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Funny memes often come from dark places — remember that before you make your own

Memes, just like every other joke format, don’t exist in a vacuum, which is why being aware of their origins is crucial

Museum of English Rural Life

If you’ve only seen later iterations of the “absolute unit” meme on Twitter, context clues would tell you it’s a way to refer to a large, round animal or object — a descriptive meme in the family of “smol bean” or “beautiful cinnamon roll.” It’s notable for its strange and yet somehow evocative phrasing, which feels both affectionate and somewhat admiring.

Its origin, however, is far less pure. The initial “absolute unit” image is a diptych of a large man standing behind the Queen Of England, with the caption, “In awe at the size of this lad. Absolute unit.”

Does a tweet like this qualify as fatphobic or body-shaming? All signs point toward “yes,” especially given the immediate follow-up tweet:

These original tweets have a totally different tone from those that “absolute unit” inspired later. They focus on pointing out — gaping at — the size of a real person, and how different, “weird” or non-standard his body is compared to the norm. It’s not quite the level of People of Walmart, a blog created specifically to shame and humiliate fat, disabled, and low-income people shopping at Walmart, but it’s designed to explicitly point out a body difference that’s marginalized by society.

“Absolute unit” likely became a meme because one would normally expect a tweet spotlighting a fat person to be critical, yet the caption — the word “awe,” combined with the nonsensical (very British) phrase “absolute unit” — gives the whole thing an unexpected juxtaposition. In short, it took off because it was apparently positive, even celebratory.

The original tweet is far from the worst thing I’ve seen on the internet, as a fat person. Because memes become memes through replication and iteration, this process transformed the meaning of “absolute unit” from “look at the very fat man” to “look at the cute chubby thing.” (It’s probably not coincidental that the meme has had a throughline of dehumanization as it’s grown, moving quickly from pointing and staring at a fat person’s body to focusing on animals and objects.) In its current form, it’s kind of nice to see pictures of chubby things shared with an affectionate caption. I also love chubby dogs and sculptures; I just wish the Twitter commentariat regularly showed as much compassion and respect for fat humans. Now that its original meaning is obscured, the meme is innocuous.

Unfortunately for my love of round objects, this sort of transformation does not and cannot erase the original genesis of the meme. Knowing the origin ruins it as surely as if a national fast food chain were to use it in an ad to get some cool teen cred — it completely and necessarily changes how I can interact with any version of a meme. You can’t unring that bell.

We’re used to interacting with memes as if they are free from the detritus of heavier, offline cultural moments: a flash in the pan meme doesn’t usually bear too much scrutiny. That’s not to say we don’t know that memes or moments of internet celebrity can quickly become morally reprehensible, something to stay away from. We even have a term for this now: “milkshake ducking.”

When a meme is shared mostly without that original context visible, as in the case of “absolute unit,” it’s tempting to hope that the absence of a widespread knowledge of the origin could absolve us totally from having to think about it. But hiding behind that hope can be dangerous — especially when the thing you’re sharing is rooted in bigotry.

This ethical question obviously isn’t relegated to memes. “It started bad, can I still like it?” is a question we have to ask ourselves about a lot of cultural products here in America. Do you like Mickey Mouse? Sorry, those little white gloves have their root in minstrel shows, intensely racist vaudeville acts whose repercussions are still seen in today’s media. Just this week, I overheard someone in Los Angeles, the Liberal Elite Capital of the World, use the phrase “sell down the river” with a blitheness that clearly demonstrated they had no idea of the terrible history and impact of the idiom. I’m sure most people have no understanding of the racist roots of cartoon character’s gloves, but that doesn’t erase the way that these vestigial remnants are directly connected with the racism still deeply embedded in our culture. It’s not okay to say “well, it happened a long time ago” or “it’s just a phrase” or “it’s not related anymore.” That origin is still embedded, still informs the larger cultural milieu — the canon of cartoons, the stable of phrases — that we engage with in our day-to-day lives.

Ignorance of origin does not absolve us from the harm of participation. This is true for any other kind of cultural artifact, too. For example, perpetrators of cultural appropriation often don’t understand that they are demeaning someone else’s culture — because they are ignorant of the origin, the way they interact with feathers or headdresses or hairstyles is demeaning. But ignorance doesn’t mitigate impact.

This is more easily understood when the line between origin and current iteration is clearer. When a piece of art is created by an artist, there’s a much closer person-to-product tie — in other words, it’s a lot easier to know who to blame in an artist’s case than it is with memes (which often transcend their obscure creators and take on a life of their own). The #MeToo movement has drawn wider attention recently to the problematic artist conundrum, which asks how we engage with cultural work when its creators are awful monsters. Once you hear that R. Kelly allegedly runs an abusive sex cult, for example, it’s a lot harder to enjoy the sexually charged white-person karaoke anthem, “Ignition (Remix).”

Even Spotify plays send cash straight to R. Kelly’s pocket. He is intimately and obviously connected with and entwined in his music. It’s his voice, his creation, his product. Memes are more impersonal creations. There’s no way to hold a random British Twitter user accountable for creating the absolute unit meme, nor is it really clear what “accountable” would even mean in this context.

