As the inventor of the term Richard Dawkins puts it, “memes are to culture what genes are to biology”: sticky building blocks that rapidly circulate and snowball into ritual, discipline, lifestyle, etcetera. But the term ‘meme’ has a more specific use in the context of digital culture: it refers to humorous online images — generally with text — combining one or more references to current events, cultural styles, or even older memes before them. These image macros have gone from shock-jock aesthetics (see: the rickroll meme of an anus stretched to the width of a fist in goatse, or the archive of mutilated carcasses at rotten dot com), to abject networks of deep cybernetic reference and simple text-image combinations meant to be relatable to as wide an audience as possible.
The war of American ideology is fought in many dimensions, including memes deploying all of these developing styles, and more. Gangster Popeye is the meme page of a Salvadorean trans woman who loves retro gaming, takes no shit, and dishes out raunchy, nerdy content for a fairly large group of fans. Featuring absurd, leftist memes, dick jokes, and motorcycle-riding skeletons, her page has a two million weekly post reach, and her content has been influential among meme-makers worldwide. There are visually intense combinations of multiple fonts, clashing references, and nods to older content-styles, much like those on the early short-form image loop communities like YTMND and the Big Dog meme from the Something Awful forums. Both out of laziness and for the kitsch factor, Gangster Popeye uses the free stylized text generator cooltext for her images because, as she tells me in a two-week exchange over email and Facebook chat, “it’s just hilarious to me regardless of everything.”
This content can be described as part of ‘weird Facebook,’ a cluster of meme pages and groups that serve as the core of most progressive meme content on social media. Politically left of most of this cluster, the Gangster Popeye brand advocates for Marxist-Leninist collectivization, gender abolition, and working-class culture. Her appealing mix of social justice and vulgar humor emerges in an image of a silver-haired action heroine, and announcing “it’s okay to be a woman with big-ass guns and an even bigger dick.” Comparatively tame at three fonts, the image simultaneously parodies American gun culture and advocates for the normalization of arming trans women, a position which some might be reticent to take due to their own bigoted hangups and despite the ongoing violence and death trans woman face globally. Another lambasts the barbaric, scatological west in an absurd evocation of border politics between two colonizer countries: “Look bitch: This here is the USA & we’re known to ride 4-wheelers, fuck pigs, play POGS, and smear shit on ourselves & if you don’t like it, go back to PORTUGAL.”
While Gangster Popeye is not necessarily an activist, the power of memes to diagnose and develop ideology is clear, with the chauvinism and xenophobia of the American right returning to mainstream prominence against a weakened, ‘culturally Marxist’ left. Right-wing meme content generally originates on news aggregation and imageboard sites like reddit or 4chan, while left-wing meme content often appears on Facebook. The disparity in moderation policies across these platforms determines the meme aesthetics each faction deploys. Facebook’s protocols are misguided, and this holds true for ‘weird Facebook,’ becoming a yoke that stymies the potential of the leftist meme scene. Despite a variety of tactics, like surreal language and imagery, these pages were being removed at random with suspicious consistency over the summer of 2016. An admin for the popular page “I play KORN to my DMT plants…” is quoted in the Daily Dot: “The giant accounts that make jokes about black kids not having dads and stuff all get huge and get verified, but if you say avocados are spicy, or white people prefer missionary position, it will get taken down.”
All of this came to a fore with #Zuxit, a two-day meme page strike on September 28 to 30, 2016, to protest Facebook’s arbitrary deletion of pages. In its wake, not much changed, leading to a kind of aesthetic ennui among content creators; the recent mainstream American political shift toward the right strengthens the perception that ‘weird Facebook is dead.’ Is that really true? Have the figureheads of weird Facebook all just gone on to monetize their content across platforms and leave politics to the pundits? I spoke with Gangster Popeye about her meme aesthetic, the state of weird Facebook, and how the left can make memes great again.
** It seems like in the past decade memes gradually went mainstream, with emphasis shifting from deep citation to relatability. What matters now is how many people respond to the image with “same” or “it me” or “tfw” [that feel when]. How do you feel about this recent ‘normalization’ and how does the ‘Gangster Popeye aesthetic’ fit into this?
Gangster Popeye: I guess you could call it a reaction against it. I still laugh at Twitter format memes, but I just thought that there had to be something with a more varied aesthetic appeal, so I started slapping cooltext on fantasy art and called it good. The Big Dog memes from Something Awful were definitely a big inspiration, and I wanted to bring back that type of humor. I feel like internet humor used to be about taking you out of your comfort zone, and gradually it became about being comforted in a sense. But for me, seeing the return of discomfort is oddly comforting, because that’s what I grew up with.
** That’s interesting — how do you reconcile the positives of that originary trolling aesthetic with the harassment and other violence you experience as a trans woman making digital content?
GP: Oh, I turn it around on them. Trolls are so incredibly fragile. They get mad at me for existing as is, so why not make memes of undead cowboys saying they’re gonna shoot anybody who misgenders trans women? Yeah, you could definitely say this is my way of redirecting the violence I’m met with all the time. People who hate me, really hate me. I’ve been threatened by Nazis, I get transphobes all the time, etcetera. My memes are a way of hacking through all that, to make my voice stand out, amongst all others.
** That makes sense. From where I’m standing, you originated the meme aesthetic of multiple clashing fonts within a given composition. Could you describe how you arrived at this and why it resonates with you?
