On the night of the 2016 presidential election, before turning on the television to watch the results, I opened my phone to consume what felt at the time like a delicious appetizer of memes. Flooding my Instagram and Twitter feeds were images of Donald Trump’s victory cake, which went viral earlier that morning for somehow looking even more unappealing than the man himself. The meme I enjoyed most took his sunken cake face and overlaid it with that of “Crying Michael Jordan” — the first and dankest of all the viral memes. Together, they were the ultimate picture of defeat, and I ate it up.
Of course, this was before the night went from bad to worse and from worse to rock bottom. And as the reality of America’s past, present, and future became clearer, I burrowed deeper and deeper into the world of memes, desperate for anything that would make me laugh so I didn’t cry. This was how the internet reacted throughout the turbulent campaign cycle — one that, for the first time in history, became so intertwined with memes that the candidates were not only the butt of the jokes, but also in on them.
Within this meme echo chamber, however, we failed to see that “Crying Jordan” in its original context is actually an image of the NBA player shedding tears of joy while being inducted into the Hall of Fame. And that, as The New Yorker, said of political memes: “A joke could win the Presidency.”
The results of this election demonstrate that now, for better or worse, the internet shapes politics and vice versa. Trump’s win woke everyone up to the fact that even the most trivial-seeming content has power, and that Americans are desperately seeking someone who they feel speaks to their personal experiences. Even before his stunning victory, a group of feminist meme-makers had figured this out, and in the past year have used memes not just for internet humor, but also to address complicated issues of race, class, gender, and politics.
Grace S. is one such meme-maker, and she uses her account @Tequilafunrise to upload socially-minded memes about gender politics. “Memes assert that these issues aren’t complex to the point of incomprehension, and the replicable and shareable aspect of them shows that people aren’t actually alone in their feelings,” she said.
In its simplest and earliest definition, a meme is “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from one person to another in a culture.” Today, memes are most often an image paired with text, written either in Impact font or Comic Sans. (Not a coincidence.) In this way, they have become a layered, symbolic language of their own, somewhat like that of the Heptapod aliens in Arrival, in that they can mean many things at once, depending on who is reading them, where, and when. But instead of having Amy Adams to help us decipher their coded sentiments, we have knowyourmeme.com.
What feminist meme-makers are doing now is taking popular meme formats and using them as a Trojan horse to convey complex emotions and thoughts, rather than one-two-punch jokes. Take “That feeling when…” memes, for example. Normally, they consist of a relatable image like “Crying Jordan” and a caption that says something like, “That feeling when… Your crush doesn’t text you back.” But someone like Britny R. of @Bunnymemes — a rapidly-growing account with almost 19,000 followers — takes them one step further with captions like: “When you’re not sure if your sexual traumas will ever be healed and you’ve done talk therapy and readings and mantras and your partner is understanding and patient but you still can’t allow yourself to get past certain emotional thresholds and it is killing you a little.” This post received over 1,000 likes.
Dre of @Gothshakira, an account that has almost 39,000 followers, was the first to use long, complex sentences of this nature in February. As a queer ‘Latinx,’ Dre often takes memes of celebrities like Jennifer Lopez and Selena Gomez and pairs them with “That feeling when…” captions that attempt, in a single image, to unravel entire histories of racial and sexual oppression.
“I talked about my life and experiences as a method of catharsis and to deal with my own feelings of inadequacy,” Dre said. “I never imagined so many people would resonate with them; I honestly thought they were way too specific. And then friends started sharing them with their friends, who shared them with their friends, and in a few months I had 10,000 followers.”
Not only are these meme-makers opening up a dialogue with their posts, but they are also reshaping the conversation. By coding these viral signs and signifiers with feminist values, they are telegraphing to their followers that they deserve just as much attention as anything else, that there's nothing taboo in discussing them, and that, in fact, they can even have a sense of humor about them.
