Memes are a relatively recent phenomenon, originating somewhere in the depths of 4Chan, and making it into our daily pop culture digestion through none other than the hegemon of visual apps, Instagram. Memes serve to mock everything, from the ridiculous occurrences of Hollywood and the music industry, to the mundane and arbitrary events of our everyday lives.
Do not mistake, memes come for everyone.
But in their criticism of women, memes come especially hard.
The relentless mocking of women is so prevalent in this medium that it is often not questioned. But the jokes displayed here would no longer pass muster in more conventional platforms of entertainment – television and movies, which are routinely reviewed and held up to standard by both professional critics and the public. Instead, Instagram memes represent a new “Wild West” in entertainment, where account holders, sometimes having millions of followers, can simply post whatever they want with little review or backlash. Memes succeed in placing women into several stereotypes, from “hoes”, to stifling girlfriends, to having value based solely on the size of their butts and breasts. Memes also succeed in condensing these themes into bite-size humor, for all to find acceptable and swallow without protest. In this simple and humorous presentation, the sexist themes can be easily excused as “just jokes”.
But with the prevalence and popularity of meme accounts, and the heavy and engrossing usage of Instagram among teens and pre-teens, the effect can be quite harmful. These memes pop up on young people’s feeds often, and allow the sexist themes to not only be accepted, but engrained into a person’s worldview. Here are just a few examples from popular Instagram accounts:
These memes can be seen to disparage women from every angle -from stereotyping women as illogical, to casting them as attention seeking, to categorizing them based on body type. The most harmful of the bunch makes an assumption about a woman’s sexuality based on what she’s wearing, countering the efforts that have been made to end these attitudes in a variety of anti-rape and anti-slut shaming campaigns. For women that have proudly marched in Slutwalks and protested for this cause, these memes are not only problematic, but insulting. They serve not only to laugh at women, but to laugh in the face of the progress they have been trying so desperately to make.
The user generated comments on these memes consist mostly of users tagging others, as most people take these images as humor and pass them along to their friends.
Here, meme creators can be seen as just “giving the people what they want”, and providing the content that gets them followers and likes.
There has been a countermovement by female led accounts, such as @gothshakira, which makes humorous and sometimes purposefully over-complicated memes that serve to encapsulate the female experience. There are several accounts that take ownership of the word hoe and repurpose it as an empowering term, churning out memes that empower women to enjoy their sexual freedom and womanhood ( @hoesgivenofucks, and @girlwithnojob to name check a few). These accounts manage to counter some stereotypes, but they are scarce. On a platform so widely used, there is scarily little other content that can be seen as women-positive. In fact, women’s bodies are often viscerally criticized by commenters, and women are called “hoes” for acts as meaningless as applying the Snapchat dog-filter. So what can be done?
There is no clear solution to ending sexist attitudes towards women on Instagram.
However, it is clear that meme accounts are creating this content to generate likes and user reaction, and that so far, they have been largely successful.
The only thing that can be done is to stop liking and sharing these images, and instead focus on following progressive accounts and circulating content that positively effects women. The pop culture we expose ourselves to has a greater impact on us that we may realize, and it is time that we contribute positively.