A cultural icon is an artifact that is recognised by members of a culture or sub-culture as representing some aspect of cultural identity. Cultural icons vary widely, and may be visual, audio, an object, a person or group of people, etc.
A subset of cultural icons are national icons.
A web-based survey was set up in 2006 allowing the public to nominate their ideas for national icons of England and the results reflect the range of different types of icon associated with an English view of English culture. Some examples are:
- Big Ben (the nickname for the bell, but widely recognised as Elizabeth Tower of the Houses of Parliament in London);
- Cup of tea (for the British tea drinking habit);
- Red telephone box;
- Red Routemaster London double decker bus;
- Spitfire, a World War II fighter aircraft.
The values, norms and ideals represented by a cultural icon vary both among people who subscribe to it, and more widely among other people who may interpret cultural icons as symbolising quite different values. Thus an apple pie is a cultural icon of the United States, but its significance varies among Americans.
National icons can become targets for those opposing or criticising a regime, for example, crowds destroying statues of Lenin in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism or burning the Stars and Stripes flag to protest about US actions abroad.
Use in popular media
Describing something as iconic or as an icon has become very common in the popular media. This has drawn criticism from some: a writer in Liverpool Daily Post calls "iconic" "a word that makes my flesh creep," a word "pressed into service to describe almost anything." The Christian Examiner nominates "iconic" in its list of overused words, finding over 18,000 "iconic" references in news stories alone, with another 30,000 for "icon", including its use for SpongeBob SquarePants.
- Heard about the famous icon? We have - far too often, The Independent (London), January 27, 2007
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- Jenkins, Simon; Dean Godson (editor) (October 2005). "Replacing the Routemaster" (PDF). p. 7. Retrieved December 15, 2012.
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- Parker, Mike (2012). Cultural Icons: A Case Study Analysis of their Formation and Reception (PhD Thesis). Chapter 5: The Spitfire Aircraft. University of Central Lancashire. pp. 123–167.
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- Let's hear it for the Queen's English, Liverpool Daily Post
- Modern word usage amazingly leaves us yearning for gay, old times, Christian Examiner
- Biedermann, Hans (1994). Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them. Meridan.
- Brooker, Will (2001). Batman Unmasked: Analysing a Cultural Icon. Continuum.
- Edwards, Peter; Karl Enenkel, and Elspeth Graham (editors) (2011). The Horse as Cultural Icon: The Real and the Symbolic Horse in the Early Modern World. Brill.
- Foudy, Julie; Leslie Heywood; Shari L Dworkin (2003). Built to Win: The Female Athlete as Cultural Icon. University of Minnesota Press.
- Gilbert, Erik (2008). The Dhow as Cultural Icon. Boston University.* Heyer, Paul (2012). Titanic Century: Media, Myth, and the Making of a Cultural Icon. Praeger.
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- Reydams-Schils, Gretchen J (2003). Plato's Timaeus as Cultural Icon. University of Notre Dame Press.