Last week a new set of memes came to my facebook. They’re pictures of a supposedly hideously ugly person with a caption such as ‘Michael said he would meet me behind this tree for a bit of fun. He’s running late, would someone please tag him and tell him I’m still waiting?’ Facebook users are supposed to tag a Michael, who will check his facebook notifications, recoil in horror, laugh and maybe even reply with a comment like ‘ew’ or worse.
I’ve seen a few responses to the meme addressing its human cost. A couple of posts, including one from Lizzie Velasquez whose image was used in one of the memes, and articles from some media outlets have pointed out the need to think about the humiliation of the people whose photos are used in these viral memes. What I haven’t seen yet is a response that points out that these supposedly hideous people are only added to these memes because they defy standards of beauty. The versions of the meme I’ve seen so far include a woman with hairy eyebrows, armpits and a moustache, a fat man and the one including Velasquez, a woman with Marfan syndrome.
The first one I saw was the one with the hairy woman. At first I didn’t “get it”, because I no longer instantly perceive hair as ugly. I actually thought she looked quite nice. After a second, though, I realised she was being positioned as absolutely ugly and disgusting. When I saw the next one, the fat man, I’d already been conditioned into the correct automatic response: disgust. But I thought about this man for another second, and I realised that just like the hairy woman, there’s nothing inherently “ugly” about him. He looks kind of friendly, and relaxed in his body, which like the hairy woman can actually be a radical middle-finger towards bodily norms.
These memes attempt humour through positioning the person depicted as so ugly, so hideous, so monstrous, that the rest of “us” should want to avoid them at all costs. They create a sense of group solidarity between tag-er, tag-ee and their facebook friends premised on exclusion: ‘we’re so “normal” looking we can laugh at and be disgusted by the idea of this fat, hairy, disabled person and at the mere suggestion that we would want to have sex with them’. That’s another part of this equation: sex. The meme suggests that the people in these pictures want to have sex with the person tagged in the post. A woman wanting sex has always been a cultural no-no, but a woman with hair on her face wanting to have sex is something “we’re” supposed to laugh at. A fat man who wants sex “we’re” supposed to mock.
Allow me to get academic for a moment (or skip to the next paragraph if you won’t). The people in these memes are positioned as so horrendous, so abject, that they secure “our” “normal” identities. ‘We’re normal, we’re okay, because we’re not like them’. Margrit Shildrick (2006) writes that the monstrous other must be erased from the subject in order to maintain the Cartesian fiction of the bounded self. We become ourselves, in Cartesian thought, through the expulsion of that which is not us. What Shildrick reveals, though, is that the monstrous other, which we define ourselves in sharp distinction from, is part of us. The monstrous defies expulsion to be always within us.
The public ridiculing of the people in this meme positions them as not good enough, unlovable, undeserving of human contact. The memes suggest that their desire is illegitimate because they challenge our narrow norms of beauty and acceptability. “We” have to reject/abject “them” to ease our own anxieties around falling outside these restrictive margins set for our appearance. So even if you can’t look at these memes and see the beauty of the people depicted in them, try to think about the way these memes actually police everyone. For example, one of my first thoughts after I saw the one with the hairy woman was that I had better go and shave my armpits. These memes are violent towards the “other”, but they actually threaten us all. They tell us that public humiliation and shame awaits us if we consider ever stepping or falling outside the boundaries erected around beauty.
Shildrick, M 2006, ‘Monstrous reflections on the mirror of the self-same’, in D Orr, L López McAllister, E Kahl & K Earle (eds), Belief, bodies, and being: feminist reflections on embodiment, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Lanham, pp. pp. 37-48.