Celebrity memes: power to the people
From a miserable looking cat, an awkward year book photo, to a criminal’s mugshot; some of the most contagious internet memes seem to have become famous completely randomly.
Once upon a time (think, early 90s), celebrities were mystical creatures who spent their time gracing red carpets and the covers of Vanity Fair.
They were unreachable and untouchable. Gossip magazines became a thing in the early 2000’s. We saw glossy pages upon glossy pages dedicated to the romantic health of Hollywood power couples, like Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston. Gossip magazines left readers feeling they had personal insight into the lives of the revered. Then came social media.
Within seconds, you could message your favourite A-lister. They probably wouldn’t see your message, but the chance that they might could leave you feeling closer to them. If you wanted to, you could troll your least favourite A-lister. And if any of their old Tweets were to resurface in five year’s time, you could contribute to tearing them down. #Cancelled.
Just as social media was taking off, around the mid 2000s, so was reality TV. It gave birth to a new type of celebrity. Whereas celebrity status once required a unique blend of beauty, talent, and prestige, qualities that didn’t possess the average person, reality stars connected for exactly that reason; they were more like us. Through voting, viewing figures, and social media, we made our own famous.
It makes sense that press, social media, and TV can shape the face of celebrity culture. They’re platforms large quantities of people interact with. But there’s something less obvious churning away in the background, influencing how we view some celebrities. The lowly meme.
###The internet loves memes. You don’t say?
This article is referring to contemporary online memes shared in picture, video, or GIF format, like this one:
In his seminal book “The Selfish Gene,” Richard Dawkins introduced memes as an expression of a culturally-relevant idea that is replicated and evolves from one person to another. The modern internet meme can carry information across the globe, fast.
“But, what makes a popular internet meme?” I hear you ponder. From a miserable-looking cat, an awkward year book photo, to a criminal’s mugshot; some of the most contagious internet memes seem to have become famous completely randomly. Celebrity memes however, seem less random. They often show celebrities pulling unusual expressions, usually stills taken from film and TV. They are universally relevant, humorous, easy to decipher, and easy to replicate into various contexts.
Have you ever looked at a meme and felt like you understood it? With consistent exposure to the same meme format, we might intuitively digest its meaning. The meme’s meaning could be transferred onto the person that is starring in it. People believed Jeremy Meeks was the mischievous heart-throb his viral mugshot meme portrayed. He’s now a celebrity in his own right.
Celebrities spend time and money meticulously curating personal brands. But, they may struggle to limit the influence of a meme. Can memes, and the evil geniuses spreading them, shape our perception of celebrities?
Memes could make us like celebrities for bizarre reasons
“Do you like Keanu Reeves?” I ask.
“Yes,” they answer.
“Why?” I reply.
They pause as they try to find the much-needed logic and reason to justify their answer.
As a society, we like Keanu Reeves. In the UK, 68% of us feel positively towards him (YouGov, 2021). We like him more than comedian Adam Sandler (49%) and our own, Tom Holland (41%).
What makes a celebrity likeable? Charity donations, ethical stances, positive personality? Surely not their memes.
According to the internet, Reeves is an adorable, hopelessly forlorn man. He’s a reluctant celebrity. He’s a meme icon. In 2010, Reeves was photographed sitting on a park bench, eating a sandwich. He looked sad, so people called him Sad Keanu.
What continued was a long line of Keanu Reeves memes. Conspiracy Keanu lamented shallow philosophical questions. Happy Keanu expressed childish joy. When the John Wick films came out, depicting Reeves as a melancholic loner, the internet feasted.
Despite the sorrowful nature surrounding many of them, Reeves’ memes are wholesome and heart-warming. The internet fell in love with his endearing online persona.
Prior to his memedom, Reeves was a likeable star in his own right. But Reeves’ memes focus on his imagined personality and not his acting credentials. His popularity has increased tenfold in recent years. It’s plausible that as the volume of memes showing affection for Reeves increased, so did his likeability.
Memes can create opportunities
It’s common knowledge that reality TV stars have ticking clocks. Few surpass their fifteen minutes of fame.
Memes surrounding British reality TV star Gemma Collins hone in on her eccentric personality and straightforward, sassy one-liners. Collins retweets her own memes, expressing her joy towards them in interviews.
Recognising an opportunity, Collins partnered with In The Style in 2020. They produced a clothing collection printed with her memes. Collins not only profited financially from the memes, but the clothing range encouraged the replication of them. Real people wearing her memes took her online persona offline. The clothing acted as ads for her personal brand.
Perhaps without realising it, the people sharing her memes helped Collins stay famous (I regret it, too). The memes came first, and Collins’ harnessing of them was secondary. Both activations leveraged Collins into popular culture and helped her become more relevant.
I bet you 5p you’ve heard of Rickrolling. If you haven’t, it’s one of the earliest and most long-standing internet memes. You click on a link that you think is something hotly anticipated, but the link returns to the music video for Rick Astley’s 1987 hit “Never Gonna Give You Up.”
By 2008, millions were Rickrolling each other. Astley himself took on a new brand image. He was both cringey and iconic. Rickrolling turned an outdated song into a global anthem of harmless fun. To date, the 34-year-old music video has over 1.2 billion views on YouTube.
