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When Memes Are Therapy

How memes are healing for women, people of color and queers

Before Doge, memes held no significance for me. Despite being active on the internet, I didn't understand what they were supposed to mean or what place they had within a larger cultural grasp of my own identity. Early memes—All Your Base Are Belong To Us, Fail, It's A Trap!, and others—represented a kind of toxic, mainstream humor that I found boring and distasteful, something I preferred to distance myself from as a queer woman of color because I #cantrelate.

Many iterations of 1337 speak, Haters Gonna Hate, and Advice Dog passed me by. Memes like these were grossly ubiquitous, like a laugh track played repeatedly without fail. Even the remotely interesting ones (Ceiling Cat, Someecards) lost their charm from overuse.

But Doge differed from the others in that it contained a frivolous freedom with no limits, characterized by its snappy keywords. Each picture could be manipulated and re-interpreted in a myriad of ways, contextless yet abundant with context. I found myself referring to Doge when I felt weighed down by the world. They distracted me from my inner anguish. They induced mirth. They were healing. So approve. Much wow.

In recent years, memes have taken on a new face online. As the gap between online and offline diminishes, the distinctions between consumer and producer become less and less clear-cut. People, especially those from marginalized communities, are increasingly taking to the internet for self-expression in lieu of an overbearing world, an augmentation of offline selves. While far-right projects coalesce in a climate of conflict, condescension, and cruelty, women, people of color, and queers are finding refuge in online spaces, seeking solace with each other in a show of solidarity across the globe. Out of the various ways marginalized folk form connections with each other, memes act as a useful conduit between “internet” and “IRL.”

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]As I scroll through my social media feeds each day, seeing memes that pertain to me as a queer woman of color act like a balm that soothes. [/quote]

On platforms like Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook, meme communities specifically serving marginalized folk have taken shape. These originated from memes created within Black Twitter and include meme-centric profiles on Instagram, Tumblr tags such as #survival or #wocmemes, and closed/secret groups on Facebook created in the interest of sharing relevant memes. Of these, I particularly enjoy Instagram users @yung_nihilist and @genderfailurememes and the Facebook Queer Meme Group, which was renamed Queer Black/Indigenous/POC Meme Group after the original group was taken control of by white supremacists. As I scroll through my social media feeds each day, seeing memes that pertain to me as a queer woman of color act like a balm that soothes. Knowing that there are many others in the world that relate to my lived experience, share my surly worldview as a result, and with whom I can share feelings of derision and wry laughter with is a source of comfort and joy. In this era of fear and uncertainty, to be able to opt into a bubble is necessary.

But, within our bubbles, there are other bubbles, ones deployed by those who continue to co-opt the language of marginalization. We have seen evidence of Reddit being hijacked by the right and memes that collate images of black people, often decontextualized, to heighten a sense of dominant belonging. A good example of this is misogynoir in memes, which academic Laur M. Jackson points out makes use of clips of black women—often engaging with trauma—to create a punchline. The gratuitous use of African American Vernacular English, or AAVE (“____ be like,” “woke,” “lit,” “fam,” “bae,” and countless others) in some memes also adds to this landscape. Jackson further extrapolates on these points by creating the term “meme merge,” which operates on the idea that memes have a tendency to reference from and blend into each other, and “often originate from black online communities and borrow heavily from black lexicon, but are themselves embedded with a black vernacular expression that inflects their circulation, transmutation, and survival even when a black person is not in the—metaphorical—room.”

Memes, like art, can be a reflection of the times we live in, and sometimes we are #blessed enough to witness a representation that mirrors our times with greater accuracy than other channels we rely on for fact. But, as writer Aria Dean notes, the act of memeification also carries out “cycles of production, appropriation, consumption, and reappropriation that renders any idea of a pre-existing authentic collective being hard to pin down.” Marginalized folk can seek solace in memes, and even be the author of their own memes, but how many memes are resultant of marginalization? Like the birth of jazz, rock, hip-hop, and trap—cultural modes of production created by black folk, reappropriated and capitalized on by whites—memes contain a beginning but no end in sight, as they continue being laundered through the washing machine of popular culture, to be owned by someone, no one, and yet everyone.

As such, Laur Jackson writes, memes are most stimulating when “indebted to black processes of cultural survival.” The spaces that memes exist in can, ironically, serve to shut many of its own proponents out. I may personally derive joy from some memes, but it is also important to interrogate my biases when I attempt to consume or produce them.

Outside of Crying Jordan, #onfleek, the Harlem Shake, Skai Jackson, and the sheer amount of memes to originate from Black Twitter and the now-disabled Vine, memes continue to mutate, change hands, instantiate, and heal. The root of meme culture itself is then indistinguishable from a body politic that is inextricably tied to a means of cultural production that explicitly serves the people it chooses to serve. By engaging in an exclusive lingo of misery and survival, meme culture remains to root the people who exist in marginalized communities, and (hopefully) remains to root out the ones who do not.

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