The Utility of a Symbol
We had a very interesting discussion over breakfast at my house this morning. My daughter, who was home from college, and I, somehow got on the topic of The Weeping Angels, arguably the most terrifying Dr. Who villains, and I mentioned the episode where the Statue of Liberty became one. My husband, who is not a Dr. Who fan, didn’t get the reference at first, but in explaining the plot to him, he questioned the frequency of other movies and shows that have involved Lady Liberty, aside from her original intent and meaning.
The Statue of Liberty, or Lady Liberty, is an icon known throughout the world as a representation of freedom, refuge, and the American dream. However, this statue has been used many times as a plot device or actual character, in a manner different from her original purpose, and always produces a great deal of dramatic intrigue. I don’t believe that any of the storylines I am planning to discuss contain within them any disrespect for our beloved statue, but rather they utilize her more for the huge symbolic meaning she conveys.
First of course, Dr. Who, where in season seven the episode entitled “The Angels Take Manhattan”, shows the Statue come to life to murder The Doctor’s closest friends. The Statue of Liberty in this case was only one of many angel statues overtaken by an alien race, but it was somehow fitting that after Amy and Rory had survived numerous encounters with these beings, the largest angel statue of all would be the one to finish them. Here, I think the symbol of the Statue of Liberty was less about the Statue herself, and more about the overwhelming odds it took to destroy our heroes.
Those of us who were around to see the sequel to the first Ghostbusters (1989) movie will remember the fact that the ghostbusters needed to generate goodwill in a New York City that was overwhelmed with evil and social strife. What symbol did they pick to raise the spirits of the troubled New Yorkers? Lady Liberty, of course, who once infused with “ectoplasm,” was able to walk across the bay and down the streets to the cheers of thousands of exultant fans. They chose a symbol that is near and dear to the hearts of many people, no matter their differences, a rallying point about what unites us as a nation. Of course, her presence turned the tide and allowed the ghostbusters to save the day.
Several not-so-happy movies have shown the Statue of Liberty as a fallen icon after the end of our civilization. She has been broken, more than once, but the hand that holds the torch is still aloft, in movies ranging from Planet of the Apes (1968), Spaceballs (1987), and The Day After Tomorrow (2004), where New York is overrun by a new Ice Age. While we hope to never live to see an apocalyptic destruction such as these, it is comforting to think that some remnant of our civilization may remain, even after we are long gone.
This enduring symbol of our national heritage is recognized the world over, and this is why I believe so many movies have included her famous visage. She is a part of our legacy, a visual embodiment of the spirit of the American people, and the melting pot that includes all its citizens. Whatever her fate may be in a movie plot, it affects us all and becomes all the more demoralizing, frightening, or uplifting, to us for her inclusion.
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The Malleability of a Symbol: an American Sphinx
Is it ubiquitous in our high culture and popular culture? There can be no question. Has it endured as a highly visible, if not powerful symbol? Perhaps. But it has also taken on a variety of different forms, each with a direction of its own. In its ironic birth as a passionate French effort to champion one indefinable notion of liberty supposed to envelope and obscure all others, it papered over both the unfinished journey of the American Revolution and the implosion of the French Revolution into violence and authoritarian rule. From the initially tepid response it received in America to its appropriation and adoration in this country by both left and right, the Statue of Liberty has been so useful to so many. It’s enduring utility remains enigmatic but most have arisen, at least in part, from its ability to bear the weight of contradiction while proclaiming an exceptionalism at times both hubristic and sublime. People appealed to it as a symbol of America’s heritage as a nation of immigrants but also repudiated any connection between the statue and immigration. It appears not so much to end argument as it does conceal it beneath opaque platitude. As with the Gettysburg Address, the statue probably also owes its durability to Federal victory in the Civil War. But it dominates our consciousness without any of the eloquence and purposiveness of Lincoln’s words. Instead there is an undercurrent of corruption, hints of a fall from grace, itself a further paradox by binding it all the more to our founding. Since its birth, layer upon layer of meaning has shaped and reshaped its symbolism. Perhaps it is not one enduring symbol but many, each appearing on cue whenever and wherever it is needed. It could be that it endures because it can be whatever anyone wants it to be. The only thing I think you can be sure of is that it can’t be ignored or forgotten.