Art vs. Trump + Social Justice Outrage
I made a meme. It went viral. Some missed the point.
The other day on Facebook I came across a great quote, so I shared it even though it was just type, and a bit hard to read in the form in which it was encountered. Like much of what I personally think is great online, ten people liked it, and I went along my merry way through the internet. I have a BFA in graphic design, which I usually don’t do much with, mind you. Having an art degree in Silicon Valley if you’re a noncompetitive awkwardly-creative person with a resume that looks like Chutes and Ladders, is like bringing a bacon cake to a vegan birthday party. So when I do bring out my mad skills, I tend to bring them forth for the interwebs. Although I didn’t know how much, it occurred to me that the quote would do infinitely better if it got the full type treatment, and if it could be displayed in the visual language of the point it was making. It needed, in short, to be pink. And it needed to feature an image of what Donna Trump would look like. I spent a few minutes on it in Photoshop — I didn’t even put the makeup on Donna myself because a beautiful one already existed — why reinvent the wheel. I posted it to Facebook publicly. By the next morning my notification pinger was beating me with a club.
Most of that pinging was likes, shares, and tags. Part of it included hilariously angry emails from Trump supporters. These are as antidelightful, as misspelled, and as full of debunked misinformation as you are imagining. A much smaller part of the pinging was finding out that the original quote I used as the source material for my meme wasn’t even the actual original, and had contained a misspelling of the author’s last name that I had inadvertently copied and pasted into my pink meme. I have since sheepishly contacted her and explained what happened. Indeed, had my attempts to track her down been successful, I would have asked permission, let alone spelled it right. Do small children still play the game Telephone, I wonder? Or do they just call it Internet now?
Then there were posts from friends telling me that my original had been pilfered by someone at some point and posted by the likes of The Other 98% and The Daily Kos, among others. I didn’t mind being uncredited too much; such is the nature of the internets, and like a lot of insufferable creative types, I’d rather go uncredited than put up with the tackiness of a watermark marring my lovely meme. The whole point of graphic design is to serve the content. It was shared by people who I admire, like Lizz Winstead, William Gibson, and Mark Ruffalo. That was enough for me. In fact the only painful part of it being pilfered, re-uploaded, and reposted (rather than simply shared) was the inevitable image degradation from being compressed and recompressed over and over again. Images with a lot of text do not fare well when compression artifacting happens. If you’ve ever wondered why an image you’ve encountered on the internet looks like it’s got pixel freckles, that’s why. It gets worse when a copy of a copy is uploaded, like Michael Keaton’s Lenny character in Multiplicity.
But as I sorted through the responses, there were a couple people who took offense at my use of Trump dolled up in makeup, and they assured me that there were more, by providing me with screenshots of reactions by some members of the trans community. One person even “fixed it for me” and shared her own version.
I’m happy it exists for those who would be more comfortable sharing it without Donna, but I do not agree that including her is transmisogyny, because I put her there, and I know why, and authorial intent matters. Additionally, the meme would simply not have been as successful, nor the message as powerful, had it not featured Donna, our imagined cis white female presidential candidate. I don’t need proof of this, because the text-only version I shared first, had already existed and had been quietly floating around the internet among those who read things, since the debates. The image of Donna in makeup I chose to feature on my meme had also been quietly floating around the internet. All I did was marry two existing but underperforming internet things together, one of which I only found via Google Image Search. People are more likely to read things when there is a visual hint there telling them why they should, especially when information is competing for their attention. The whole point in making it was to expose the overwhelming and satirical double standard in this election, in that instant, visual way that hits you like a ton of bricks. We are so normalized by Trump’s caricature of flippant cruelty and casual stupidity; so used to the everyday sexism we are drenched in, that even those who are outraged by it needed the visual to really drive it home.
But share whatever version of it makes you happiest. This is, after all, what the Internet is for; the beautiful call and response of The Public as it thinks itself to death, and from the ashes of that chaos, no matter how messy it may feel when you’re in the thick of it, some minds and hearts are eventually changed or expanded on some things. Think of the things you were arguing about on the internet ten years ago. Now go look for the word transphobia among common usage on the 2006 internet. I’ll wait. People love sharing that meme which states that no one ever changed their opinion over a Facebook argument. I’ve never found that to be true. Sure, no one changes it instantly. But over the course of the shitshow at large, people do, quietly, allow themselves to be influenced, even if merely by virtue of what is getting discussed at all, or what their friends care about. This national humiliation of an election is proof positive that the process of internet influence works, including for evil. If you throw a ton of small pieces of misinformation at a group of angry people over eight years, it becomes a monster of a narrative, and indistinguishable from fact, for those who have bathed in it. This is what we’re up against. And having been raised in a brainwashy religious environment, I know that beast is a real threat, and it keeps me up nights.
