Friday, October 26, 2007


Ribbons used to be something you wrapped around a package, tied in your hair, cut at an opening ceremony. Pretty things. Things that denoted a celebration of sorts. Something that prettied up celebrations. Pretty or celebratory, and sometimes both.

Ah, those were the days.

Now ribbons are symbols. It all started with the yellow ribbon. If a loved one had gone off to war, you put up a yellow ribbon somewhere; the front door, the mailbox, tied around a tree. Now that we are four years into a war, we've all seen these ribbons. The yellow ribbon also works for people who are missing or kidnapped (especially if the kidnappers are terrorists). These people, as well as the soldiers, are most often referred to as "hero". These ribbons stay up until the "hero" comes home.

Now I have nothing against heroes. I just think that the word gets thrown around a bit too much. Sometimes a soldier is just a soldier. If they were all heroes, they'd all be getting the Congressional Medal of Honor. Sometimes, the soldier is just the guy or gal who is loved and missed and stuck in a place called Iraq. I also have nothing against ribbons per se. They are pretty things. They make me happy. What I wonder is, has this bedecking with yellow ribbons become obligatory? Would your loved ones feel less loved if they returned to a house bereft of ribbon? Perhaps your community may think you are not supportive, or worse, not missing your hero? Some people don't have a family member making a personal sacrifice far away but they can put up yellow ribbons in support of those who do. Anyone can put up yellow ribbons - for their heroes. Or someone else's hero. Yellow ribbons say "I support our troops". Sometimes they say, "I support our troops even if I think this war was a mistake from the beginning and I'm still an American and I love my country, so don't think I'm not patriotic."

Next, let's examine from whence came the concept of the yellow ribbon. I do this for the benefit of those younger than myself; those who did not grow up with the dulcet tones of Tony Orlando and Dawn. "Who?" you ask. Precisely. Tony Orlando & Dawn was a pop group from the 70's – a musically weird decade where the still relevant driving rock of Led Zeppelin had number one hits alongside silly pop tunes like "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree".

More commonly know as "Tie a Yellow Ribbon", this is a song about a guy who is getting out of prison and he sends his girlfriend a letter – he will be on a bus that goes by the house and he'll stay on that bus unless she still loves him and wants him back. Now they need a sign…a yellow ribbon! Tie it around that ole oak tree out front (if you want me that is). If I see it, I'll tell the driver to stop the bus and let me off! If I don't see it, well then, sorry, and hey, have a good life.

That's where we get the yellow ribbon. When it changed from lawbreakers getting out of prison – you know, ex-cons – to heroes returning from someplace they'd rather not be but went to any way because it's their duty and if the didn't they'd end up in prison, I don't know. But the change happened and now we have yellow ribbons all over the country.

From the yellow ribbon we slid easily to the red ribbon. The red ribbon says: I support people with HIV/AIDS. I support finding a cure for HIV/AIDS. I support not ostracizing or marginalizing or discriminating against people with HIV/AIDS. These are all very worthy sentiments. I support all those sentiments and the people who have them. And by support I mean I agree with the sentiment but, like most people, do not support with actual money. And, I do this without ever wearing the red ribbon. Wait, what happened here? We don't tie the red ribbon around the ole oak tree? No. Now we wear the ribbon on our very person. But not all the time. And not everyone, just the high profile people - musicians, actors, directors etc. - you know - all those people who would be walking a red carpet at a premier or awards ceremony. Now this red ribbon can't be any style of ribbon. For instance, a guy can't show up in a tux with a cumberbund made of woven red ribbons and call that his "red ribbon"; and a lady can't show up in a black gown with red ribbons streaming from her shoulders and call that her "red ribbon". Nope. Now you must have a very specific, understated and stylish red ribbon that is pinned to what ever you are wearing. This is what I call the "Meta Ribbon". It is the form that all signatory ribbons will take, from now on. Until the end of eternity. No other style ribbon is acceptable.

Now we also have pink ribbons. These are to support the cure for breast cancer. Or, at least to support the idea of supporting finding a cure for breast cancer. Once again, a worthy cause. All of these causes are worthy, but, when did we become so obsessed with wearing our heart on our sleeve. Or, the idea of wearing our heart on our sleeve. Because we don't really, do we? When was the last time you saw a celebrity sporting the Meta Red Ribbon on the red carpet? It's been years hasn't it? When was the last time you saw anyone actually wearing the yellow, red or pink Meta Ribbon? I can't remember that far back myself.

What I do see are people sporting images of the Meta Ribbon. An icon of the symbol, if you will. These images come in all sorts of forms, the current most popular being the car magnet.

We also have the yellow ribbon/American flag combo magnet.

And the yellow ribbon soldier memorial magnet.

The yellow ribbon stamp...

The yellow ribbon interpreted in chysanthemums....

The yellow ribbon with flag pin, as well as the yellow ribbon charm bracelet...

And the always useful Meta Ribbon patch - you can cover a hole or just put it on you favorite jean jacket with all the other patches of things you love...

There are keychains, cufflinks, and nail appliques...

Fancy pins or, shoes!

So many ways to wear your heart on your sleeve, or feet, or car, or coat... And none of them are actually ribbons anymore.

I've been thinking about this for a while now. The first time I spoke of these things I was going somewhere with a friend, and we passed a car that had all sort of Meta Ribbon magnets on it. I said something like, "I hate those damn ribbons!" and my friend asked why. I related all of the above to her and she was: A) surprised at the Tony Orlando song connection, having miraculously lived her entire life without every having the agony of hearing that song (she's a bit younger than I), and B) obviously influenced by my rant, as I discovered some months later that, as a form of protest, whenever she sees a Meta Ribbon magnet on a car, and can get to it fairly easily, she takes it!

Note: I do not personally condone or condemn the wearing of your heart on your sleeve (or anywhere else), nor do I condone or condemn the pilfering of said hearts.


At 1:17 PM, Blogger Jason Pettus said...

Just to fill in a little of your missing ribbon history....

The habit of tying yellow ribbons to mark the remembrance of a loved one in a perilous situation started with the Iranian hostage crisis, during Jimmy Carter's administration in the late '70s. This was the same period that the song "Tie a Yellow Ribbon" was at its most popular as well, thus simultaneously inspiring numerous unrelated people to tie yellow ribbons to trees in their front yard, as a public show of support for the Americans held hostage for something like two years altogether. The simplicity of the action turned the ribbon-hanging into a national phenomenon; I grew up in St. Louis, for example, and can remember the government hanging a giant yellow ribbon around the city's planetarium.

From there, the story follows the track you originally mentioned; of it being first co-opted by the military, as a show of support for any soldier in peril, then in other colors by a whole variety of other causes. Anyway, thought you'd enjoy hearing a little about how the practice started.


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