Memes FTW: On the Road to Wokeness

At 12, I was ready to graduate to grown up television. Stepping into the lives of the characters in Friends and Sex and the City (SATC), opened me up to whole new shiny adult world. Despite its lack of relatable content for a tween from Mumbai, I still connected to the broad, universal themes of friendship and love (and even pretended to understand the confused adulting). Those core themes have stuck with me through the years, but most of the storylines haven’t aged well for 2018.

Reviewing 90’s sitcoms from my new woke-tinted glasses reveals layers of problematic content scraping away at good, wholesome childhood memories. I wondered how I hadn’t before noticed – and retrospectively realised – that more diversity, inclusion and representation in these sitcoms would have added the much-needed colour to my younger perception of a mainly white, cis world-view as the norm. So stumbling upon the ‘Woke Charlotte’ meme felt like a personal victory. By critically analysing and turning the simplistic, problematic tropes of SATC on its head – and ironically making conservative Charlotte the mouthpiece for 21st century progressive view – the meme is rewriting the tired old sit-com narrative.

Credit: Instagram, @everyoutfitonsatc

For millennials, memes are our language. They are social connectors which easily flow from the interwebs into the physical world, seeping into everyday conversation and even showing up on our streets at protest marches.

Irony and cultural debate combine to create an information rabbit hole that needs your active participation to educate yourself. A dank meme on political theory, made with your favourite template, might encourage you to read up more on the context. Making Mughal emperor Akbar relatable to a young adult in 2018 isn’t easy, and simplifying complex ideas and political theories like socialism into satire is an art – both easily achieved through memes.

Credit: Feminist Bollywood GIFs

Like with most things young and new, memes face a lot of criticism and snobbery. Lots of people think memes are simplistic and reduce intricate issues to a few funny lines. The focus of such criticism – that memes are too quick and fun – is exactly what makes them so appealing in the first place. For millennials, memes democratise academic discourse and open it up to audiences which might otherwise feel unwelcome. Demystifying political processes through meme-ing or contextualising daily news into a familiar meme template increases the news’ accessibility and opens it up for engagement to a much wider audience. Cutting through the jargon, memes make for a lighter front to deconstruct complex concepts.

Credit: Bollywood Existentialist Memes

‘Woke Charlotte’ revitalised SATC for me by directly addressing the problematic racist, sexist and transphobic stereotypes the show used so casually, in addition to the much-celebrated sex-positive material it became famous for.

The meme shows us just how embedded certain biases are, and by subverting the intended message it even shows us that there can be humour in punching up. Meme pages are now being used to satirise classism and casteism in new and effective ways. Given the freedom, equality (for the most part, barring the occasional censoring) and accessibility of the internet, memes are being used by marginalised groups to reclaim their narratives, with political bite and humour. Solidarity online forms quickly and dissenting through memes is an emerging source of online political action, often spilling over into real life as well.

Memes can even help create niche spaces for people disenfranchised by the mainstream narrative. Pages like Humans of Hindutva and various ‘Memes for political teens’ groups play on hegemonic tropes and subvert them, revealing the discriminatory ideologies embedded in our everyday (and giving us a brief introduction to political theory). They help us rethink learnt concepts, and un-learn systemic biases (or at least help us become aware of them, the un-learning depends on us). Woke memes are a way to present a different truth and undermine the original, oppressive message. The commonly understood template of a meme allows for the widespread dissemination of ideas that would otherwise have been suppressed or limited to an academic elite.

Credit: Tumblr, Feminist SRK

Beyond just being funny, memes are also often a symbol of dissent and protest. When left out during the political process, memes are our voice back into the conversation – tools created by us and for us, to challenge the mainstream rhetoric. Often the only form of protesting we are allowed, memes function as a specific language that we can use to undermine and mock politicians and mainstream leaders who set themselves up for ridicule and instant memeification with ridiculous or outrageous statements.

Millennials are easy scapegoats for everything wrong with the world today. And in a world slowly and decidedly descending into chaos, at least we’ve created some cheeky memes to cheer us on and keep us woke.