Safety pins, awareness ribbons, and the challenges of new symbols


by Terence E. McDonnell

For many Americans, safety pins have suddenly appeared everywhere: Pinned to shirts, posted to Facebook, or worn by celebrities. When I started wearing one a handful of strangers asked “what the heck are these safety pins all about?” This is the challenge of new symbols. Before they can work people need to know what they mean.

Americans had similar questions in 1991 when celebrities attending the Tony Awards donned red ribbons on their lapels and gowns. In a new paper at Poetics (coauthored with Amy Jonason and Kari Christoffersen) that traces the different trajectories of red AIDS ribbons and pink breast cancer ribbons, we argue that new symbols must be both retrievable (visible and available in the public sphere) and recognizable (people share an understanding of its basic meaning) to have the intended effects. While red ribbons might be publicly available, they can’t effectively raise awareness if they don’t denote “AIDS.”

New symbols often borrow from pre-existing cultural symbols in order to harness their cultural power. The single-looped awareness ribbon is now iconic, but its first instantiation in the red AIDS ribbon intentionally borrowed the ribbon idea from the contemporaneous public practice of using yellow ribbons to denote support for troops in the first Gulf War.

In the case of safety pins, Americans co-opted the symbol from Britain, which introduced the practice of wearing safety pins to express solidarity with British citizens and immigrants who experienced or feared attacks after the Brexit decision.

This idea offered a resonant solution to progressive Americans reeling from Trump’s election, and the practice quickly circulated through social media in the days following. While safety pins circulated quickly on bodies and across the web, this retrievability does not necessarily lead to publicly recognized meaning for the practice. Borrowing a symbol from Britain that was unfamiliar to many Americans meant that safety pins required explanation.

The meanings of safety pins in the U.S. context are multiple and contested. The original British use, introduced first on Twitter, was intended to communicate solidarity and safety: “I quite like the idea of just putting a safety pin, empty of anything else, on your coat. A literal SAFETY pin!” While many Americans seem to use the symbol simply as a sign of solidarity, others have argued that it represents something more: a willingness to intervene when racist, homophobic, or xenophobic acts are perpetrated in public.

Shortly after the symbol began to spread online, some on the left began to criticize the symbol. Commentators suggested the safety pin was an expression of white guilt, that white progressives don’t have the right to “self-designate” themselves as allies, and that wearing a pin will do little to advance the rights of minority communities.

Looking at Google trends, searches for safety pins reached peak popularity between November 13th and the 19th, but are already in rapid decline. Safety pins, while suddenly retrievable, are likely not recognizable enough yet to effectively express solidarity with marginalized peoples, except to other safety pin wearers. This rise and fall resembles the trajectory of the red AIDS ribbon, though over a much shorter timespan.


Search volume for “safety pin” over the past 30 days. Source: Google Trends.

Red ribbons had a rapid rise in the public sphere–prompting BrandWeek Magazine to ask in 1991 if it was “The Most Powerful Icon of the 90s?”–but rapidly faded from public discussion by the mid 90s. In contrast, the pink ribbon had a gradual and steady trajectory that led to the cultural juggernaut it is today. We argue that one core difference explaining these divergent trajectories was that the pink ribbon had organizations like Susan G. Komen for the Cure that managed the meaning of the symbol, and sought to make it more inclusive when pink ribbons faced contestation from social movements.

Safety pins more closely resemble the red ribbon in that there isn’t an organization that owns the symbol that can manage its meaning. Critics of the red ribbon accused it of being “AIDS kitsch” and a celebrity fad. Those meanings stuck with tangible effects: the practice of wearing red ribbons declined, discussion of AIDS ribbons in the public sphere evaporated (even as AIDS organizations adopted the symbol), and now my students recognize red ribbons as symbolic of heart disease or campaigns against drug abuse rather than AIDS.

One major difference between safety pins and red ribbons is the pace of circulation over social media. Whereas the presence of red AIDS ribbons in the public sphere rose and fell over a three year period, the rise and fall of safety pins may have already occurred over a short two weeks.

In the era of internet memes, the lifecycle of new symbols and ideas may be so short as to make it difficult for new symbols to take hold. Before the practice of wearing safety pins was established and its meaning stabilized, potent criticisms had begun circulating through the same social media circles, effectively subverting the potential the symbol may have had to build solidarity.

New symbols, circulated through grassroots channels, face a challenge of consolidating meaning because the symbol isn’t already embedded within routine or ritual. In my recent book, I show how cultural symbols are open to what I call “cultural entropy”–when the intended meanings and purposes for symbols face unintended interpretations and uses. Rather than a sign of solidarity, people have reinterpreted the safety pin as an apologist symbol of white guilt.

A subset Donald Trump  supporters who engage in white supremacy also deployed symbols after the election: swastikas, Confederate flags, racist epithets, “sieg heil” salutes. These symbols are widely culturally available, all with dramatic histories that the American public routinely confront. Supremacist symbols are symbolically charged and ready at hand, embedded within institutions, and resistant to entropy, whereas progressives apparently lacked symbols appropriate to the occasion of Trump’s election, compelling the invention and circulation of new symbols like safety pins.

Communities of origin may also play a role. Red ribbons originated from the arts and theatre community in New York who were significantly affected by the AIDS crisis, giving the symbol an imprint of legitimacy. That safety pins emerged among white progressives, rather than from minority communities who face greater risk under a Trump presidency, left the symbol open to misinterpretation. If Muslim-Americans or immigrant communities don’t recognize the safety pin, is it really a sign of solidarity? Who is the intended audience for safety pins?

Given the shock of a Trump presidency to many on the left, one can understand how people might want a catch-all symbol to express their frustrations, commitments, and allegiances. Alternatively, wearing a “Black Lives Matter” t-shirt seems less open to misinterpretation. New symbols, especially ambiguous ones that lack public retrievability and recognizability and that lack an organization, struggle to do the work they are meant to do.

Terence E. McDonnell is Kellogg Assistant Professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame.

Image: Wikimedia Commons


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