As the originator of a meme, you can’t really own it once it spirals out of your control even if you wanted to. There’s no intellectual property rights on tweets; technically, everything you post on Twitter is owned by Twitter. And as in the case of, say, Pepe the Frog — a cartoon character taken out of context and eventually turned into a huge, racist, alt-right meme — creating a meme also doesn’t mean having much control over how it develops. But Matt Urie still created Pepe the Frog, which is why he’s so horrified by its evolution: as the creator, he’s still tied to the later iterations, even as they become more and more awful.

For many meme creators, especially the young black people who created much of the most popular Vine and Twitter content of the past few years, the way that memes spread out of their control and ownership is in itself a problem. Doreen St. Félix wrote on this phenomenon for The Fader in 2015, tracking the arc of the nearly ubiquitous phrase of the year, “on fleek.” Originating in a Vine posted by Kayla Newman, who called her eyebrows “on fleek,” it went viral so pervasively that it ended up being used to advertise plastic cups. “In those moments, black teens’ internet production becomes a means for communication and entertainment,” wrote St. Félix. “Their names as creators are harder to find.”

Newman saw none of the profits from that popularity or from the commercialization of her phrase (though she did start a cosmetics line later on). She still is, undeniably, the creator of the phrase, and that’s important — if for no other reason, origins matter because others might profit from your work. White meme creators get this respect; Chewbacca Mom got full college scholarships and money gifts on a talk-show circuit after her Facebook video of herself laughing in a Chewbacca mask in her car went viral. Knowing the origin of memes, paying more attention to the people who create them and their point of view, would be a step toward preventing this kind of racial disparity in credit and profit.

The most extreme arguments for better origin awareness are Godwin’s Law territory. As Jason Koebler at Motherboard notes, a lot of memes have originated from internet cesspools overrun by white supremacists, like Discord or 4chan board /b/; in other words, fairly innocent memes — like LOLcats, for example — are coming from the same place as more hateful ones. Like “absolute unit,” many of these more problematic memes become innocuous-seeming as they normalize on the wider internet: the “Left Exit 12 Off Ramp” meme, for example, became a playful meme about escaping something you don’t like, but started out as an anti-immigration joke attacking “mass uncontrolled migration from third world nations.” The average internet bear would recoil at sharing a Nazi-sourced meme, no matter the content. Knowing LOLcats came from a place where Nazis roam free doesn’t sit well.

A meme is freed from its past once enough people don’t remember where it came from, but only to an extent. In the “absolute unit” circumstance, the further the meme gets from the original tweet, the fewer people know about the original tweet, the less the stink of fat-shaming hangs around cute fat dog memes. That origin, however, is still there.

Nobody wants to give up something that seems in good fun. It’s just a joke, right? But memes, just like everything else on the internet, don’t exist in a vacuum. They’re embedded, like any joke, in our cultural context.

“Memes capture and maintain people’s attention in a given moment because something about that moment provides a context that makes that meme attractive,” writes The Atlantic’s Lauren Michele Jackson, exploring how memes die. Memes are only funny, in other words, when the cultural context gives that commentary or joke its comedic power. Being absurdist doesn’t take away a meme’s participation in the raging void; this style of humor in itself is a response to the current cultural environment. Memes depend on a recognition of a pattern, an in-knowledge of a meme existing, an “oh, I get it” moment. Remixing destabilizes, decenters, moves us away from the original — but still in an effort to comment on the original and on the context.

We know this even when we don’t want to admit it. There were many tweets reacting to the recent “yodeling boy” micro-meme, just waiting for it to “milkshake duck.” (His parents, it eventually came out, voted for Trump.) These tweets imply that once we know the cringe-y truth behind a cute or funny moment, the larger story of it all, it suddenly becomes impossible to enjoy or share or support the meme, to enjoy it as contextless any more.

So while it’s not directly harming Kayla Newman for me to retweet something she might never see, if I chose to share an “on fleek” meme I’m undeniably contributing to the erasure of black creators and the larger racism in American culture. Similarly, even if someone sharing the “absolute unit” meme wants it to be body-positive, as a fat person, I can’t be sure they’re truly affectionate toward all kinds of big, round bodies. It seems more likely that a retweeter might be thinking about how hilarious it is to point and laugh at fat people, or at the very least, understanding the meme in that context, which means it contributes to a fatphobic culture one way or another. Even if “absolute unit” is being used affectionately, the joke is still that it’s funny to act affectionately toward fat things and people. (How ridiculous, to love something chubby! That fat man behind the Queen sure was large.)

Western fatphobia is a context that’s impossible to ignore. Fat people are less likely to get a job or to receive proper medical care because of societal marginalization, and jokes about people being fat actively contribute to that. Memes calling fat women “harpoon bait” are clearly bad. This is true across -isms; the “mocking Spongebob” meme has been criticized for its ableism; the “Ugandan Knuckles” meme is racist trash. These memes are toxic at their core because they are irreparably tied to these issues — their dehumanizing nature is the joke. The original “Absolute Unit” tweet falls squarely in this category, and the stink of that holds on through the later iterations.

We have a responsibility to learn about and understand the ways that our cultural landscape is created, especially when things we love might in fact be harmful. It’s impossible to exist in the world without participating in systems that are problematic, but we should be minimizing our harmful impact whenever possible. Online, too — especially online — knowing the origins of what we share is the least we can do.