Memes, the patriarchy, and why people hate on Greta Thunberg


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Brianna Stanley

I was absent-mindedly scrolling through my news feed yesterday, doing my best to ignore the looming specter of midterms, when a photo of a Greta Thunberg effigy swinging from a noose woke me from my daze.

Hold up, I thought, this is a 16-year-old girl who is doing nothing but spreading a message that the earth should be better cared for. What could possibly have incited that level of hate? The answer seems to be a mixture of memes, fear, and the fragile masculinity of some middle-aged men.

The list of adults who have taken potshots at Greta is embarrassingly long. Trump tweeted that she seemed like a “very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future,” referring sarcastically to her stoic demeanor at the UN. Other influential men, hiding behind their device screens and delusions of a patriarchy, have taken it further. One advocated she receive a “spanking or a psychological intervention,” while others use demeaning labels such as “hysterical teenager,” and “mentally-ill Swedish child.”

If you watch any of Greta’s videos, it’s obvious that she is neither of these things. She is controlled, eloquent, and refers to her Asperger’s as her superpower, citing the way it keeps her focused on her mission. In my opinion, these men’s school-bully tactics are not only an example of the ad hominem argumentative fallacy, where someone attacks an opponent’s character rather than their argument, but also a symptom of underlying societal misogyny.

No wonder Greta is receiving ire from insecure men; she represents the success of every group they want to feel better than. She represents strong and intelligent women, children, and the differently-abled. She also refuses to smile unnecessarily to set others at ease and isn’t popular for her sexuality. She doesn’t fit the mold of other famous 16-year-old girls, and I think this unsettles people.

Unsettled or not, what makes these grown men feel that it OK to verbally attack a 16-year-old girl with Asperger’s? Potentially, it’s their online support.

I have never experienced a UK student intentionally disparaging another individual in this way. I have, however, had friends of mine share memes that mock Greta in a way that I feel is damaging – both to her as a person and her message.

As we saw in the 2016 election and with the infamous Pepe, memes can be a way to distort the truth, disparage others, and spread falsehoods through the extremely influential vehicle of comedy.

In the memes my friend showed me, Greta’s message was disregarded; the meme creators had reduced her to a cheap laugh. I don’t mean the kind of laugh elicited from memes like Death Gretal, the video in which her UN speech is made into a death metal song. That was awesome. I mean the kind that disrespect her as a person.

My point is not to attack memes and not even to attack Greta memes, some of which are very funny. Heck, I barely flinched when a self-professed “dank-meme lord” showed me 6 hours’ worth of memes on a flight (at one point I did pretend to be asleep, but I saw his meme-ing as annoying but harmless).

Rather, I think that asking ourselves why we are laughing at something or someone is extremely important. If we don’t agree with a message, we need to make sure that we’re addressing the message itself in our argument and not attacking the message bearer. 

And, if you really can’t resist the urge to share Greta memes, Death Gretal is always there for you.