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Gritty became a leftist meme because Philly loves a righteous hooligan

The Philadelphia Flyers’ deranged orange lunatic is so much more than just a mascot

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New York Rangers v Philadelphia Flyers
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

As one of the oldest cities in America, Philadelphia is an ancestral home of this country’s political culture. Throughout its tumultuous history — from a site of revolutionary anger in the earliest days of this country to the proud, post-manufacturing metropolis it is today — you can find the story of the United States, writ small. That’s also probably why the city takes its teams so seriously: this was, in a real sense, the birthplace of America, and what’s more American than taking sports too seriously?

This year, the Philadelphia Flyers, the city’s hockey team, debuted its second-ever attempt at a mascot: Gritty, a shaggy orange wookiee-esque grotesquerie who, in his first appearance on the ice, fell directly on his ass — and into America’s meme-addled heart. Gritty’s popularity exploded online, across sports media and beyond; his giant, googly, unblinking eyes conveyed an unhinged, anarchic glee that inspired a raft of memes.

In Philadelphia, of course, Gritty made the biggest splash of all. Online the city and its residents instantly claimed him as an icon, one that represented its own rough and tumble personality — as one person put it, “We’re scrappy fighters. And our city is dirty as hell.”

But it was Philly’s activist left communities, in particular, who took that memeified characterization and ran with it: Gritty communicates the absurdity and struggle of modern life under capitalism, while bearing that weight cheerfully, striving to better the lives of his comrades. Within a week of his debut, the mascot had shown up on a banner at an anti-Trump protest. There and elsewhere online — in meme groups and leftist forums — the messages were always the same: Gritty is for the people. They were different from the other Gritty fans, because to them he’s more than a mascot; his very existence symbolizes the absurd contradictions of the modern condition that the left rails against. Or maybe that’s going too deep. Perhaps the left loves Gritty for the reasons everyone does — because they need him.

Whatever the reason, the Philly left’s immediate embrace of Gritty was effective and convincing enough to warrant a pearl-clutching op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. “Appropriation, indeed,” writer Jillian Kay Melchior begins the last paragraph in her piece. “Gritty belongs to Philadelphia, not to far-left activists. Still, in an era when everything from Nike and the NFL to your local restaurant is a political battlefield, this development is as predictable as it is sad. Not only can’t we have nice things, we can’t even have silly, creepy things.”

“To be perfectly honest, I think that the Philly leftist community just really needs an ally right now,” says the writer P.E. Moskowitz, when I reach them over the phone. Moskowitz is a member of the Philly Socialists (and someone I’ve known socially and professionally for a number of years) who moved to Philadelphia in 2015; ever since, they’ve been a part of its burgeoning left community, as one of the main organizers behind the city’s Occupy ICE campaign and as a participant in a number of demonstrations.

“We’ve had a lot of wins, and a lot of good shit happen, but it’s also been kind of dismaying to see the state so violent,” Moskowitz says, referring to the harsh way Philadelphia police broke up the Occupy ICE encampment. “So when Gritty came along, it was just this weird mascot… non-binary leftist icon, whatever you want to call him — or them — that was just… They seemed so weird and crazy, and I feel like a lot of leftists can identify with feeling a little weird and crazy. Both huggable, but also potentially insurrectionary or violent. Like Gritty is fluffy, but he has something else going on in his eyes.”

Moskowitz points to the strength of the leftist community in Philadelphia as the reason for Gritty’s immediate adoption, though they are quick to point out that nobody has asked Gritty his opinion about all this and their worst fear is that in a week or two the Flyers PR team might have Gritty say “Blue Lives Matter” (or something along those lines).

“Activism and organizing in Philly is in a really crazy-good [place] right now,” Moskowitz says. “There are so many organizers who know each other, and are friends now, that I didn’t know six months ago or a year ago. If Gritty came out a year ago, there wouldn’t be the same community sharing these stupid things on Facebook, or with each other, as a meme … The fact that we’re all so linked in with each other allowed it to come about much faster.”

The leftist community in Philadelphia largely shares Moskowitz’s diagnosis. When I asked them the same questions, their answers were as enlightening about the state of Philadelphia as a city as they were about the state of the left; their testimonies were part snapshot and part ice core, a portrait of a city in the middle of its own political uprising. Here’s how they tell it, in their own lightly condensed and edited words.  

Kyle M., dues-paying member of the national and local Democratic Socialists of America

I can’t tell you how Gritty was co-opted by the left so quickly tbh. I’m a lifelong Flyers fan, when I first saw Gritty, my response was, “What the fuck are the Flyers doing, this is dumb.” Then the national media criticized him and it immediately became “STFU I WOULD DIE FOR GRITTY” — because that’s how Philly is.

