Online anonymous forums are valued as spaces of open participation which facilitate multiple expressions of identity. In this paper I unmask how memes perpetuate existing gender power structures in spaces where users are only known by pseudonyms. The site of study is the r/AdviceAnimals forum of Reddit, in which a popular genre of memes known as Advice Animals are shared by users. Using a cross-section of Advice Animal memes submitted to this forum, the study examines the uneven distribution of power in representations of gender and feminists. I find that while women are highly sexualised, obsessive, and clingy, male characters are a default central character, used to express non-specific ideals of behaivour. As feminists, men are portrayed as legitimate, whilst women-feminists are epitomised as hypocritical, demanding, “Nazis”. The main contribution of the article is highlighting the gendered nature of memes, and call attention to the unequal representation in pseudonymous space.
Socialising on Reddit
There are no girls on the Internet
The widespread use of networked technologies has shifted how individuals interact with and understand each other. As these technologies have permeated society, they have enabled and driven changes in the public and private spheres (Milner, 2016; Ross and Rivers, 2017). From political protest, to interpersonal communication and relationships, the Internet has been a strong influence on contemporary life. On this frontier of technology, a form of communication that has frequently been trivialised are memes. Often seeming to resist definition, a meme is a “unit of popular culture ... creating a shared cultural experience” . Far from trivial, memes have been used to communicate political resistance (Davis, et al., 2016), develop a language (Miltner, 2014), and even anonymous confessions of murder (Vickery, 2014). Memes are a central feature of online networks.
In characterising memes as communication, there are four essential elements. First, there must be a reference or central message that is understood, and relatable by a commonly shared experience or group knowledge. The form of the message can not simply be relegated to that exact combination of image and text (Miltner, 2014). Secondly, memes must evolve. They cannot be static but should be adopted and remixed by a community that embrace them (Shifman, 2012). Third, this evolution is aided by the form’s malleability, it must have a set of rules of defined characteristics that can be changed, whilst preserving enough features to hark back to the original message. Finally, memes are defined by their virality and spread. If the proto-meme (such as an captioned image) does not reach a level of popularity a shared understanding it is has not succeeded, and does not resonate with a culture or community (Wiggins and Bowers, 2015). Popularity and understanding, however, does not default to progressive and inclusive principles. Rather, the simplification of the characters of memes can rely on normative power structures, ultimately spreading stereotypical representations.
Whilst individual memes are notoriously short lived, one community is approaching a decade of meme of sharing, remixing, and creating one specific type of meme; r/AdviceAnimals. In the community, Advice Animals are a genre of meme, meaning that they a product of “representation and replication” across several characters . Following the typical format of an image macro meme they are pictures with a white fill, Impact font, caption that is intended to be humorous and relatable. The r/AdviceAnimals community is a subreddit, or sub-community of interest, on the popular anonymous social networking site Reddit.com. With still just under eight million active users after 10 years in existence, it is a unique opportunity to study an established and dedicated community centred around memes. Whilst this is just one instance of a dedicated meme community, Reddit is a platform that prizes original content (OC) and is a nexus of content generation that is shared across multiple social networking sites (Massanari, 2015).
In r/AdviceAnimals the repetitive remixing of central characters has led to commonalities in the expression of identity in these memes. As the genre prospers it distils the subject, or “joke”, of the meme into a concentrated form. After all, for memes to defy their typically ephemeral nature the character must resonate strongly. As memes and specifically Advice Animals are shared and seen by millions of users, they reproduce an understanding of identity. As the central figure is personified, gender becomes a crucial characteristic used to define stereotypical traits and expectations. Advice Animal memes are appropriate for a gender-centred analysis as they distil what knowledge of stereotypes is needed to “get the joke”, circulating the stereotype through sharing or upvoting (“liking”). It is commonplace for gender to be reference in the title of memes, such as overtly in (such as “Most Interesting Man in the World”), or in gender-specific names (“Scumbag Stacy”) , or in grammatical gender (“Foul Bachelorette Frog”). In addition, several characters have male and female counterparts (“Good Guy Greg”, “Good Girl Gina”), which enables a comparative approach to gender sterotypes, the how gender specificity affects the characterisation of a trait in Advice Animals.
