Content warning: This post will use the word “text” in the literary theory sense.
Let’s talk about memes for a bit.
First, let’s look at your basic, classic, Old Skool quote-unquote “advice animal” style meme. Such square. Much 2000s. Wow. These are so out of fashion pretty much everything has been said about them already, but mentioning them here will make sense. Come on Gen Z, bring these things back. I double-dare you.
You also have the post-meme, with their happy cartoon illustrations and asinine quotations favoured by Facebook Moms. Oh, good god, even these are old now. Less of a “meme” in the sense of the above, and more like a slogan t-shirt. One-part sassy backtalk, one-part clowning, and one-part inoffensive attempts at offense.
There are also exploitable comics and edits that go around. Personally, I like these. That’s the shit right there. Fucking sue me. Society peaked with the invention of these and I shall be taking no questions at this time.
And there’s whatever the hell the InstaTok does that… look, guys, I’m at the “take two ibuprofen in the morning for your back” age. I’m not going on there looking. But imagine I’ve just embedded a video of someone doing a sea shanty or whatever. You know, I watch my TikToks on Instagram, 2-3 weeks after they were first popular, like a fucking adult.
But, then, oh-my-oh-my, we have Turning Point memes.
Now, to be painfully fair… Turning Point have had a more-recent (by which, I mean, about half a year’s worth) tendency to just put quotes from people on photographs of them with some coloured branding, but they still do the occasional “zinger” meme in the setup/punchline format, and older ones still do the rounds. They also produce a lot of it. I must confess to getting half these examples from Cropped Boomer Memes purely to save my eyeballs the pain of scrolling through more of it than strictly necessary to sample the most pertinent ones.
Where to start? I suppose let’s do a bit of basic analysis over memes for a bit.
Memes, in the general interwebz sense and especially for the pictorial ones, carry two messages within them.
- The specific message of the text (its most direct content)
- The broader idea of the text (what it references)
In the specific text, Good Guy Greg might sleep on your couch but make up for it by making breakfast, and Bad Luck Brian might find that even his pet rock runs away. But in the broader text (a context, if you will), Greg does a thing you expect has negative consequences but he makes up for it in the end, Brian does a normal thing and an unfortunate thing occurs because he’s a bit of a dweeb. With exploitable comics and edits, Anakin will always horrify Padme by subverting her premature hopes; Bobby will always draw something terrible that is the opposite of art; and no matter what was on the sign, if those kids could read they’d be very upset.
If I was feeling especially pretentious and insufferable — you know, really Stephen Pinker-esque — I’d point out how the humour derives from projecting a specific content onto the broad context, and recognising the connection between the two, which increases the salience of the specific aspects of text. This is particularly true when we project current events onto existing memes in order to convey sometimes-complex feelings about them simply, and quickly.
Actually, that’s probably more insufferably pretentious than Pinker. Feel free to ignore that.
Even with the likes of ‘Plums in the Ice Box’ — which differs from typical memes, as its places the original’s content within a different context rather than the other way around — relies on you spotting the connection between the new version and the broad idea. If anything, spotting it is the joke. See also: the Game or Rickrolling.
This is also how they spread and evolve, in the memetic sense. We have a template for the text, the template can be modified and mutated. New jokes can be added, references can be made to other memes. But underpinning that, is the connection to the broad theme.
Now, about Turning Point memes.
What is the broad message, here? What is the recognition to be made? In short: where’s the fucking joke?
We see the specific part of the text, but not the broader context that’s meant to connect to. It’s not that right-wing or conservative types can’t do this — we’ve had that hippy chick and the triggered girl since forever, apparently — it’s that Turning Point cannot do this. This is their fabled memeing (in)ability.
If anything unifies these posts, it’s “liberals are dumb” and… that’s usually about it. There are no recurring characters, no individual themes to relate to, just “libs = dum, we smart smart”. And it is, more often than not, painful to look at under any critical eye. It’s humour, snark and wit, but as imagined for an audience who just want to be told they’re special and clever and so much better than everyone else.
In that respect, they’re Facebook Wine Mom post-memes. They’re Tweety Bird folding their arms and saying “I’m such a sassy bitch” or Minions declaring “I’m totally zany”.
Turning Point memes, therefore, occupy an odd space of mixing the older top-text-bottom-text, [Statement] / [Punchline], format with the (relatively) newer meaninglessness of the Boomer Facebook Wine Mom post-meme. They aren’t there for you to relate to a specific character in order to make it evolve, they’re there to reinforce a particular broad attitude to the target audience. A post that begins with “Hey liberals!” isn’t actually addressed to liberals, but to the conservative audience, who aren’t meant to engage with them interactively, edit them or evolve them, just share and gawp at their own cleverness.
(again, to be painfully fair, there is the occasionally exploitable one in the mix so they’re not all this exact format… but often I’m not sure they get why the exploitable is funny…)
These “memes” aren’t designed to be messed with and evolved by their target audience.
But, also, you can’t evolve them because the memes themselves are, frankly, very high quality. That’s technical quality, of course, of the stock photos, of the resolution, the colour pallet. The logo displays prominently over a professional stock image with an unobtrusive background. The bold font is carefully rendered by professional software rather than a hasty web-based editor or the undying MS Paint. It’s a far cry from exploitable memes where the remnants of 2-3 previous versions can just be seen, where the replaced text doesn’t match the original (and no one cares) or where the JPEG compression has piled up so bad it’s generated entire jokes just around that aspect. There is no genuine community here, there is no sense of collectively coming together to shout “dammit” when you’ve realised something was Loss all along.
To me, that makes the Turning Point meme the perfect microcosm of the world of Conservative astro-turfing. This organisation is meant to be a “student movement” or at least a vague youth movement. Yet the audience seems to be everything but that. The content feels perpetually middle-aged, like a gawky 40-something preacher trying to seem cool in front of 15 year-olds by rapping.
The whole exercise is a charade designed to offer some facsimile of the authentic original: it has image over text, it has the right font, it has the right structure. But, like a guy on a six-figure salary claiming to be poor and impoverished by a 1% tax rise in the top bracket, it has a glossy sheen that can’t rub off. The people making these things don’t have the experience of those who haunted forums, having fun, making jokes, and quickly scribbling over images they’ve shared with whatever software they had to hand, copyrights be damned, before the conversation moved on. They’re graphic designers, with paid-for Photoshop, putting together content generated by a team of writers under the direction of a trust-fund jock, funded by shady origins. It tries to ape the style, but always falls short of authenticity. It cares for branding and image. They can’t have the Turning Point logo get pixelated. They can’t get away with a visible ShutterStock watermark. It’s all sass and sizzle. It’s shiny-shoed business exec pretending to be a rough salt-of-the-earth regular guy. It’s a too perfect, too pristine attempt to copy a format that crawled out of a virtual gutter and rarely showers.
But if you ever scratch that sheen off, it’s just shit all the way down.