Garfield's Lament: Grumpy Cat Was a Meme Born Dead
Garfield and Grumpy Cat are selling the same joke. So why do they have completely different digital lives?
On Tuesday night, internet-famous “Grumpy Cat,” real name Tardar Sauce, passed away with family after suffering complications from a urinary tract infection at the age of seven, according to an Instagram post from the cat’s owner captioned “Some days are grumpier than others…”
The death prompted an outpouring of grief on social media and quickly became a trending topic on Twitter in the United States. For those who have met Grumpy Cat in real life, there was an understandable urge to share pictures of the encounter.
But what’s unclear, even from this outpouring of support, is what Grumpy Cat actually meant to people. Wired argued that Grumpy Cat represents the “joyful internet.” Others, such as Intelligencer’s Brian Feldman, argued the cat was more emblematic of aggressive merchandizing and branding.
What’s striking about Grumpy Cat is how direct and simple its punchline was. The joke is that the cat is grumpy. That’s it. In all of the internet’s capacity for creativity and absurdity, Grumpy Cat’s online life has remained directly in line with what its owner sold. Meanwhile Garfield, whose character is almost identical to that of Grumpy Cat, became a meme that subverts every way that the cat is marketed.
Compare Grumpy Cat to a character like Garfield, which was invented in 1978 by Jim Davis. Garfield spawned a merchandising empire with t-shirts, hats, mugs, video games, movies, toys, apps, and just about every other version of a branded object. Garfield also has a direct, simple, and consistent persona: Garfield is lazy, grumpy, and cynical. He hates Mondays and loves lasagna. Even for a cat that has fictional dialogue at his disposal, his character is no more multi-dimensional than Grumpy Cat.
The difference with Garfield is that the internet, mostly in recent years, has run with the concept of Garfield and given him a new life. There’s a space on the internet pervading all platforms that’s dedicated to putting Garfield in abstract, strange, or absurd situations. These communities portray Garfield in a way that’s inconceivable in the context of the canon world of the Jim Davis comics.
For some people, it’s a way of making something that was amusing to them when they were a child into something that’s funny to them as an adult. (Nevermind the strangeness of why Garfield—a cynical adult cat that hates Mondays and features of adulthood—is often marketed toward children, with children’s games and toys.) For others, their love of Garfield was born from surrealist videos like those of lasagnacat or other absurdist Instagram meme accounts, bearing no childhood roots.
Now, consider Grumpy cat. The “Grumpy Cat” tag on Tumblr contains none of these creative, strange interpretations of the character. A search for “Grumpy Cat” on Reddit, similarly, is completely vanilla. All of the content remains safely within the confines of the canon that Grumpy Cat’s owner meticulously created for it. Grumpy Cat is a meme, but it is a boring one that has none of the creativity associated with Garfield's online life.
Again, it’s not immediately obvious why this is. Grumpy Cat and Garfield’s canon marketing is markedly similar. Grumpy Cat and Garfield even appeared together in a three-issue comic series available for purchase online. The official Instagram account for Garfield issued a somber dedication to Grumpy Cat Friday, after the news of his death became public.
Maybe if Grumpy Cat had lived to be over 41 years old and emulate the cultural staying-power that Garfield has, we would have seen an alternative Grumpy Cat culture emerge.
Perhaps, though, the answer lies in the fact that Garfield was born and made offline, in print comics. Garfield’s internet life emerged decades after he became a cultural object. Grumpy Cat, meanwhile, became famous after a picture of him blew up on Reddit in 2012. Garfield was reborn online, but Grumpy Cat was defined online. Any Grumpy Cat counter-culture would have to compete with the straightforward understanding of the cat that already exists.
But now that Grumpy Cat has died (rest in peace), maybe this will change. Grumpy Cat can’t meet new celebrities and appear in photos and videos with them. This type of content was dominant in the internet presence of Grumpy Cat while he was alive. Maybe, now there’s room for a new internet life for Grumpy Cat to emerge. But unlike Harambe or Cecil the Lion, Grumpy Cat was defined by his life, not his death. And so with Grumpy Cat dead, maybe he will just fade from memory. That seems like the more likely option.