GP: Really, it started out as kind of a synaesthetic thing. I wanted to give each word or set of words their own flavor and feel, for emphasis. Why just type the word ‘cum’ when you can put it in a drippy, white font? That comes natural to me. In my head, words really do have certain looks and feels to them, and I wanted my memes to visually express that. To be honest, I don’t know if I believe in ‘clashing.’ I think elements can be very different and put in the same piece, with anything. It’s striking. I guess I’m a mess myself though, I’m very scatterbrained, and I express myself in unorthodox ways; ‘have very disparate interests and whatnot. It’s a solid glimpse of how my mind works. These sentences just form in my head organically, I don’t really sit down and think about it.
** I haven’t really been following weird Facebook and its meme pages post-Zuxit. What is the scene like today, is it still as active as it was a few years back?
GP: Oh yeah, I’d say it’s bigger than ever. The beautiful thing is that there’s such a low bar for participation. Anyone who can copy and paste some text on an image and Google up some .pngs, and do the most basic photo editing can do it, so it’s only natural that people are gonna seek it out as a creative outlet. There’s a ton of pages out there and they seem to be popping. I tend to only really keep an eye on me and my friends, but it really seems to have taken off, and I can’t imagine it’s going anywhere.
** Can you recommend some?
** Do you have any monetization strategies for the Gangster Popeye brand? If so, what are they? And what do you think about the post-Zuxit trend of meme page admins shifting toward monetization?
GP: I don’t want to monetize it really. It feels cheesy, like monetizing graffiti. Something will probably happen, but for now that just feels like something cornballs do. I feel like me and most of my friends do it for the love, it’s like an instinct. We’re not particularly worried about money.
** Is weird Facebook dead, or was it ever alive?
GP: I couldn’t tell you. It was just a bunch of people who friended each other, trying to make each other laugh. I never thought of it as something that would break away from itself. I’ve been a part of it for too long to tell if it’s dead or alive. It’s always gonna look active to me from where I sit, because it’s just my friend circle now.
** Lots of people think weird Facebook popped up out of nowhere, but in reality a lot of non-black meme production draws from black language, visual style, and meme content. Is this something you think about in your process?
GP: Absolutely. Black Twitter completely redefined internet humor, and often goes uncredited. That’s a large part of the reason I’m against selling out and trying to profit off of GP itself because it would feel like a flex of privilege, since black content creators really don’t seem to have the option. I’d feel like a cornball. It’s ugly that everybody turns to black people for entertainment but doesn’t seem to want them to get paid. I hate that, but I haven’t really figured out what there is to do in my power to change it. Non-black content creators owe so much to black ones, as is the story of art in the United States.
** How does the Gangster Popeye output relate to the prehistory of memes (YTMND, SomethingAwful, etcetera), if at all? And how does the output relate to early video game aesthetics (which for some reason seem very relevant to your practice)?
GP: The only earlier memes I directly tie them to are the Big Dog memes. I’ve been a heavy internet user this whole time, so it’s all in my head and I’m sure it’s an influence on me somehow, but not so directly. I think a lot of stuff that I once thought was hilarious is just not funny at all, but I still crack up at the Big Dog memes, so I guess I wanted to create something more like that than what other people were doing. I just love video games. I don’t know if there’s some higher, artsy reason that I love video games or not, I’m just really into video games. That’s all I could really do when I was little because my mom wanted me inside the house. I’ve always loved the fact that it’s a form of entertainment that I actively participate in, instead of passively watching what someone else created. That’s what I like about making memes too, I guess. They’re mostly passively observed, sure, but it’s just so easy to start participating. To be cheesy, being a part of these circles of memers has always kind of felt like I was playing an RPG [role-playing game], and maybe the video game thing is a tribute to that. I don’t know. I just play a lot of video games.
** If memes are so politically powerful, how can the American left deploy them more effectively in order to combat the right’s current cultural dominance (due in part to memes)? Feel free to ignore this question because who gives a shit about the left?
GP: Let me put it this way: do I dream of using my influence as a meme ‘artist’ to mobilize and command a rag-tag revolutionary army all the time? Maybe. (Just kidding, CIA!) I’m a Marxist-Leninist. I try to do my part to spread theory. I don’t know how good of a job I’m doing. I think they’re ushering in the apocalypse. There are dark forces behind all that Nazi shit, and let’s fucking hope I can help fight them off with memes. So to answer you: I guess, and I hope. It’s hard to effectively fight off racism and far right nonsense when there’s still so many white people with money and positions of authority in this country. It’s really all so despicable and I can only imagine that since they used memes, then we can too. But let’s be real, it’s gonna be a lot harder to get an ML in the White House than it was for them to get a fascist, and the bourgeoisie would be a lot more hesitant to protect them.
** I’m interested in the subversion of tough guy aesthetics happening in your work. As a trans woman who deals with mis-gendering, expectations of conformity to male norms, and other issues, is that something you think about? The mix of social justice and vulgarity in the content, and the kind of clashing class signals here, are also interesting to me, since social justice is generally associated with upper middle class political correctness and not crass humor. Maybe you could speak to this?
Okay to expand, yes, I wanted to create something that is more blue collar but promotes some form of ‘social justice.’ That’s the exact problem that I have with social justice, it’s too upper-middle class. It’s too uptight. I get a lot of people from the country and from small towns telling me that I gave them the courage to come out as trans. That means a lot to me. There’s a lot of people out there who relate to the anti-oppressive message, but would never relate to the way that upper mid ‘social justice’ people would put it, and GP is for them. It’s akin to folk art.**