In response to calls to delete my meme by a few, but vocal, members of the trans community, I talked to some of them. At length. There was a lot of anger coming at me from one of them. The root of this anger — a lifetime of painful firsthand experiences — is 100% understandable, but directing it at me, or my meme, is not. I have spoken to members of the trans community who shared the meme, who reminded me that at the very least, there will be just as many in the trans community who don’t see the issue with it, as there will be by those who do. But, doesn’t that mean that I should still err on the side of those who are hurt? Doesn’t that mean I should just take their word for it, take the meme down as they have demanded, and trust they know what their own experience is? No. Because nuance should not be held hostage by those who choose to live in a black and white world.
Those who object are welcome to communicate in the public language that my post resides, as I have done — or for that matter, here on Medium. I love Internet Culture precisely because I love the overall conversation that results in the mess that is often trivialized as the “outrage machine” of American public discourse online. Most of the time I am firmly on the side of the individual who has quietly asked for a trigger warning, not the stodgy old institution that responds poorly to what it doesn’t understand. I value social justice issues very highly, I take them seriously, and I am constantly sticking up for what is known disparagingly as “PC culture” or “SJWs” while simultaneously finding some of the backlash completely understandable. Not every person concerned with social justice is going to be a patient unicorn, here to genuinely teach you what you did wrong in the words you find most comfortable. Some will just call you an asshole, and go on their way. Get enough of those, and the message they are concerned about gets lost in the fury.
What it comes down to is this: Among those who were stabbed with a frozen carrot when they were little, there will always be people who blame the carrot. Asking not to be served carrots in advance is fine, asking to be warned if carrots are going to be in the room is also fine; we should do our best to accommodate. But it’s not OK to ask all instances of carrots to be extinguished, so that others can no longer enjoy them.
My meme did not feature a Trans Trump, it featured an imagined female cis Trump. The film Tootsie is not funny because it’s a man dressed as a woman, but because it’s a man going through what women go through. Any humor in my meme — put there on purpose — comes because seeing Trump as what he most despises is funny to those of us who are the despised: women. Transmisogyny and misogyny are not comprised of precisely the same experiences in life, but they have the same literal root. So long as I believe my meme fights that root, I will leave it up. Besides, at this point, it’s everywhere, and I am no longer in control of it.
I value social justice, but I value the space art must have to operate in, with satire and cheek, equally, not because I think art is more important than compassion, but because compassion (and indeed, social justice) is well served by art. This week’s New Yorker cover that depicts Trump as a beauty queen is brilliant, not fat shaming. The butt of the joke is not fatness, it is a ridiculous man who is trying to get to the White House by fat shaming a beauty queen.
A common argument is that there are people who will always take what was created the wrong way; the pedophile who is aroused by reading the story of an abused child, Lolita. This does not mean we should ban a beautiful book. The negative reaction to the 2008 New Yorker cover “Terrorist fist bump” is not The New Yorker’s fault if people took it literally instead of satirically. If you constantly aim to appease the lowest common denominator that appears often among the loudest and least nuanced of SJW argument, nothing will ever be sharp enough to cut through the fog of public discourse. I didn’t create great art, I just art-directed existing information. But it accomplished its objective, which was to get a great quote out there. If SJWs cannot take the intent of the artist and the obvious meaning of the thing itself into account, and pick their battles by not going after allies who are trying to prevent an asshole from taking the white house — who will be the last person to address their needs — it is shooting actual social justice in the foot.
Post Edit: I lost several “friends” when I posted this, none of whom were trans people, all of whom were white sis SJWs whose response proved my above points more resolutely than I ever could. They said things like “I know you’re proud of your meme, but your response was much worse” evidently unaware that I am infinitely more proud of my response (something I could control) than I am of the meme (something I could not control). The far easier and patronizing response would have been to simply ignore what remains a very small percentage of the trans community, and a slightly larger percentage of the SJW community.