He’s just a ridiculous-looking mascot, but the jiggly eyes are what really sells the whole thing. I think people have just latched on to the sheer ridiculousness of it and want to associate with it, because it’s just funny, and there’s so much awful shit going on sometimes you just need to believe in something light and fun (I’ve changed my twitter name/picture to Gritty related items). You can’t look at him and not think he’s funny.

“A no-fucks-given orange lunatic — but one who belongs to us.”

We live in a society (I can’t believe I just typed that) that has been focused on “triggering the libs” and it’s about time there was something to counter that. Though I don’t think the intent of associating Gritty with leftism was to trigger conservatives into melting down in The Wall Street Journal, it’s a nice side effect.

Stephen H., donates to leftist organizations and attends the occasional protest

We’re in a moment where memes and news cycles come and go very rapidly. Something goes viral, and it becomes all anyone can talk about, until the next thing goes viral. Gritty’s unveiling was a sophisticated marketing effort coordinated by a major professional sports franchise, so the attention was there to begin with. He ended up becoming a meme because he looks utterly ridiculous and horrifying. Some Flyers fans embraced him immediately, and some (like me) were very skeptical at first. He was embraced completely, I think, when people from elsewhere started mocking him and making him into a joke. We Philadelphians have a massive inferiority complex and have a tendency to go overboard with our civic pride, but that’s a different article. All the exposure meant that everyone jumped onboard, latching onto him for clicks and attention, which is how he transcended from Hockey Meme to General Meme.

“Getting attention ... is a high priority for leftist organizers because their message is so often muted or challenged by corporate media.”

Because the internet was saturated in Gritty content for a few days, it’s no surprise he ended up getting picked up as a funny symbol by leftists. Getting attention from mainstream news and the general public is a high priority for leftist organizers, because their message is so often muted or challenged by corporate media. There happened to be an anti-Trump protest (what else is new?) around the time Gritty Fever was gripping the internet, so of course there were going to be clever signs incorporating him. I think the reaction to this juxtaposition (a silly sports mascot advocating a leftist worldview) itself became a meme that leftists were happy to adopt. It’s fun, after all.

The actual, Flyers-controlled Gritty personality is less fun. The Flyers organization is notoriously reactionary, and they are all too happy to have the official Gritty Twitter account engaging with Barstool, the misogynist hate mob disguised as a sports site. It’s for this reason that I hesitate to claim the mascot itself is leftist. But using him as a symbol to support leftism, I think, is good.

Alex Manescu, member of Philly Socialists

Just wanted to chime in that I feel the absurdity of Comrade Gritty’s appearance reflects, to us, the absurdity we see in a society that aggressively prioritizes profit over people. And his uncontrollable antics are very much like those of the ruling class as they make massively destructive decisions without concern for the people they impact.

So when we recuperate this orange menace, it’s as an antihero. A no-fucks-given orange lunatic — but one who belongs to us. Gritty is a symbol we’ve claimed, because as Philadelphians, we famously don’t give a shit if we’re allowed to or not.

“He has no gods, no masters. Only his giant orange bouncing belly full of indiscriminate rage.”

Dolores G., part of the local IWW (with Gritty)

Let me try to take a crack at this: It’s because we’re really good at memes. If the left is good at anything at all, it’s memes, AKA propaganda. We saw an absurd, chaotic, creature, and it just clicked. Gritty is part of the local IWW with me.

Local anti-fascist groups know what’s up when they made that banner. We know Gritty is a comrade. He just doesn’t give a fuck about this system and is ready to throw down: exactly what you’d expect from a revolutionary leftist. You see what I mean? You can see the glow of revolutionary insurrection in his googled, swirling eyes. He’s free. He represents the freedom that we leftists ache for. He has no gods, no masters. Only his giant orange bouncing belly full of indiscriminate rage.

Andrew Cunningham, registered Democrat who’s not a fan of Pat Toomey

I’ve done some volunteering / text-banking for the PA Democrats; I’ve marched in the Philly versions of the 2018 Women’s March (I was in D.C. for the first one), the Science March, and the March For Our Lives; and I’ve donated multiple times to the Wolf and Casey campaigns (for governor and Senate respectively). I also voted for Larry Krasner in the primary and general elections last year and have spent a fair amount of time on the phone with Pat Toomey telling him that his policies are bad and he is bad.

“Gritty’s blank, I-know-what-you-did stare is inherently meme-able.”

The Gritty thing has got something to do with the general meme-ification of our political and cultural discourse — the same force that made a weed-smoking frog into a widely-recognized hate symbol, or the Babadook into a gay icon. Gritty’s blank, I-know-what-you-did stare is inherently meme-able, and I think lefties in the city are only too happy to appropriate some horrible committee-designed corporate mascot for their own ends. It’s one of those things that starts as a joke — replace the mural of infamously racist former mayor Frank Rizzo with Gritty! — but becomes more of a part of the character with time and repetition.

