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Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Column: Shit memes say

Richard Dawkins combined the ancient Greek word for imitate, mimeme, with the sound of the word “gene” to coin the term “meme” in 1976. To Dawkins, memes are units of culture through the process of natural selection. Just like genes, cultural ideas and objects could be produced and reproduced through the forces of variation, inheritance, mutation and competition.

If you are not a fan of memes like NyanCat, LolCat, Philosoraptor, #hashtagsoffTwitter, planking and the like, then perhaps you could find validation in the evolutionary model of memes. After all, it means they’re not the product of intelligent design. But some memes, like the Shit People Say videos, deserve intelligent discussion.

What started as a montage of quick-takes by some guys in drag saying what are meant to be annoying things an octave higher now has about 13.4 million views on YouTube. “Shit Girls Say” attracted an initial approval in the form of viral syndication on Facebook newsfeeds and self-identifying comments from females. Then something interesting happened — the meme mutated.

Suddenly, people began posting variations of the video. The first of these I noticed was “Shit Black Girls Say.” With the added nuance of race, this new variation was clear in its implicit indictment of the original video’s reductive humor. An interview with the original meme’s producers called this a reaction to “Shit A Certain Kind Of Woman Who Has Been Socialized To Behave A Certain Way Says.” As if to compete for viral attention in this critique of the original, new videos in the form of “Shit Asian Girls Say” and “Shit Spanish Girls Say” appeared. Taking the form of the meme, “Shit Guys Say” and “Shit Black Guys Say” featured women in drag participating in the phenomenon.

As if to model divergent evolution, the original meme was redone and remixed with new groups (including, but not limited to: hipsters, cats, vegans, college freshmen and Asian mothers) while two new sets of videos split off in different directions. This first line of videos did not feature members of an out-group parodying the stereotypes of an in-group, but less conventional groups critiquing themselves. In this vein we have Shit southern gay guys, black gay guys, Nashville hipsters, web designers and gingers Say. Through self-effacing humor, the meme becomes a vehicle for raising awareness of their invisibility. If no one else will make fun of them, they will make fun of themselves.

The second divergent line extended the title of the original meme to bring a new critique forward. Original to this category might be the “Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls” video. As a divergent meme, this new line marked a shift toward a sharper kind of resistance against dominant culture. In videos like “Shit White Girls Say to Arab Girls,” “Shit White Guys Say to Asian Girls,” “Shit People Say to Native Americans” and as if this list wasn’t making you uncomfortable already, “Shit Everybody Says to Rape Victims,” we see edgier satire.

But I guess that’s the point. The popularity behind this divergence is that these videos expose the tolerated awkwardness (and sometimes, abuse) of everyday interactions. None of these videos are about specific people. They’re all about what categories of people say (or say to other categories). In one sense these videos help educate these categories about their discourse. In another sense, they build communities of like-minded peoples, giving YouTube catharsis to these encounters.

This meme, both in its original form and subsequent divergences, is not actually about what anyone says. Some of the best videos in this meme excel in making you feel what it’s like to be on the receiving end of the, well, shit being said. These videos are about what is heard.

You can respond to shit RAJIV NARAYAN writes at rrnarayan@ucdavis.edu.

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