A cultural icon is a person or an artifact that is identified by members of a culture as representative of that culture. The process of identification is subjective, and "icons" are judged by the extent to which they can be seen as an authentic symbol of that culture. When individuals perceive a cultural icon, they relate it to their general perceptions of the cultural identity represented. Cultural icons can also be identified as an authentic representation of the practices of one culture by another.
In popular culture and elsewhere, the term "iconic" is used to describe a wide range of people, places, and things. Some commentators believe that the word "iconic" is overused.
According to the Canadian Journal of Communication, academic literature has described all of the following as "cultural icons": "Shakespeare, Oprah, Batman, Anne of Green Gables, the Cowboy, the 1960s female pop singer, the horse, Las Vegas, the library, the Barbie doll, DNA, and the New York Yankees."
A web-based survey was set up in 2006 allowing the public to nominate their ideas for national icons of England, and the results show the range of different types of icons associated with an English view of English culture. One example is the red AEC Routemaster London double decker bus.
Matryoshka dolls are seen internationally as cultural icons of Russia. In the former Soviet Union, the hammer and sickle symbol and statues of Vladimir Lenin instead represented the country's most prominent cultural icons.
The values, norms, and ideals represented by a cultural icon vary among people who subscribe to it and more widely among others who may interpret cultural icons as symbolizing 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 American flag to protest US actions abroad.
Describing something as iconic or as an icon has become very common in the popular media. This has drawn criticism from some. For example, a writer in Liverpool Daily Post calls "iconic" "a word that makes my flesh creep", a word "pressed into service to describe almost anything." Mark Larson of the Christian Examiner labeled "iconic" as an overused word, finding over 18,000 uses of "iconic" in news stories alone, with another 30,000 for "icon".
- Grayson, Kent; Martinec, Radan (2004-09-01). "Consumer Perceptions of Iconicity and Indexicality and Their Influence on Assessments of Authentic Market Offerings". Journal of Consumer Research. 31 (2): 296–312. doi:10.1086/422109. ISSN 0093-5301.
- Motley, Carol M.; Henderson, Geraldine Rosa (2008-03-01). "The global hip-hop Diaspora: Understanding the culture". Journal of Business Research. Cross-Cultural Business Research. 61 (3): 243–253. doi:10.1016/j.jbusres.2007.06.020.
- Odone, Cristina (11 March 2013). "The trashing of the iconic red phone box is one bad call". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 2022-01-12.
- Truman, Emily (2017). "Rethinking the Cultural Icon: Its Use and Function in Popular Culture". Canadian Journal of Communication. 42 (5): 829–849. doi:10.22230/cjc.2017v42n5a3223.
What constitutes a 'cultural icon' in twenty-first-century North American popular culture? All of the following have been attributed to this status in academic literature: Shakespeare, Oprah, Batman, Anne of Green Gables, the Cowboy, the 1960s female pop singer, the horse, Las Vegas, the library, the Barbie doll, DNA, and the New York Yankees
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- British Postal Museum & Archive: Icons of England Archived 2014-12-05 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved 15 December 2012.
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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 Archived 2010-12-25 at the Wayback Machine, Christian Examiner
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- Brooker, Will (2001). Batman Unmasked: Analysing a Cultural Icon. Continuum.
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- 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.
- Heyer, Paul (2012). Titanic Century: Media, Myth, and the Making of a Cultural Icon. Praeger.
- Meyer, Denis C. (2010). Cles Pour la France en 80 Icones Culturelles. Hachette.
- Nelkin, Dorothy; M Susan Lindee (2004). The DNA Mystique: The Gene as a Cultural Icon. University of Michigan Press.
- Reydams-Schils, Gretchen J (2003). Plato's Timaeus as Cultural Icon. University of Notre Dame Press.