeping rain away from the user) and/or embedded in class-based, gendered and sexualised ways. The umbrella as an effete object; for a man in particular who is afraid to get a bit soaked or a man who, if holding the umbrella for someone else, is weak or submissive. What might a former Austrian body builder say – the umbrella is for ‘girly men’?

Another way in which the umbrella has been put to work has been as a campaigning symbol. The Red Umbrella project, for example, works with former and current sex workers (both male, female, cisgender and transgender) and provides support and advocacy training. It was established in 2010 by Audacia Ray and is particularly prominent in facilitating the story telling of those working in the sex industry. Blockupy movements have also adopted the umbrella as a campaigning object while marching on financial and political districts of major cities such as Frankfurt.

As they continue their protests in central Hong Kong, we might spare a thought for the multiple ways in which the humble umbrella has been put to work in various geopolitical and socio-cultrual contexts.



I have updated this blog post and my sincere thanks to @protestcamps for a reminder about the umbrella and its role in the work of campaigning organisations and protest movements.



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