“What does visual literacy mean in 2018? Is there such a thing as a meme aesthetic? And is it powerful enough to influence thinking?” We asked ourselves those questions in a recent article about internet memes entering political consciousness.
Turns out the answer can be found in the hands of the hundreds of teenagers who pushed for gun control in nationwide marches on March 24. A bird’s-eye view of the massive turnout will show you countless heads bobbing up and down, their chants loud and their cardboard signs decked with memes.
It’s hardly surprising for a digital-first generation to use internet memes as protest art in the physical world. Some of them – like Krusty Krab vs. Chum Bucket – were conceived as recently as early March 2018, while a few others – like Batman Slapping Robin – have been around since the founding of 9GAG. But old or new, obvious or obscure, these meme-inspired posters are well on their way to becoming prized relics of protest.
Here we break them down sign by sign to explain their significance.
A winning meme theme across all the marches was SpongeBob, the title character of the animated television series SpongeBob SquarePants.
Posters featuring Mocking SpongeBob targeted the National Rifle Association by mocking statements like “guns don’t kill people,” “give teachers guns,” and “thought and prayers.” Some posters also depicted the NRA as Evil Patrick, an image of Patrick Star laughing maniacally. Krusty Krab vs. Chum Bucket, the newest SpongeBob-related meme to make it to the streets, compared The Krusty Krab (a fictional restaurant where SpongeBob works) to The Chum Bucket (owned by SpongeBob’s archenemy Plankton). In this context, The Krusty Krab stood for the students, whereas the universally disliked Chum Bucket became a symbol for the NRA.
In a poster featuring the Roll Safe meme, a smug guy taps his head and points out his genius. “Can’t get shot if you can’t get guns,” he says, having figured out a life-hack for gun control.
The Distracted Boyfriend meme is what one would call a typical “object-labelling stock photo” series. A man walks down the street and stops to admire another woman passing by, as his girlfriend gapes at his disloyalty. A protest poster identifies the man as Paul Ryan, the woman as “NRA money” and the girlfriend as “kids’ lives.”
A poster taking aim at President Trump was inspired by Evil Kermit, where beloved muppet Kermit the Frog is instructed by his evil doppelgänger to behave lazily and unethically. Trump innocently asks, “Solve gun violence?” to which Evil Trump replies, “Give teachers guns.”
One of the posters was modelled after a meme that says it all without saying anything at all: Arthur’s Fist. While the tightly clenched fist belongs to cartoon character Arthur from a 1999 PBS children’s program of the same title, it has come to symbolize intensely infuriating situations – like mass shootings in schools.
The practice of Drakeposting is using Canadian hip hop artist Drake’s facial expressions from his 2015 Hotline Bling music video to show one’s disdain towards one topic and approval of another. One such protest poster shows Drake holding his hand up to guns, while nodding in approval at school textbooks.
Another popular poster was a rendered version of Batman Slapping Robin – a fairly straightforward meme of DC Comics superhero Batman slapping his sidekick Robin in mid-conversation to shut him up – except the poster replaced Robin with President Trump. Batman interrupted Trump’s “thoughts and prayers” with “policy and change.”
Perhaps the most underrated meme-themed poster was one based on a Keeping Up With The Kardashians episode when Kim had a meltdown about her lost diamond earrings while on vacation. “Oh my god, I’m gonna cry! My diamond earrings!” she wails, to which her sister Kourtney calmly replies, “Kim, there are people that are dying.”
The poster took this gem of a moment and applied it to the United States’ much-debated right to bear arms. “OMG, I’m gonna cry! My Second Amendment rights!” wails Kim again. Kourtney’s reaction doesn’t change.
Babies born in 2000 are becoming adults this year, and they’ve already figured out what the rest of us haven’t: A march or protest is not the place to craft eloquent arguments and wait for those in power to take notice. Armed with markers, crayons, paint, glitter and printouts, their new strategy harnesses the power of virally transmitted symbols to attract the world’s attention. They aren’t afraid to experiment with collective expression and assert their political influence through bold, creative ways. Whether you understand them or not, these quality teens with their quality memes know how to push the envelope of visual literacy in 2018.