“I’ve tried getting my point across in a confrontational way, and alternately in a passive way,” said Shannon G. of @Sensualmemes (43,000 followers). “But neither seem to work. I use memes as buffers. It’s hard to know when I’m being sincere, which is why I can so easily translate my thoughts into satire.”
Although many popular female meme-makers like @Sensualmemes use internet-speak, many of them are also college-educated students who weave academic language into their posts with ease. By combining high and low, they’ve created their own, unique language that simultaneously belongs to their online niche but also manages to resonate with audiences beyond it.
A curious aspect of internet culture, though, is that when sharing and “going viral” is a goal, oftentimes the meaning, message, and destination of a meme can veer off course. And, especially during an election year, can be co-opted for partisan reasons by politicians.
Take “Pepe the Frog,” for example. What began as an innocent, green comic book character-turned viral meme in 2008 was co-opted by the “alt-right” during the election to symbolize white supremacy. Trump then posted a photo of himself alongside the meme, saying it was an “honor.” Afterwards, it became such a pervasive image that an explainer titled, “Donald Trump, Pepe the frog, and white supremacists,” was even published on Hillary Clinton’s official website.
“A meme that lands in your DMs is not the same meme as it existed in the mind of its creator,” said @Gothshakira. “It’s been screen-shotted, cropped, screen-shot again, discussed, argued about, attached to a filter, and laughed over.”
While "Pepe the Frog," is an extreme example of the fickleness of memes, their rapid evolution illustrates how most of the popular meme accounts like @Fuckjerry and @Thefatjewish – both created by straight men, Elliot Tebele and Josh Ostrovsky, respectively – gained millions of followers from the beginning: by copying, recycling, and re-coding otherwise colloquial content and inserting it into a mainstream context.
Politically-minded posts by these feminist meme-makers, however, manage to remain relatively untouched by larger, male-run accounts because they play the game. They look and sound like the memes @Fuckjerry and @Thefatjewish post, but they offer a completely different point of view that's unique to their experiences. The downside, though, is that mixed in with grateful messages from followers are comments and DMs that range from obscene to violent. (As a result, the subjects interviewed declined to disclose their last names and ages, citing concerns with privacy and personal security.) Most of them say they read all the comments, however, and often turn to each other in separate DM groups for support. Their fellow feminist followers also go to bat for them in the comments section as well.
“If Trump’s comments section can be embodied, so can ours,” said @Tequilafunrise following the election. A handful of her peers took a brief break from meme-making in the days after Trump’s victory, but they’re back now, and more emboldened. If the President-elect has taught them anything, it’s that going viral is power. And so, making memes that directly combat his racist, sexist, and xenophobic public broadcasting is a way of fighting fire with fire. These women understand that the personal is the political, and memes are never “just a meme” — no matter how humorous.
But the stakes and risks are also higher now when it comes to creating memes. After the election results were announced, the trolls of the comments section only got louder and more threatening.
“Having Donald Trump as the President of the United States means that I have to change and encrypt all my passwords, enable two-factor authentication on all my social media, and constantly police my comments section so I can delete the surges of bigoted comments,” said @Gothshakira. She continued on to say that she is forced to make her accounts private when the comments get especially belligerent, and in general feels more vulnerable to violence and harm now, both in real life and on the internet.
Arguably, we're living through a time where ‘IRL’ and ‘URL’ have never been more closely intertwined and where each has been more capable of destroying the other, like an online ouroboros, or a snake that eats its own tail. But these female meme-makers will tell you life has always been a meme and memes have always been life.
As more and more voices emerge online, they hope that feeds will look more intersectional and that being “in on the joke” will come to mean being more socially-aware. If anything, these accounts also exist as reminders that behind each meme is a real, living human being and that their memes are a reflection of their humanity.
“There’s an idea that the internet isn’t a tool, but a place,” said @Tequlafunrise when asked how she was going to move forward following the election. “But as with any place, you will have differences between the people who reside in it. It’s time now for everyone to reflect on how they engage, meme-maker or not, and how we move forward from there.”
Let’s call this place America Online, where the creed is E pluribus meme unum: Out of many memes, one.