For nearly half her life, Fatima Khan belonged to a hated retail job 11 hours of every day. She was often mistreated. An unsatisfied customer once berated her by saying: “This is why you didn’t graduate college.” Critiquing memes on stage at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, she joked in response to the customer, “Well, (she had) me there,” and the standing-room-only crowd bubbled with giggles and irony.
Khan makes political memes on Instagram as @djinn_kazama, where she has more than 35,000 followers. In mid-June, along with a handful of other meme artists, she spoke at “Meme Spirited,” a panel at the Atlanta Contemporary discussing the role of memes as art. The standing-room-only crowd of dozens was diverse in all but age, with a single gray-haired couple sticking out.
Memes are these artists’ medium. During the format’s adolescent years of the late aughts and early teens, they were nearly synonymous with “Advice Animals,” pictures of a person or animal framed from above and below by text, giving advice from the idiosyncratic perspective assigned to the “animal.” There was just a handful of these.
Today, though, while static images and text still dominate, joke structures, short video clips and even songs, like “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X, generally qualify by providing easily copied and mutable units of culture. Like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous observation about obscenity, “I know it when I see it,” then, it’s easiest to define memes by enumeration — this image is, this one is not. That core difficulty of prescribing a definition springs from their evolutionary speed.
Serving as shorthand
To classify the ever-growing, ever-changing zoo of memes, Aria Dean, an assistant curator at the not-for-profit arts center Rhizome, turns to art-speak, calling memes “a form that allows for a sense of collective ownership among those who come into contact with (them).” Basically, a way of presenting an idea that renders it immediately familiar.
Starting in 2019, Adult Swim began airing “Bottom Text,” a chaotic, live-stream comedy of meme critique that includes Khan and several other Atlanta-based memers. The show, which is filmed in Turner Broadcasting’s Atlanta studio, combines broad themes of social justice — like anti-racism, class struggle, and gender inclusivity — lewd humor, and pop culture with a fever dream’s frantic and incoherent believability.
The artists involved with “Bottom Text,” like the meme makers at last month’s show, channel America’s animated and infuriated young working class, cogently expressing workers’ frustrations and exemplifying the democratizing force of the internet on political conversations.
Sitting in the first row at “Meme Spirited,” eating a bag of spicy french fries, Atlanta local Jay Levy alludes to memes’ familiarity, saying: “I use GIFs of black women because I grew from a strong black mother … And whoever I’m talking to instantly understands what I’m saying.”
To him, memes of black women, like Oprah Winfrey or Nene Leakes from “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” operate like a natural visual language for expressing emotion, and he thinks they function as emotional shorthand for other black people. “When my mom gave me that look, I had to stop doing what I was doing. It’s reminiscent of that feeling.”
Instant familiarity makes memes powerful message boards. For one, shoppers are more likely to purchase products from familiar brands, according to Nielsen. And branded content, multimedia not actively soliciting but sponsored by companies that do, like Jerry Seinfeld and Acura’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” reaps huge returns, boasting twice the memorability of traditional advertising online.
Khan says that most “memes are basically advertising now” with companies exploiting a new form of customers’ trust in the familiar. Denny’s, Moonpie, and corporate Twitter’s ruler of darkness, Steak-umm, evoke the nihilism, non sequitur and weirdness of memes to build relationships with younger customers on Twitter and eventually sell them treats. Internet personalities are often behind those accounts, hired by companies to make memes for them, including Gucci paying “Meme Spirited” presenter John Truly “1,200 euros or whatever they send” for his first corporate meme several years ago.
Channeling their frustrations
But what makes memes appealing to companies also makes them useful for political movements. At the show, one meme displayed a spandex-clothed white woman in lotus position levitating by the text: “Have you tried talking to the manager within?” Cathartic and bitter laughs rang from the crowd.
Ashley Jones, a 23-year-old from Henry County, drove to the event straight from her retail job. She “could scream from the top of (her) lungs from working retail. (Customers) are always asking to speak to the manager. Could you please speak to the manager inside your own (expletive) head? They’re in a position where they can demand anything they want, and you have to do it right then and there.”
