A Brief History of Flipping the Bird


Written by Kinsey Sullivan
13 Monday 13th February 2012

M.I.A.'s weird chearleader/gladiator/pharaoh outfit wasn't the only offensive aspect of her Superbowl performance last week. While onstage, she quickly flashed her middle finger to the camera. As far as outrageous gestures go, it's a half-hearted display, but it was enough to launch the media into a tizzy.

NBC, the network which aired the game, has apologized for the gesture, but no word yet from M.I.A. herself. In the wake of the performance, there's been a public outcry from the US's Parent's Television Council, which claims the gesture's vulgarity is harmful to children watching the program. Madonna has also criticized M.I.A., though Madonna criticizing anyone for scandal is a bit rich. Watching the drama unfold is all good fun, but it's left us wondering: why is such a common gesture is so provocative? It looks like M.I.A. is wondering about that, too. 

One way or another, M.I.A.'s stunt has raised some interesting questions about public crudity and the shock value of surprise swearing. Let's dig in.


In Roman times, the middle finger was called "digitus impudicus," according to the BBC, but it's been considered obscene since at least ancient Greece. Anthropologist Desmond Morris says, "it's one of the most ancient insult gestures known...[it's] a very primeval display." The gesture is widely accepted to be essentially phallic- no surprises there- but the exact meaning is trickier to work out. The finger makes an appearance in Aristophenes' The Clouds, Roman historian Tacitus' texts, Roman poet Martial's Epigrams, and it's speculated that Caligula made his subordinates kiss his middle instead of his ring finger as an insult. Now the middle finger carries a lot less insult and a lot more humor, luckily for us. 


Arguably the most frequent bird-fliers, musicians almost have an aesthetic obligation to get caught with their middle finger to the camera. Johnny Cash's showing at the San Quentin Prison show one of the most infamous. When asked by a photographer to do a shot for the Warden, this is what he got:

Well played, Mr. Cash.

And here, Tupac throwing an impromptu middle finger to the camera on the night he was attacked in Quad Recording Studios in New York City. Everyone knows the story: in late November, 1994, the night before the verdict of his sexual assault trial was to be announced, Tupac was shot five times and robbed. He later accused Sean "Diddy" Combs and Biggie Smalls of setting him up, which sparked an enduring rift. This image was taken as he was being wheeled on a gurney from Quad Studios to Bellevue Hospital. It's got his energy all over it; it's almost an embodiment of his immense persona.

While rock and rap artists most commonly throw up the one-fingered salute, they're not the only ones with angsty insolence. Pop princess Katy Perry got a little sassy on her blog, it spawned a thousand GIFs.

Positively cute.

Mr. Rogers

Not quite the force here in the UK as he was in the US, Mr. Rogers was an icon of friendliness in the weirdest, most borderline-creepy way. His popular children's show Mister Roger's Neighborhood featured a tiny train track, puppets and a plethora of jumpers. At the start of every show, the train would whistle around the track, bringing with it a new story and thirty minutes of conversation with the puppets that lived around the  tracks. The show ran from 1968 to 2001, making it the second longest running children's show, after Sesame Street. Here he is giving the nicest, most surprising finger:

It may be photoshopped, but let's keep hoping it's not. 


The best surprise swear pictures are always of children. Maybe it's the juxtaposition of innocence and obscenity, or the futility of the gesture from such little kids, but these images are tragically funny and utterly wonderful. The following collection illustrates the subtle range of emotion the gesture can carry, from the mouths, or hands, of babes:

Danny Bonaduce, Partridge Family punk supreme, on a boat


When politicians fudge, it's good for everyone. While campaigning with President Gerald Ford in 1976, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller flashed the bird to a group of protestors, saying he was "responding in kind." 

And rounding it out, America's favorite overgrown 8-year-old:

It's the little things.

Got a brilliant suprise swear and want to weigh in? Get started below.

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