The Norma Rae Icon: Protest as a Spectacle of the Inspirational Individual

Curator's Note

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.


Thank you for sharing these great thoughts! I am particularly interested in your discussion of backstage versus frontstage spectacle. Unfortunately, the media often moves the real issue to the background because it isn't exciting enough to capture audiences. The result is perhaps a great image, like the Sally Field example, but the real issue is lost and the message distorted.

I am using and extending a framework I first saw in an article about the image that has become known as "Rosie the Riveter--We Can Do It!" The image has appeared on many mugs, posters, t-shirts, and iterations, but it began as part of a poster series in the Westinghouse factories of World War II. It was just one of many posters that would have been seen regularly by men and women workers. In the article cited below, the authors developed the idea of the "backstage gesture," in which a community or group has a shared experience with mutually known meanings. I extended their idea to address what I call "the extraction" of the Norma Rae icon from the long history of southern labor activism, into a movie, and then an adaptable iconic spectacle emptied of context or shared meanings. James J. Kimble and Lester C. Olson. “Visual Rhetoric Representing Rosie the Riveter: Myth and Misconception in J. Howard Miller’s ‘We Can Do It!’ Poster.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 9 no. 4 (Winter 2006): 533-569.

Great post. I instantly thought of Rosie, and how that appropriation of her image, which I know is meant to represent all factory women, really also excised her from the work and subsequent social issues that plagued women while they were propping up the domestic econom. Great TV miniseries a few years back called Bomb Girls (I think), which examines life for the girls who went into a munitions factory. I think there's something naively idealistic (but at the same time damaging on a wider scale; the suggestion of exceptionalism negates larger movements and sacrifices that are subsumed) about iconic female figures - women never operate in a vacuum. The love of a good narrative often dilutes the real importance of the breadth and challenges of movements.

I find it particularly interesting with the Rosie the Riveter image. The actual archival source of the first "Rosie" image was a Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell. The Westinghouse poster with "We Can Do It" was not intended to be "Rosie" and was directed as part of a factory campaign at all workers, men and women. In the case of Norma Rae, it has become a artifact in neoliberal culture as it represents individualist rebellion removed from any systemic or social context. The individual appears as the source and recipient of change driven by individual action. The success of neoliberal cultural meanings and the ability to appropriate images based on radical collective movements for messages that center individualist choices and results has been a real obstacle to more organized activism that emphasizes issues and structural solutions.

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