If you’ve ever spent time on the internet, or if you grew up on it like I did, you know what a meme is. From innocent cats doing things to Vine (RIP) compilations to the the far right co-opting a cartoon frog, there is no doubt that they are central to much of our lives without anyone really paying much attention.
At this year’s Woman With A Movie Camera summit at the BFI, Associate Editor at Little White Lies Hannah Woodhead led one of the more lighthearted and funnier talks about feminism, memes and cinema.
Originally coined by Richard Dawkins (aka “the edgelord of atheism” to quote Woodhead) back in 1976, the meme was defined as a “unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.” It is something that can connect us across countries, borders and identities, that highlight aspects of culture and society. They are also hilarious.
Memes are a way we absorb and understand art. Think of the hundreds of ‘no context’ accounts on Twitter. From Louis Theroux to The Phantom Thread or First Reformed, we use these screenshots of memorable lines, or facial expressions to both show our love and appreciation for cinema and TV.
Woodhead talked about how the backlash for these kind of accounts is completely unwarranted. There is the sense that art “should not be made fun of,” that is something above us that can only be touched by academic style dissection. She argues that the fact that Paul Thomas Anderson made “a masterpiece” in Phantom Thread isn’t negated by the fact that some people on Twitter are using Daniel Day Lewis and Lesley Mann as reaction images or using the “are you a special agent?” scene to complain about minor issues in their own lives.
In breaking down the perceived distance between “high art” and our own lives, we are more inclined to seek out this art for ourselves. I was at university when Phantom Thread came out, and had barely any money to go to the cinema. People were talking and joking about this film on Twitter and it made me realise that is wasn’t just the period drama the trailer had implied. I’d never seen a PTA film before, but because of the internet, it suddenly seemed more accessible. So I sought it out.
Whether you love them or just don’t understand, memes have both political and social relevance on a wider scale than just people talking rubbish on the internet. Woodhead looked at the example of Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” gaffe from the 2012 Presidential election in the U.S., but cast your minds back to the election in 2016. My immediate thought when anyone mentions Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer — I’m not saying it was the sole thing that sank his campaign but it didn’t do much to help it either.
One of the highlights — or lowlights — of the talk was a frankly incredible video of Richard Dawkins presenting his own meme at the Cannes New Directors Showcase in 2013. It has to be seen to believed but there is a section in which Dawkins performs a clarinet solo while an image of his own head floats around on a screen behind him.
Brands are not our friends, Woodhead stated towards the end of the talk, and we need to call out the bullshit that brands try to pull when we see it. They exploit memes in order to sell stuff, and Netflix, I am looking at you. It’s not coming from a place of sincerity, or a stupid joke that people find amusing; it is simply to sell stuff, whether that is TV shows or cars or flavoured water. The influence of capitalism is everywhere and not even our memes are safe.
In this ever divided world, memes connect us. Whether it’s goats licking salt from a rock face, or the distracting boyfriend memes breaking down politics, this is how we digest culture, society, art and our own lives.
You can find Hannah on twitter @goodjobliz for more top tier memes about film and feminism.