The US Flag as a Trope

When most people think of the flag of the United States of America, they do not tend to think of it as a ‘trope’. The flag is more typically thought of as a symbol, but its status as a symbol for everything American has created fertile grounds for its use as a trope in the media. Since its inception, the flag has been used to represent many different aspects of the US and has been used to convey many different messages throughout history. It is a piece of imagery that is so intrinsically linked to the US that it can serve as a powerful tool for conveying complex messages simply. It can also serve as a physical object with great significance as while most Americans do not care what the stars and stripes are printed on, going so far as to wear it on their underwear to show American pride, things get very serious when it comes to a physical flag. A physical full-sized flag is handled with great reverence and admiration by the American people. It is then very interesting to explore the line between what is and is not ok when it comes to depictions and uses of the flag as the American public have allowed it to become a trope with certain rules attached to it. 

Above: Trope 1 is a poster created by Thomas Byrne some time between 1940-1943 (during World War II). The medium is a poster. Here, a billowing flag is shown between words that read “I pledge allegiance and silence about the war”. This poster recalls the pledge of allegiance that had already been said in schools for some time by the time this poster was produced. It uses this idea of a pledge to the country to enforce this idea that it is in the interest of all Americans to keep quiet about the war lest the enemy forces catch wind of American intelligence. This message is very similar to the common phrase “loose lips sink ships” that was popular at the time. The goal of the use of the flag in this poster in tandem with the phrase “I pledge allegiance” is to create a strong feeling of patriotism in the viewer in order to make them more receptive to the message that keeping quiet about the war is a patriotic act.

What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag?, an installation for audience participation by Dread Scott

Above: Trope 2 is a 1988 mixed media installation by artist Dread Scott.Trope 1 is a 1988 mixed media installation by American artist Dread Scott. Here, Scott challenges the way Americans view the flag by inviting viewers to step on the US flag in order to see the collage, which includes Korean student protesters burning the US flag, and write a response to the question “What is the proper way to display a U.S. flag?” in the provided book.  This work was exhibited by the Chicago Art Institute and sparked a national controversy in 1989. The installation challenges the blind patriotism many Americans experience when faced with the flag. The United States has very specific rules about how the flag should be handled, and placing the flag on the ground like this while inviting people to step on it is tantamount to blasphemy to many. This was such a controversial decision that even the president of the United States at the time publicly denounced this work of art. All of this backlash only serves to further the point of the installation, which is that we should question the way we think of the flag.

Above: Trope 2 is the November 18, 2020 cover of Time magazine. The medium is a magazine cover. Here the U.S. flag is printed on a cloth face mask that has been torn in half. Here, the U.S. flag serves as shorthand for the United States in general as the image aims to depict that the United States population is clearly torn not only due to the Coronavirus pandemic, but also the presidential election. The reference to the pandemic is quite clear through the use of a face mask. The Message about the presidential election has to do with the timing of this edition of the magazine coming out. As the date shows, This edition was released on November 18th 2020, just ten days after the United States presidential election. 

Works Cited

Dread Scott. “What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag?”,

Molly Ball. “Even if Joe Biden Wins, He Will Govern in Trump’s America.”, 11/18/20, 11/18/20,

“I Pledge Allegiance and Silence about the War.”,