There is something undeniably appealing about a little monster. That’s why people can call their human children “little monsters” and it’s not an insult.
Everyone loves a tiny, chaotic neutral, nonverbal goober upon which to pour their affections — all the better if the baby meme’s behavior careens between crushingly sweet and harmlessly violent. That’s my explanation for Stitch, a character fiercely beloved by many for 15 years now, and affectionately remembered by basically everyone else. A mess-up of illegal genetic modification, Stitch (aka “Experiment 626”), is blue and can grow extra arms out of his abdomen at will. His ears have incredible range of motion. He can mimic human speech but mostly chirps and growls. He will rip your shit up and ruin your life, but he loves you and he can cry. My god.
He’s cute for sure, but my question is this: why is Stitch so beloved, and is Stitch going to be beloved forever?
Following the success of Lilo & Stitch in 2002, Stitch got two sequels, a Disney Channel spinoff series, an anime adaptation, and three of his own attractions in Disney theme parks. Stitch is wildly popular in Japan, where the anime series is still fodder for dozens of fan blogs and memes. And Stitch & Ai, a new animated series that occurs just before the events of the anime, started airing on China’s CCTV-14 this March. Those things are industry reactions to the cult of Stitch. The evidence of and explanation for that cult is easily found on Facebook, where Stitch fan pages are still active every single day and have hundreds of thousands of participants.
There’s Stitch Fan Club, where you can find fan art of Stitch as a stained glass window, an elegant Stitch-themed foot tattoo, and endless Stitch merch that you can only purchase by commenting “HELL YEAH.” There’s also Stitch Lovers, Stitch Fans, Stitch is awesome, and a second Stitch Lovers, not to be confused with the first Stitch Lovers. There are also many more, but you get the idea.
In one of the more inventive uses of Facebook Live I have seen, one of the Stitch Lovers pages recently hosted a live vote pitting Stitch against the Minions. Stitch won with about 94 percent of the vote, and the video was viewed 10,000 times. Stitch also won a showdown against Boo from Monsters Inc. Stitch always wins.
Each fan page is overflowing with Stitch memes, which show Stitch placed into essentially any emotionally fraught situation you can imagine. Stitch is sorry that he can’t keep in touch with his long-distance bestie, he’s an insomniac, and he has a nostalgic soft spot for ice cream cups that come with wooden sticks to eat with. He has one friend he knows better than to put on speakerphone. He has trusted the wrong person a whole bunch of times.
Of course, Stitch memes aren’t so different than the generic, contextless memes that spring up around other popular cartoon characters who haven’t much in the way of their own speech patterns. The biggest obvious example of similarly beloved wordless weirdos are the Minions, which Brian Feldman described as “the platonic ideal of franchise mascot” on The Awl: “They have just the slightest identity to be interpreted as ‘distinct’ or ‘realized,’ but every facet of their design is also so vague that they are nothing. Minions are blank slates of cosmic dust and computer processing power, just like the rest of us.”
Minions, the little tic-tac guys that are the color of baby chicks and speak with the timbre of a toddler full of helium, first appeared in Universal’s Despicable Me in 2010. The level to which they managed to saturate popular culture, appearing in memes, commercials, Halloween parties, and runway shows, as well as suburban mall screen-printing booths, Universal Studios theme parks, and on just about every type of home good, apparel, or Target-miscellany-bin-junk imaginable is intimidating. It is irrefutable that Minions broke the internet, and it is arguable that they broke our brains.
But Minions took over the internet, at least in part, because they were perfectly timed to do so. Minions, the Minions-only Despicable Me prequel, premiered in the summer of 2015 — the same year that your parents learned the ins and outs of memes with the help of Left Shark and “Hotline Bling.” Stitch was born long before your average consumer knew what a meme was or how to make one, yet they held him in their hearts until the time was ripe. The fact that there are people who will still “like” and share a Stitch meme every single day, 15 years after his most successful feature film, is more intimidating I would argue, than the fact that something new became very popular at the time that it was released. Plus, as far as I know, Stitch has not been represented on any pro-Trump merchandise.
More importantly, Stitch is not a “blank slate” — Stitch is just flawed in so many basic but specific ways as to be endlessly relatable. In the film Lilo & Stitch, his main issue is that he is too smart and vicious and insatiable for his own good, though he is also capable of boundless affection and pained, pure devotion. He loves his BFF Lilo, even though he accidentally keeps destroying her house and almost gets her sent into the foster care system. He feels ashamed almost constantly, and as such Stitch is the paragon of self-deprecation, of “how do I adult?” and “everything is embarrassing,” and “omg I want to die.” He also loves to dance and knows he’s good at it, and he finds ways to forgive himself for all of his faults. His chin is up.
It was possible to hold Stitch memes in a back pocket for all these years because Stitch is basically the cartoon version of every incredibly normal and uninteresting gripe you’ve ever had with daily existence. Plus, he’s funny.
The other easy Stitch comparison is Baby Groot, a precious, big-eyed stick dude who stars in the recently released Guardians of the Galaxy sequel and gets into all kinds of mischief. Mostly he says “I’m Groot” over and over, cries, wears an outfit for a little while, and messes up everything he is asked to do. His main personality trait is “cute,” which is not a personality trait at all. His only other personality trait is “dumb, but no one cares” which is not exactly inspiring or relatable.
It’s clear that Disney hopes Baby Groot will take off and inspire merch lines and theme park attractions and spinoff cartoons and fan pages, but there’s already a backlash against how bald-faced they’re being about it. Charles Bramesco, writing for Esquire, objects to Baby Groot’s continued existence as part of “a burgeoning, troubling trend of creations in kid-geared entertainment that act more like living collectibles than lovable characters.”
The film’s director, James Gunn, made it even clearer, writing on Facebook last year: “I’m not an idiot. I knew if Baby Groot worked, the world would want Baby Groot toys and figures and plushies.”
When I saw Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and sat through the brutally long opening credits sequence in which Baby Groot narrowly avoids death half a dozen times while trying to plug in an amplifier so he can dance to some cool vintage tunes — five minutes of relentlessly ingratiating him to the viewer by triggering latent parental instincts — all I really felt was a tugging question: how exactly did he become a baby? I couldn’t remember, and I had to take out my phone and look it up.
That’s how I learned that Baby Groot is not actually a baby — he’s just a small version of Groot who can’t really talk, but still remembers his whole life. I do love how Baby Groot can pull leaves out of his own body and twirl them around his finger like they’re head hair, which is a nice design touch, but trapping a familiar character in a smaller version of himself and prohibiting him from speaking is not fun. Moreover, it’s too specific and far too weird to be useful for “haven’t we all!” or “is this just me?” memes.
Baby Groot is no Stitch, and gliding through life on your gleaming pebble eyes is no way to live. I’m no mathematician, but it probably means something that a Facebook page called Minion Groot Fans has only 49,000 likes, while any one of the top six Stitch pages has at least five times as many. The top Baby Groot fan page on Facebook has a million likes, but it’s already moved past memes and into posting really weird stuff — most recently, an explainer on the genetic processes that determine eye color.
You can’t love, meme, and filter your personality through a character forever just because the character is cute, or just because it’s sparsely drawn, or just because it’s in its feelings as often as you are. It has to be all three!
So, to answer the question posed in my headline: Stitch is the original and superior incarnation of what we now try to get from Minions or Baby Groot. The sad truth is that everyone in the world is broken and dumb, and we have to push our feelings into the easiest possible repository. Stitch is so good for that, and he will live forever.