Memes Are Our Generation's Protest Art
Internet jokes have turned into serious commentary, and can provide comfort and joy to people fed up with the way the country is going.
Photo illustration by Anna Iovine from a photo via Getty
Think of “protest art” and you likely imagine certain cliches from a previous era: Hippies gathered around an acoustic guitar, John Lennon and Yoko Ono camping out in their bedroom for weeks.
But today, a new medium of protest art is reigning: memes. Simple to make and simpler to distribute, they can communicate a stance or message at a glance and express the same feelings experts say are behind conventional protest art. There’s even an emerging genre within the landscape experts are calling “activist memes.”
“They’ve become a space for battling and resistance,” Benjamin Burroughs, assistant professor of emerging media at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, told VICE. “The ability for the meme to empower and push back can be really powerful. They’re definitely sites of resistance against perceptions of abuse of power. They spread so quickly and evolve and transform, and it’s hard to shut them down in the way other forms of communicative protest can be silenced.”
Under Donald Trump specifically, Burroughs says, memes have grown in popularity as a way to express political opinions, similar to how George W. Bush’s presidency gave rise to liberal blogs. Most are rooted either in expressing anger, mocking Trump, or collectively coping with the absurdity and even trauma of his presidency. Other memes defend the president, or at least train fire on his detractors, teasing them for being triggered or crying great gobs of liberal tears: Sharing memes that go to bat for his dad is one of the primary ways Don Jr. spends his days.
But when it comes to the anti-Trump memes at least, what shines through—beyond the sense of play—is indignation, the amusement of ridiculing powerful figures, and the comfort that comes from collective coping. Examples of the former include the spoofs on Melania Trump’s infamous “I really don’t care, do u?” jacket and the channeling of the “Arthur’s fist” meme to rally against sexism. Anti-Trump folks turn to memes like Barack Obama and Joe Biden pranking Trump’s White House arrival to cope, and when it comes to straight-up insulting the president, the examples are endless: covfefe, staring into the eclipse, tiny hands, tiny Trump, and his continuous difficulties operating umbrellas.
This aligns memes with past protest movements, which were fueled by similar drives, said James M. Jasper, who studies the cultural and emotional dimensions of protest movements as a sociology professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
“The media [of protest art] have changed somewhat, but the purposes are similar: the blaming of villains, the identification of victims, as well as outrage at the villains and compassion for those victims,” Jasper told VICE. In this case, the targets are Trump and his inner circle, including everyone from Fox News to his wife and press secretaries.
At their core, all memes, regardless of their politics, are a tool for expression. “Memes help to articulate specific points, amplify ideas, and intensify emotions,” Burroughs said. “Something can be comedic or a joke and still be incredibly poignant.”
Most people interact with these images in fleeting ways as they scroll through their feeds, but creating or consuming political memes that align with one’s point of view can be therapeutic. They reflect what’s happening in society, and help justify feelings of rage and fear while helping us feel less alone. Every time I see a new iteration of the lawn-mowing boy meme pop up on my feed with thousands of retweets, it’s a refreshing reminder that others agree with me that Trump is absurd. The pure-hearted 11-year-old who Trump appears to be yelling at stands in for everyone who is living through his lies and verbal attacks. Explaining that in words took a long time, but one glance at this meme and you get it. Even if you’re just scrolling past quickly, the point resonates.
“You can express yourself with one picture of a meme better than a whole page of text,” Alan Schaaf, the CEO of image-hosting site Imgur, told VICE. “They’re easy to create, reuse, and remix. And what makes them works so well is that they’re so relatable. They make us laugh but have the ability to connect us around a common feeling.”
Schaaf pointed to how memes are primed for instant reactions to topical events, like how Twitter users trolled the inauguration and instantly pounced on Michael Flynn’s redacted sentencing memo. The crux of the joke is already out there and ready to go—all you have to do is find a punchline. This means whipping up a relatable, shareable reaction to a Trump gaffe or horrific policy takes only a few minutes or less.
“The fact that they’re so easy means people jump all over them in the moment to express themselves around that thing they just read or have something to say about,” Schaaf said. “They can say it easier, faster, and more to the point than they can with almost any other way.”
Memes can spread far more quickly than the songs or art projects of previous generations, and there’s such a low barrier to entry that anyone can make them; they can go viral in a matter of minutes.
Young internet users and activists—such as the March for Our Lives organizers and supporters—are pushing protest memes into the forefront of the conversation, even using them offline during marches and rallies. Then there’s politicians, like the reigning political queen of social media, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. From turning herself into a reaction meme to taking a jab at Trump by referencing an old video game line referred to as “one of the internet’s first real memes,” she understands instinctively the power of using memes to boost her messages. Others have at least tried out the same techniques: Hillary Clinton (or at least her social media team) burned Trump with the popular “delete your account” meme during the 2016 campaign. Not that it led to her winning, but still.
Then there is the category referred to as “activist memes,” which includes those like Permit Patty and BBQ Becky, nicknames that became shorthand for white people calling the police on black people for merely living their lives. These weren’t just jokes, but a way to name and call attention to a kind of racism that was rarely talked about. “There’s a whole genre of these activist memes that have emerged and are being used to push for social change and bring things like racism to the forefront using memes, and that’s extremely powerful,” Burroughs said. “They can help bring attention to issues of injustices. They circulate in a way that keeps up with that social media flow of information.”
The subjects of these activist memes, Jasper noted, are villains, and that’s a key part of protest art in general—in identifying social problems, the genre needs villains. “They’re an important step in arousing the anger or fear that can mobilize people,” he said. And in the Trump era, there’s no shortage of those.
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