Of course, though she “could” scream, she doesn’t. She needs the money. That combination, of being treated as a living instrument working instantly at strangers’ whims, burying screams in a smile, is exactly what Arlie Hochschild, professor emerita of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, meant by her now-famous phrase “emotional labor.” She said: “The worker can become estranged or alienated from (the) aspect of self … that is used to do the work,” in this case, referring to workers’ emotions.
For Jones, radicalization followed this alienation. Because her parents weren’t in a position to save for the college expenses of their four children, Jones worked full time during her two years of college to pay for tuition. The difficulty of keeping up with schoolwork, school payments, and retail work convinced her that college education should be free. While supporting those pillars of Hercules, she found memes and grew radicalized by this “lighter form of leftism.” The memes hit the nails of her frustration on their heads.
Census estimates from 2018 show that almost a quarter of all workers between 20 and 34 years old worked in retail, food services, or accommodations. They were the two most common employment sectors for 20-to-24-year-olds and filled spots two and six for 25-to-34 year-olds. Those jobs are even more common among black and Latinx workers.
Khan worked retail. Truly was a construction worker. Cindie Xie, the “Meme Spirited” presenter whose Instagram account @males_are_cancelled has almost 50,000 followers, dropped out of college.
Feeling less alone
Their experiences represent a model of millennial and Gen Z young adulthood that the life paths of most commentators — news anchors, writers and academics — don’t. Because of that, memes from these artists can hum at workers’ resonance frequency when more traditional media can be off-putting.
Even their medical experiences are similar. “I can’t afford therapy,” Xie says, “but at least I have memes.” Then, “most of us are therapists for people more than anything else.” According to a Blue Cross/Blue Shield study this year, there are a lot of people like them. Two million commercially insured Americans don’t seek treatment after diagnoses of major depression, likely because of cost. Add in the uninsured and the disproportionately black and Latinx people with undiagnosed mental health issues, and that number grows.
Content that recognizes the hidden struggles and burdens that everyone bears, crystallizes thoughts, and entertains “helps people that in general feel isolated, helps them feel closer to others, and helps them feel less alone,” Khan says. That’s what memes do at their best.
Put it together. You’re in your mid-20s, feeling unappreciated by the only work available to you, like you’ve failed yourself and been failed by the social compact, you can’t afford a therapist to talk to, and when you hear someone describe your life, they’re nothing like you, speaking no way you ever would. These meme accounts — like Xie’s @males_are_cancelled — show up offering therapy, providing a forum of people struggling just like you, relieving you with a laugh, and explaining how both of you got here.
When most people think of political memes, the alt-right, far-right-wing political sect that was among those supporting the election of Donald Trump in 2016, comes to mind. They repopularized their white nationalist values by posting.
George Hawley, a professor of political science at the University of Alabama, lists three traits that broadly underlie their ideology: “a strong sense of white identity, a belief in the importance of white solidarity, and a sense of white victimization.”
His study of their demography estimates that 11 million Americans identify with all three traits, with three demographic groups most likely to agree: the divorced, the unemployed, and those making less than $29,000 per year. Groups whose social and economic vulnerabilities, like retail workers and the uninsured, open them to populist ideology: egalitarian on the left, jingoistic on the right.
When Jensen Leonard, a memer who goes by @coryintheabyss on Instagram, said that “memes democratize art” at “Meme Spirited,” this is the diverse effect of democratization he described. Instagram and Twitter lower the barriers to public comment and critique. With a phone app and a little downtime, anyone with an idea can make a meme and share it.
“Memes diagnose the zeitgeist,” Leonard said, in its good and its bad. In 2016, that meant memes from the alt-right.
Now, that means “Bottom Text.” Rebecca Shenfield, the 25-year-old producer of the show, says one of her primary interests in “Bottom Text” was seeing whether this sort of politics would fly at Turner, where any politics are typically taboo. “And it has!” she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “They’re talking about real stuff coded in humor.”
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