To understand how an established meme genre functions, and how gender is understood in anonymity, this study looks to unpack how gender normativity and power structures are propagated in memes. By conducting a visual and textual analysis of content and comments surrounding Advice Animal memes in the space they were created, this project shows that memes are gendered objects. It will explore how gender is represented and performed in anonymity, and how memes can create a default male presence on r/AdviceAnimals. By detailing the considerable and durable representations of masculinity and femininity in the Advice Animals meme genre, this paper not only makes a case for a gendered lens in analysing user-generated content but shows how they can radicalise gendered power structures. I conclude that claims to open participation in pseudonymity is challenged by stereotypes that mark the spaces as masculine, white and nerdy. Prior to outlining the theoretical foundation of the paper, I will first introduce the site of study — Reddit.com.
Socialising on Reddit
Image-based memes are commonly shared through the social networking platform Reddit (Massanari, 2015; Milner, 2013; Miltner and Highfield, 2017; Vickery, 2014). At the end of 2018, Reddit had over 330 million monthly active users, making it as popular as Twitter, yet Reddit users spend an average of three times longer engaging with content than Twitter users (Reddit, 2018). Reddit claims a diverse userbase including a 47 percent female population. The site is constructed of communities of interest, or subreddits, conventionally denoted by the prefix “r/”. A user (or redditor) can subscribe and unsubscribe from subreddits to customise their landing page. Whilst the platform itself is anonymous, users are still identified by a username — facilitating the curation of identity outside of the ‘real name’ doctrine of sites such as Facebook (Hogan, 2013). Interests on the platform are wide and varied, but for Massanari (2017) they typically revolve around stereotypical geek sensibilities, such as videogames, anime or Dungeons and Dragons.
The popularity of any post to a subreddit is represented by its score, a figure calculated by the number of upvotes (likes) minus the number of downvotes (dislikes). The higher the score the more the popular content is, the more visible it is on the subreddit and the platform. Reddit is pseudonymous, meaning that user profiles contain no personal or identifying information beyond a pseudonym, which is chosen by the user, and their posting and commenting history. As Vickery  puts it “although complete anonymity is difficult to achieve online ... embodied identities are not disclosed by users’ profiles”. This study took place at the height of the r/AdviceAnimals popularity (September 2015 to June 2016), which boasted nearly 10 million subscribers, and which remains the largest meme sharing forum on Reddit.
There are no girls on the Internet
Looking to gender across platforms, anonymous online spaces are seen to be hostile and unwelcoming to anyone who does not identify as male (Hogan, 2013; Mantilla, 2015; Phillips, 2015). Sexualisation and objectification are far more common in anonymous spaces, when social stigma can be detached from online actions (van der Nagel and Frith, 2015). Kendall’s work (2011; 2000) points to the default white masculinity of online spaces like Reddit in which such content proliferates.
The default masculinity of online spaces is often acknowledged in humour, summed up by the widely quoted phrase; “There are no girls on the Internet”. Know Your Meme, an archive of Internet phenomena, traces the origin of this adage to “The rules of the Internet” (2005), a community-generated collection of conventions and axioms which lists “There are no girls on the Internet” as Rule 30. Whilst there has been a measure of critical engagement with this idea across pseudonymous and anonymous forums, this is not the prevailing voice. The following comment has been widely referenced since it was first posted in March 2012:
“In real life, people like you for being a girl. They want to fuck you, so they pay attention to you and they pretend what you have to say is interesting ... On the Internet, we don’t have a chance to fuck you. This means the advantage of being a “girl” does not exist ... The only reason to post [that you are a girl] is because you want your girl-advantage back, because you are too vapid or too stupid to do or say anything interesting without it”
“The one exception to this rule, the one way you can get your “girlness” back on the Internet is to post your tits (or GTFO). This is, and should be, degrading for you, an admission that the only interesting thing about you is your naked body”. (Know Your Meme, 2012; Milner, 2013)
These complaints about “girlness”, “girl-advantage”, assume an embodied privilege for women, comparable to Hakim’s (2010) notion of erotic capital. From this perspective, embodied femininity results in preferential and unfair treatment because of chivalry and feminist campaigns. In Taft’s  terms the above comment is decidedly anti-feminist, as it argues that “feminism is unnecessary ... girls have attained all the power they could ever want” and may actually “have too much power in the world”. Building on this, Milner  shows that the rules of “tits or GTFO”  (also reference in the comment above) and “There are no girls on the Internet” ratify these pseudonymous spaces as male, with exhibition of the female body being imposed as “penance for the transgression of interrupting [the platform’s] invisible masculinity”.
