The Dark Side of the Meme
Memes really are quite something. Ubiquitous to most, but some of us still remember a time when they weren’t a thing. Born in the early 90’s, I remember when they first reared their heads in my high school years. The classics – Evil Plotting Raccoon, Good Guy Greg, Bad Luck Brian, Successful Baby…the list goes on. Mostly harmless, these memes always provided a laugh; many memes to this day still do. Albeit, with a generally darker sense of humour. And therein lies my problem with memes. Maybe this is my own OK Boomer moment, but while I am quick to share a worthwhile meme I am still wary of what they represent in the current age of instant gratification.
Memes, in my eyes, serve as not only a snippet of a soundbite or relatable situation (think screaming girl/cat meme) but also as a portrayal of trends or trains of thought. For example, there is the current Baby Yoda meme making the rounds. The Star Wars world re-booted by Disney has proved to really open George Lucas’ world in ways few people could have imagined, including familiarising new audiences with fan favourite characters, and so having the Mandalorian as a TV show makes total sense. An iconic fictional world brought to the TV audience of today (films are out, Disney+ and Chill is in) and so a Baby Yoda is great. Endless opportunities to parody just about anything. It’s hype and it’s appropriate. Next month another meme will be top of the pops, but sure enough there will eventually be a throwback Thursday involving a little green alien. That’s how the cycle goes, anyone on social media knows this by now. Even my father, who isn’t a Boomer but still types with just his index fingers, has the savvy to get it. But what happens when memes are a little darker; when do we know when the line is crossed?
Just as we have all shared a cat meme, we (should) all know about one Jeffrey Epstein. The late financier was, in August, found dead in his cell awaiting trial for paedophilia and sex trafficking; a man who rubbed shoulders with some of the wealthiest names in elite circles had a reputation for the illicit. From Prince Andrew (third child of the Queen of England) and Kevin Spacey to President Donald Trump and ex-President Bill Clinton, Epstein was well liked in the higher social circles of the world – despite his criminal history. When he died on suicide watch in a New York jail, the conspiracy theory radar found a new source of motivation. Was it really suicide? If so, how did they let it happen? If it wasn’t, who killed him and why? And if so, how did they let it happen? A meme waiting to happen, surely.
And a meme it became, perhaps one of the first newsworthy items to stake a claim in the highly competitive world of meme-ing. “Epstein didn’t kill himself” is a meme that has taken on many forms. To be fair, some of them have been highly inventive – just look up the awarewolf if you don’t believe me. But they also lead to something a lot more sinister. If Epstein didn’t kill himself, it is surely a travesty of justice. While he might be a despicable man (we can’t know for sure yet, the allegations are still under investigation), there is still the importance of the rule of law. It is unacceptable that someone could be potentially murdered while under suicide watch in a secure prison, no matter their crime. While it might be absolutely meme-worthy, I am afraid of a different picture being painted. If he did not kill himself, then he is a victim of a mockery of the justice system. However, we should be careful not to make the man a victim in entirety. After all, he is a convicted sex-offender who stood accused of far worse at the time of his death. As much of a sham as it would be if he was killed, it would be more of an offence to his supposed victims if he was remembered in meme culture as a victim rather than what he is accused of being a sexual predator who, along with many super-wealthy older male friends from across the globe, molested innumerable underage girls in highly elaborate sex-trafficking rings.
It is here that I leave the topic. While the meme culture is undoubtedly one of the better cultures to emerge from the internet age, bringing people of all walks of life together with a common cause to laugh, it should also be seen for what it is. A way of quickly sharing ‘information’ in an age where knowledge and an ability to make wide-reaching cultural references with ease is highly valued. Check your sources and check them again. Do what your Boomer teachers told you and think critically. Epstein might have been a Bad Luck Brian, but he was also certainly no Good Guy Greg.