Memes as Subversion?

Curator's Note

In How the World Changed Social Media (2016), Miller et al. describe the results of ethnographies conducted in eight countries, exploring how social media is influenced by, and influences, local culture. Among their findings, they discuss an inherent tension in memes. On the one hand, memes are subversive, appropriating images from other contexts and manipulating them with added text.On the other hand, they often function as "moral memes" that prop up the social order through their content. Consider the many variations of the Kermit/None of My Business meme; as Miller and colleagues point out, the meme is common to many, diverse cultures, but always acts as a moral "police officer," scolding those who stray from social norms.


The #CosbyMeme disaster functioned in a similar way, reflecting the same tension between subversion and order. In an apparent attempt to burnish his image in the midst of a scandel, Bill Cosby asked internet users to create memes meant to be "fun" (if the provided samples were an indication): "Go ahead," read his Twitter request, with a link to a meme generator, "Meme me!" Instead, readers appropriated the images provided, subverting their intended purpose, but reinforcing the social order, chastising Cosby for the crimes he was accused of. the tweet and meme generator were quickly removed.

Last fall, 3.8 million high school students took the PSAT exam (including two of my own kids); many of them rushed home to create PSAT memes, appropriating details from the exam’s word problems, despite agreeing not to discuss the exam publicly. Much of the focus was on Herminia, a character from a reading comprehension passage who wrote "seditious" poetry, upsetting her father. The Herminia meme generation was subversive (especially given The College Board’s warnings against sharing details), but much of their content foused on criticising Herminia for not pleasing her parents, and thus maintaining the social order. (And, of course, the meme creators themselves were taking the test in hopes of winning a National Merit Scholarship; not exactly the type of kids who seek to upset the social order….)

Can memes change the world? Do they allow us to talk about things we couldn’t talk about in straight text? Or do they simply allow us to share a knowing laugh and then get back to our lives?


Lauren Michele Jackson's picture

Yes! (But also...)

My love for memes spurs me into an immediate, Yes! Memes can change the world.

However, I think it’s worth allowing some wiggle room between meme creation and intentionality; or also, I don’t believe your last two questions necessarily need be exclusive to each other. A lot of memes (broadly considered) begin simply from a communal laugh or knowing look - such as your example above - and then end up looking rather subversive in retrospect. Other examples include hashtags like #ABCReports that began as a response to ABC News’ investigative style report on twerking, citing Miley Cyrus as its architect. The hashtag took many vernacular staples of black culture and tested out headlines (ex: “Half on a Baby: Can You Afford It? An Economic Perspective”; “‘Smacking The Black Off You’: Where violence and vitiligo meet. A two-part special”). In hindsight, we can certainly interpret this community response as subversive, but in the moment - as I can attest - it was all really just good fun.

I do think a lot of memes have a tendency to curve to the politics of respectability that govern communities, but also just from unstudied observation notice a prevalence of “immoral” memes. Memes permitting taboo, or at least unproductive social behavior. Like spending a day in front of Netflix, arriving late, eating poorly, overspending etc. These memes generally acknowledge the “correct” or normative behavior, but the punchline so to speak is in side-stepping it. But whether to call these type of memes subversive is unsure, these are not radical denouncements of the norm but a - dare I say it - safe textual space to admit imperfection, laugh, and as you say, ‘get back to our lives’.

Melanie Wolske's picture

In short, they can change

In short, they can change things. I think social issues and identity politics have really found their way into the mainstream in part thanks to memes. The discussion of street harassment or BLM comes to mind. As for reinforcing the social order, I rather think that the most successful memes subvert social norms and give voice to those frustrated with these norms (as Lauren for example mentioned, the Netflix and Chill meme).


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