The two most iconic posters ever produced by the United States and the United Kingdom have much in common. Both came out of the second world war. Both were appear to have been meant to boost morale on the home front. And both were unknown in their time- only becoming famous many years after their creation.
But their messages are very different
The first is a collectivist call to action- from one proud, strong female factory worker to all her fellow Americans. It is confident and emotional. “We can do it,” she practically shouts, in an image ripped straight from a comic book panel. It is a poster that is unmistakably loud, brazen and personal.
The British poster, on the other hand, issues a command, rather than a shared call to action. You there– “keep calm and carry on.” It’s an order from on high- the message is literally topped by a crown, giving it an official stamp of governmental and royal approval. The tone is authoritarian and the graphics are stark, simple and efficient. There is no emotion here. In fact, the message explicitly forbids outbursts of the kind that run rampant in its American counterpart.
I don’t think you could find a more revelatory example of the contrast between two countries and their cultures.
But is it really that straight-forward? Maybe it is.
The “keep calm” poster is so terribly British, and so iconic, that even today you can see variations of it everywhere in the UK today (including many parodies). Having been raised in America, with very different values than those of most British people, I’ve always found the tone of these posters off-putting rather than inspiring. Where a Brit might read the words “Keep calm and carry on” and think of them as a proud display of UK reserve and resilience, when I see them, I couldn’t help but read in them a subtext when taken out of their World War II context of: “Shut the fuck up and do as you’re told, just like everyone else.”
Observing the reverence shown to variations of the “Keep Calm” poster while living as an American expat in Britain, has often made me think about, and identify with one of my favourite films: John Carpenter’s 1988 sci-fi cult classic, They Live.
I have come here to chew bubblegum and compare Britain to They Live. And I’m all out of bubblegum.
If you don’t know the film, it’s about an out of work American, played by actor and professional wrestler Roddy Piper, who happens upon a pair of extraordinary sunglasses. When he puts them on, he’s shocked to discover they reveal secret messages hidden all around him.
It turns out that a race of aliens have infiltrated the earth, and are hiding amongst humans and slowly brainwashing them into a dull acquiescent conformity, as a precursor to further invasion and subjugation. The magic sunglasses reveal everything- not just the secret brainwashing, but even the hideous aliens themselves, who can otherwise can pass undetected. On discovering the plot, Mr Piper acts in the most American way imaginable: he arms himself, stands in front of a U.S. flag and proudly proclaims the start of a violent revolution, shooting aliens and spouting off slogans and one-liners. God bless it, it is an awesome movie.
But is living in Britain as an American expat really equivalent to the experiences of “Rowdy” Roddy Piper fighting off alien indoctrination? Am I really surrounded by messages of conformity and subjugation, or do I just spend too much time thinking about movies and wishing I had magic sunglasses? What’s wrong with “keeping calm and carrying on?”
Polite notice: I command you to keep reading. Don’t question my authority.
There is an argument to be made that British people value conformity and authority far more than Americans. “Don’t make a fuss,” and “mustn’t grumble” are practically national mottos here. Despite being a fairly diverse people ethnically, Britons are far more predictable in their beliefs, values and actions than their Yankee cousins. The NHS is universally loved here. On Christmas Day, everyone watches the same television programmes: Dr Who and the Queen’s message. And those in charge of this country are all invariably white males who went to the same posh establishment school: Eton. And yes, there are a lot of patronising and authoritarian posters and messages to be found throughout Britain. Everywhere you look, you can see “Polite Notices” that are in fact usually passive aggressive lectures attempting to regulate all kinds of overly independent or impolite behaviour.
But maybe that’s the key- maybe all those signs are more about regulating manners and how you comport yourself, rather than what you are meant to think. Maybe the “Keep calm” posters still resonate in the UK, as a pleas to control how we behave rather than how we feel. After all, the British are by nature more reserved, and more concerned with etiquette than Americans, who by comparison can come across as loud and self-centred. And appreciating having a system of socialised medicine is hardly the first step in an abandonment of your individuality. Right? Should I really be judging modern Britain based on messaging that originated during the second world war?
Buy. Consume. Learn some history.
I confess that when I started writing this post, I viewed the “Keep Calm” and “We can do it” posters as glaring examples of the huge difference each country placed on the value of individuality versus conformity. I expected any research I did into these images’ history to only bolster this point of view.
Instead, what I discovered turned my perspective inside out.
“Keep calm and carry on” was created in mid-1939 by the British Ministry of Information. It was meant to boost morale in the event of an aerial attack by Germany. But because the expected blitz didn’t happen straight away (the Germans instead invaded Poland first), nearly all of the copies of this poster were eventually pulped. Most Britons in fact never had the opportunity to see “Keep Calm” during the subsequent blitz, but the image was rediscovered and popularised in the 21st century as emblematic of British resolve and fortitude.
So far, no surprises. But reading about the “We can do it!” image, was more illuminating. It turns out, this wasn’t even really an “American” poster at all, it was corporate.
“We can do it” was created not by the U.S. government, but by a huge private manufacturing conglomerate called Westinghouse Electric in 1943 for use in their factories. It’s comparative cheeriness in contrast to the “Keep calm” poster, is easier to understand when you consider that America was never in any direct danger of invasion, or even attack by any foreign power. World War II was being fought many thousands of miles away from the U.S. home-front.
In fact, the American poster was never even meant as, (and certainly never used as) a national morale booster, or homage to the strength and resolve of American women. It was introduced solely to push women already working in Westinghouse factories to achieve higher production quotas. It was essentially just corporate workplace propaganda. It’s quite a bit less inspiring when you look at it through those lenses.
Do question authority. But not this blog.
Maybe it’s the British people, and not the Americans who should better relate to “They Live” and its sunglass-wearing hero. They were the ones facing, and standing up to a real threat of invasion, and not just a desire for greater factory efficiency. Of course there’s nothing wrong with factory efficiency, especially during a war. I’m in favour of it. But knowing that one poster was originally a desperate call for unity and calm in the face of a terrifying enemy and that the other was just a motivational office memorandum has very much changed my initial perspective.
In fact, now that I think about it, instead of being an inspiring feminist icon representing American individuality, our Rosie the Riveter character could be seen as nothing more than a corporate shill.
It seems that without magic sunglasses, it’s not always easy to see what lies behind the messages we’re constantly being fed, even the most famous ones. Where is Rowdy Roddy Piper when we need him?