The image of Sally Field standing alone with a UNION sign has become an iconic representation of protest, a spectacle of individualist rebellion. The shot comes from the 1979 movie Norma Rae, which earned Field her first Academy Award. Crystal Lee Sutton was the inspiration for the movie, and the scene was based on her specific actions. In 1963, the Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA) started its second major Southern organizing drive. When Sutton joined her local in North Carolina in 1973, its membership was predominantly African American. She quickly became very involved and was a known member after only a couple months. So standing on her towel-folding table with the UNION sign was a “backstage gesture,” filled with particular meanings for her fellow union members and coworkers.
The movie, however, focuses on Norma’s personal transformation, and she appears to initiate the union activity at the prompting of a lone TWUA organizer. When the director changed Sutton’s experiences to construct a lead character who serves as a singular, sudden catalyst, Sutton resisted. She wanted a movie that depicted the many organizers and workers who sacrificed for the TWUA. Twentieth Century-Fox removed her and changed the title.
The climactic shot in the movie shows Norma holding the sign up to her coworkers, and they shut off their machines in support. But in publicity for the movie, the image framed only Field. She stands alone and emotionally charged, detached from decades of union activism, fellow organizers, or even coworkers. The photo appeared repeatedly in magazines and later websites, making the protest a “frontstage spectacle” associated with the act of one self-possessed person. That transformed the gesture from a vernacular, unifying performance to a highly individualistic, iconic one.
After its release, Sutton critiqued the movie in interviews, but the iconic image persisted, emptied of historic and economic context, used for all types of purposes—even a television commercial for a 2012 Las Vegas Tourism campaign during the great recession. Certain audiences, like labor unions, continue to read the image as symbolic of collective resistance. However, it has become loosed from any determined movement for structural change.
Hollywood’s reliance on emotional inspiration and the individual hero generates spectacles of exceptional protest that become affective experiences. The allure of individualist rebellion makes it an emotionally potent veil that obscures entrenched, systemic exploitation and the long, complicated efforts required to resist and dismantle it.