As for why he resonates with leftists specifically: anarchy and rage are inherent to Gritty’s public persona. Philly is a fairly progressive city, but our party’s ward system is tightly controlled and secretive and broken and hostile to newcomers and young people. A lot of the rest of the state is relatively conservative and heavily gerrymandered, so we’re always having to fight with the state GOP over our public transit and public education funding. We live in a country where a minority-elected president and Senate can and are doing essentially whatever they want to the judiciary and our other national institutions. We’re surrounded by broken systems that are insufficiently responsive to our input! Gritty, meanwhile, is a giant ugly chaos muppet who wants to tear everything the fuck down with an unhinged smile on his face. No wonder he resonates.

Skyler C., DSA meetings attendee

Gritty is a natural fit for the Weird Philly atmosphere much of the Left inhabits here. He’s raging id, but soft and cuddly, like Elmo’s older brother who’s seen some shit in the war and come back radicalized. The left here is always attaching to strange iconography, like the Phanatic or the Secret Admirer’s Wolf and such. Gritty is freaky enough for us to rally behind his image as we struggle against the fascists in our midst.

Stephen Piccarella, regular volunteer with the political organization Reclaim Philadelphia

In the past two years, a lot of people on the left in Philly have been trying to make connections and build power across a varied political landscape, which has fostered a lot of solidarity and alleviated a lot of infighting. I think the rallying around Gritty on the Left says a lot about the strength of the Leftist movement we have right now in Philly. Across the Leftist spectrum, people saw the potential in Gritty for a leader, an icon, to represent a strong movement with a solid platform functioning at a high capacity.

“Gritty can mean two different things — dirty(ish) and courageous”

Everyone’s an unknown quantity before they find their people. Gritty got with us quick because we’re prepared, we’re determined, and we know how to stay on message.

Mindy Isser, unaffiliated communist involved with housing and education efforts

Philly is such an underdog town. Any symbol or person can kind of exemplify that, you know? I think we have a reputation of being brash and rude, but there are always times when Philadelphians come together like a family — like when the Phillies won the World Series, and, of course, when the Eagles won the Super Bowl. Outside of funerals, the Super Bowl was the first time in my life where I’ve seen grown men cry. It meant so much to so many people — many of whom are no longer with us — and to the city as its own entity. We’re the poorest big, black city in the country. We have immense violence (including tons of police violence). Our schools are hanging on by a thread. We never win anything. But this time we did. We’re constantly in the shadow of New York (which sucks) and D.C. (which sucks even more), and we finally had our time to shine. And in that shine, we were still ourselves: we climbed sanitation trucks and pissed in the street, and I saw that someone even ate horse shit.

And then they named him GRITTY! Which, of course, makes complete sense. Gritty can obviously mean two different things — dirty(ish) and courageous. We’re both of those things! We’re scrappy fighters. And our city is dirty as hell. Not sure if you’ve been here lately, but there’s trash everywhere (out of the 20 largest cities in the country, we are the only ones without a street cleaning program!). In a lot of ways, our city is a liberal one. We’re a sanctuary city. Our mayor routinely bashes Trump. But there are real questions about the future of Philadelphia — who will it belong to? It’s easy to be anti-Trump. But what — and who — are we actually for?

“The right was busy with their own big orange monster, so Gritty was kind of just there for the co-opting by the left.”

I think, to many people, Gritty represents aspects of the “old” Philly that we all want to keep. We don’t want this town to turn into an even shittier version of shitty-ass New York (no offense if that’s where you live). We don’t want it to be sanitized. We want Philly to stay tough and bold and courageous. Maybe not physically dirty (I certainly would love a street cleaning program), but at least with the aura of it — like we’re not to be messed with, like we know nobody likes us and we don’t care. The left is so fractured and powerless that we HAVE to fight. Just like the city, the political left is the underdog. We’re on the right side of history, but in a lot of ways we’re just ridiculed. So to survive and get noticed, we have to be scrappy. That’s why it’s easy to make Gritty our mascot — he’s just like us.

Eric & Ed, hosts of the podcast what’s the homework?

Ed: I didn’t really know all this was happening, but I guess it makes sense. The right is so united already that they’re not really looking for a leader or an icon, or, I guess in this case, a mascot.

Eric: So you’re saying the right was kind of busy and content with their own big orange monster that Gritty was kind of just there for the co-opting by the left?

Ed: That’s funny — yeah, I guess. But on a more serious note, I think the left is just struggling so much to have any message or symbol of unity that matches the right that we’ll just latch on to anything. And the left has tried so hard to represent the working class, the underdog — 

Eric: — despite the conservative cries of just the opposite.

Ed: Exactly. So the left wants to identify with something like grit, and Gritty was an intentional name choice as a reference to the Broad Street Bullies, an underdog hockey team back in the day that famously used dirty tactics to beat up on the dominating Russian hockey team.

Eric: That Russian connection is funny…

Ed: I guess so. It’s also like, the googly eyes are clearly a dog-whistle for legalizing weed, you know?

Eric: …Sure.