Pseudonymous spaces supposedly enable a disembodied identity, yet a refusal to disclose gender — or claims to genderlessness — can be met with hostility (Butler, 1990; Turkle, 2017). Feminist linguists have pointed to how normative discourse can represent gendered power structures and the male-centric nature of language, such as the use of “guys” as a collective (Tanczer, 2016). As the physical markers of gender are invisible in pseudonymity, male-centricity is amplified to male-by-default in these environments, perpetuating and stabilising feminine stereotypes  (Tanczer, 2016). The statement “There are no girls on the Internet” not only reveals the male-default, but additionally cultivates the feminine stereotype of the “girl”. Contrary to assumptions of disembodiment in these spaces, the feminine body is discursively constructed, and cannot be separated from the linguistic acts that name it “girl” (Butler, 1993). Butler’s  “girling” is a social process of naming to allocate norms of sexual identity to a subject. By referencing a juvenile status that is often sexualised, such discourse regulates power relations and representations of identity. The “girl” is required to conform to sexual norms as their identity is conceived as an object for the pleasure of a male viewer, indeed, an object of Mulvey’s (1989) “male gaze”.
The discourse of male-by-default is pervasive across pseudonymous spaces. The male gaze predominates on anonymous forums like 4chan and Reddit, both of which have rightly earned a reputation for misogyny (Milner, 2013; Phillips, 2015). They are prone to gender antagonism, with explicit identification as female is often met with hostile argument, when outside of female-only spaces (Milner, 2016). Massanari (2015) shows that the male gaze on Reddit discursively excludes women and people of colour, marginalising many voices. Mulvey’s (1989) male gaze dismisses women as fungible, a sexual object that may be mutually substituted with similarly “typed” objects (Levmore and Nussbaum, 2010). The process of recreating this stereotype of the objectifiable woman constitutes what Nakamura (2002) denotes as a cybertype, reflecting how the Internet shapes and reshapes perceptions of identity. Whilst Nakamura’s (2002) focus is primarily on race, she identifies how depictions of gender online can impact the way gender is thought about, in a two-way causal relationship between cyberspace and off-line society. She argues that historic power relations are crucial to the defining of cybertypes, often determined by stereotypes that exist off-line, but that the defining attributes of the off-line stereotype are amplified as the characteristics are translated online (Nakamura, 2002). Consequently, representations of identity online can radicalise stereotypes that already exist off-line.
“It’s just a joke!”
Humour is a crucial feature of socialisation on Reddit. Indeed, complaints about provocative or potentially hostile discourse on Reddit and similar forums are often dismissed with appeals to free speech, humour, or it being “just a joke” (Milner, 2013). This claim of humour means that belligerent, provocative or prejudicial discourse faces only limited social sanction on pseudonymous spaces (Mantilla, 2015). Gender is a key component of humour, although not always a positive one. According to Pullen and Rhodes , gendered forms of humour serve to “perpetuate oppressive and patriarchal cultural norms and structures”, thereby playing a normative social role. Similarly, for Lyman , gendered humour becomes “a theatre of domination in everyday life”. These jokes inscribe “groupness” into the social space in which they are performed through assumptions of exclusivity and shared knowledge, operating within a gendered system of meaning (Baym, 2010). For instance, the term “bitch” in joking is used to mark spaces as male a enforce a gender hierarchy, reflecting larger practises of dismissing gender equality discourses (Mills and Mullany, 2011; Milner, 2016). The character of the “bitch” reflects a key attribute of stereotypes in humour is fungibility — as a subset of language has exists to complain about women (Shifman and Lemish, 2011). In gendered humour groupness is therefore created through shared understandings and a common language.
