This year’s presidential hopefuls may not have much to offer in the substance department, which makes them perfect fodder for stupid memes.
Memes have a way of condensing the fog of the campaign season into highly acidic drops of commentary. Sometimes these are gross simplifications, but other times they are perfectly crystallized metaphors.
Just since December, we’ve enjoyed endless GIFs playing with the sequence of unsettlingly Manson-esque faces Donald Trump pulled at the CNN debate. We’ve been dazzled by Ted Cruz’s super-uncomfortable attempt to either kiss or siphon crucial nutrients from his human daughter (far from the first time Cruz’s kisses have yielded verite cringe comedy). And most recently, we marveled at the spectacularly botched entrance of GOP candidates onto the debate stage in New Hampshire, the perfection of the debacle somehow improved upon by the Internet, which wasted no time subbing in a Confused Travolta for the Confused Ben Carson.
And while this cycle’s Republican array may be the gift that keeps on GIFing, the Democratic memescape has been just as noisy — though that noise sounds more like a bickering couple than an angry mob. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have inspired their share of memes individually, but the indisputably dominant Dem meme this primary season is one that, in its crude variety of ways, attempts to distill the essence of the Bernie & Hill dynamic.
It’s become known simply as the “Bernie or Hillary?” and according to Tumblr user ObviousPlant (a.k.a. prankster Jeff Wysaski, who has scored viral hits in the past with his fake ads for Halloween costumes and fraudulent Black Friday circulars targeting Target), it originated as a form of street art. “I left some Bernie/Hillary comparisons on the streets of L.A.,” he posted to Reddit, linking to a series of 12 standard-looking campaign posters that pit Sanders and Clinton on opposing sides of various “issues that matter.”
Among them: “Wolves” (Bernie: “Wolves are badass!”; Hillary: “Wolves are totally lame and not cool at all.”), “Harry Potter” (Bernie: “Huge fan. Read all the books. Know all the trivia. I bet Hillary doesn’t even know what a muggle is.”; Hillary: “I’m a Hofflepump!”), and “Space Vampires” (Bernie: “We must learn to work with space vampires or risk being enslaved by their galactic bloodlust.” Hillary: “Obama says those aren’t real. I am friends with Obama. Obama Obama Obama.”)
The posters swerved into absurdity, but their subtext was right there on the wall: Bernie, for reasons unspecified, is just cooler than Hillary. It’s a blurry notion afloat in the political ether among younger voters, and Wysaski’s posters captured and bottled it for mass consumption.
It had all of the makings for a successful meme: Its premise was easy to adapt, and its template was simple to customize. Plus, the notion of Bernie as some kind of countercultural connoisseur was built upon a solid foundation.
Last year’s popular “Berned in D.C.” wave of memes lifted quotes from punk rock luminaries and attached them to Sanders to paint the senator as singularly concerned with the integrity of his local hardcore scene. As memes go, they were pretty fantastic, landing both as stupid jokes and nuanced critiques, both bestowing upon Sanders the cultivated tastes and anti-corporate ethical purity of the punk-rocker, and slyly poking at his esteemed position within a self-contained (and self-righteous) cultural bubble. Good stuff.
But once the Internet at large got its mitts on “Bernie or Hillary?” the meme began to reveal less about the candidates, and more about voters.
Of the thousands of variations that spread across the Internet, most preserved the core premise of Bernie being more with-it than Hillary on increasingly obscure matters of pop culture. The meme imagined the two squaring off on everything from “Fight Club” and ketchup to vaporwave and Olive Garden. And ultimately, in predictably meta fashion, the meme eventually turned inward and picked itself apart. (Right down to how the candidates pronounce “meme.”)
And as it mutated, it got ugly. The finer shades of the original gag darkened into harsher contrasts, and whatever depth it had was flattened into a screen for competing projections. Suddenly, “Bernie or Hillary?” was about honesty vs. deception, competence vs. haplessness, ease vs. rigidity, warmth vs. coldness. Hmm, these binaries sure were starting to sound familiar.
Not long after the meme’s explosion and swift devolution, Slate’s Amanda Hess called it “kind of sexist,” Bustle’s Emily Shire called it “sexist (maybe) and stupid (definitely),” and NPR deferred judgment to its listeners, posting the prompt, “Bernie or Hillary: Sexist or Nah?”
These halting appraisals aren’t necessary: It’s sexist. Or, it is now.
“Bernie or Hillary?” may have started out as a small serving of Wysaski’s wit, a unique umami of silly, smarmy, and smart. But the mass-produced version just smacks of the same standard-issue sexism that’s salted every other end of the Internet. (Made especially clear here in one particular comparison of the candidates as cool open source uncle and lame Microsoft mom).
Yes, it was fun while it lasted, which wasn’t long, but it’s time to let “Bernie or Hillary?” go. The life cycle of memes grants us very little control over their volatile nature, their ceaseless change, their inevitable death. But in this case, it’s not the passing of a solid joke we should lament (that would be such a dude move), but rather, the reasons we had to put it down.Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.