Astley cashed in on the meme. In 2008, he was paid to troll a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. In 2015, he Rickrolled a family in an ad for Virgin. Astley has discussed the meme in interviews, recognising the additional fame it brought him.
Though Astley has released plenty of music since “Never Gonna Give You Up”, it’s unlikely that he can escape the association with Rickrolling. For some people, Rickrolling, and Astley himself, became synonymous with eye-rolling. Many got sick of the song. Some got sick of him. Though it brought him significant awareness, Rickrolling altered Astley’s popular image in a way he couldn’t control.
Memes first, talent second
“Cage Rage” is a term given to a collection of memes that show actor Nicolas Cage pulling unusual faces. Some of his memes are out of context from the films they were taken from. The words that have stood alongside the sarcastic 2011, “You don’t say?” meme, were never uttered in the original clip.
In 2018, a still image was taken from Cage’s latest film, “Mandy.” As with the “You don’t say?” meme, the context was changed. In an interview with Indiewire, Cage expressed his “frustration” with the meme: “I think that the movie hasn’t been given a fair viewing [because] the internet has these moments that have been cherry-picked, that aren’t in the context of the character. The internet has done the movie a disservice.” Cage’s concerns reiterate the power of the meme. Contagious memes can shape the perception of people in them, and this can derail the artistic efforts a celebrity, or their colleagues, have made.
Sean Bean, Lord of the Rings. “One does not simply walk into Mordor.” This meme has circulated heavily since 2011.
Speaking to the Radio Times in 2015, Bean said, “I keep seeing, what do you call them – memes? They’ll probably be my unintended legacy.”
Much like Reeves and Cage, Bean has been a successful actor for some time. But his popular memes might have shaped his personal brand. Amusing meme icon first, talented actor second. The strength of the persona conveyed through memes may be at odds with the image a celebrity is trying to convey. In this way, memes could have had a detracting effect on the acting legacies of Cage and Bean.
When memes do damage
It is wise to not underestimate the power of the meme. During the 2016 American presidential election, Donald Trump alluded to his opponent, Hillary Clinton’s, apparent poor health. The veracity of Clinton’s health status was lost in the plethora of memes that subsequently followed Trump’s claims.
If you were an American citizen who spent more time grazing social platforms than you did following the election, you might receive more information about the status of Clinton’s health from memes than from the news. It’s possible that the information being transmitted through Clinton’s memes, suggesting she lacks the stamina required to be president, played a role in her losing the election.
As a society, we hold politicians accountable. We can put pressure on them to resign. We saw this recently with Allegra Stratton. Sometimes, we mock politicians. Perhaps this is our way of clawing back some of the power we perceive them to have over us. But sharing views in the pub or in 280 characters on Twitter is less likely to spread information as efficiently as memes can. Memes are funnier and easier to share. Internet memes introduce a new kind of enemy to politicians.
Attempts to squash memes can backfire
If a famous person tries to delete something from the internet, they risk provoking the public. The Streisand Effect is when attempts to censor information has the opposite effect.
In 2013, Beyonce’s publicist emailed Buzzfeed, requesting they remove some “unflattering” images of her. Buzzfeed shared the email, drawing attention to the previously unremarkable photos. A meme took off.
It was the attempts to remove the photos that ignited a defensive interest. How dare this celebrity think she can cheat the internet? Beyonce was no longer the honest, strong, brave woman. She was insecure and oppressive. Publicists around the world can learn that it is the contagious meme that does the damage, rather than some unflattering photos.
In 2010, a series of memes, lovingly called “Fat Axl Rose” surfaced, featuring the Guns N’ Roses frontman. Axl Rose reacted by legally trying to remove the images. News sites reported on his takedown requests, drawing attention to the memes, which subsequently gathered more momentum.
Just like with Beyonce, it was his attempts to squash the memes that said more about his character than the original meme. Ordinary people don’t have the means to remove things from the internet, so why should we let a celebrity get away with it? By taking himself too seriously, Rose riled up the public.
Had he embraced the meme, laughing with people, then he might have generated a positive sentiment, instead of negative.
In conclusion, respect the meme
A wise woman once said, “With great memes, comes great responsibility.” Memes might seem harmless enough, but they can alter the perception of celebrities who star in them.
Memes take power back from celebrities. Celebrities might appear more relatable if they have a Twitter account, but they still moderate it to fit a composed image. Memes put the power of perception back into our hands. In some ways, we decide the branding of a celebrity by the memes we choose to share.
Intimidatingly, celebrity memes can form globally shared views. Citizens of both Peru and Germany could associate Keanu Reeves with melancholy, or Hillary Clinton with poor health. This single view could pose a threat to some celebrities’ branding.
Celebrity memes can unite us in the same joke. Celebrities, brands, and the public. Gemma Collins used a clothing partnership to extend her meme branding from online to offline. Incorporating meme personas could make for persuasive marketing.
Brands could consider harnessing celebrity memes. Macy’s and Virgin made their ads more culturally relevant by incorporating Astley’s meme. If a celebrity has an unflattering meme take off whilst working with them, brands should avoid squashing it. Attempts to remove memes can rile the public.
It is up to the public to decide whether a meme should be replicated and shared. Next time you see Drake dancing to Hotline Bling, Leonardo DiCaprio raising a toast, or Kris Jenner taking a photo of her daughter, you might wonder at the wider implications of the memes on the celebrities starring in them.