In group creation Ryan and Kanjorski (1998) cite how masculine humour will often take the form of rape jokes, and that sexist humour correlates with an acceptance of sexual aggression and assault. Rape jokes are common in geek forms masculinity, women are portrayed as sexually confident “bitches”, whilst the nerds “are the nice guys who never get laid” . Such joking is prevalent in previous studies of Advice Animals memes, and counter to ideals of homosociality and the satirical rejection of hypermasculinity (Maloney, et al., 2018). For instance, Milner (2016) notes that the masculine and violently-anti-social markers of such humour are clear in the Insanity Wolf Advice Animal (Figure 1), in which being “grotesquely offensive was part of the joke”.
Figure 1: Insanity Wolf.
Similarly, in her analysis of the Confession Bear Advice Animal, Vickery (2014) points to how the practice of remixing and the pseudonymous production of memetic content facilitates the transgression of social boundaries. Such practises often involve statements that are homophobic, racist, sexist or that celebrate sexual assault. In this sense, memes are speech acts, that are multimodal in their use of images and text to communicate jokes that mask a sanctioned opinion or an exercise of power (Grundlingh, 2018). Such taboo discourses are much less common between women online, rather, women engaging in public sexual innuendo is largely regarded as inappropriate (Kanai, 2016; Potts, 2015). While the social transgression of memes is often trivialised due to their typically playful format, or the “just a joke” argument, “normative assumptions and hegemonic culture work to bind the meme” . The approach on these previous studies has been to look at commonalities within a particular Advice Animal meme, and not make comparisons across the genre. Overall, humour on Reddit, and in memes in general, can maintain symbolic and cultural boundaries, with the more aggressive forms of this humour often being sexually hostile. Memes thus allow for typically norm-breaking jokes to shared and communicated.
Feminists are not funny
As stereotypes and gender become a central tenant of online joking, those who critique these memes are dismissed as SJWs. Social Justice Warrior (SJW) is a pejorative label attached to a “humourless shrill who takes pleasure in demonstrating their superiority by policing the behaviour of others” . SJWs are comparative to Ahmed’s (2010) feminist killjoy, wherein the feminist is challenging the “fantasy” of gender equality, is seen by others to infringe on their happiness and thus faces social sanction . This negative portrayal of feminists can be attributed to a so-called postfeminist climate, where feminism is increasingly seen as irrelevant as equality has been achieved (McRobbie, 2009). For Shifman and Lemish (2010) postfeminist humour is defined by several traits: (1) gender differences, not hierarchies; (2) both men and women are targeted (i.e., women are too emotional, but men do not express emotion at all); and (3) women are sexually proactive. This final element of humour resonates with many depictions of women in popular narratives (Prentice and Carranza, 2002). It is humorous because of its opposition to idealised feminine chastity and the spoiling of normative gender roles that Schippers’ (2007) refers to as pariah femininities. The idea that women are no different than men in their sexual appetite leads to a character that is a “phallic girl ... highly sexualised and espous[ing] a pornographic ethos” . However, in their study of sexist, feminist and postfeminist humour in online joking, Shifman and Lemish (2010) found that there is not a change in the way that men are women are perceived in jokes about sex. Men are more commonly portrayed as seeking sex constantly, and women are far more likely to ‘trade’ their sexuality for material rewards (Shifman and Lemish, 2010). Thus, whilst postfeminism portrays feminists as humourless in both visual (Massanari and Chess, 2018) and textual (Worth, et al., 2016) jokes, sexist stereotypes of women are not challenged and are in fact perpetuated through a guise of equal opportunity joking. Therefore, as one asserts a critique to postfeminist humour it is likely that they be labelled a feminist killjoy and SJW.
This overview of the literature indicates that while previous scholarship has theorised that pseudonymous spaces are male dominated, and that memes have been shown to often express sexist tenets, no work has explicitly examined how gender identity is represented across multiple memes. As objects intended to be shared, memes represent a collective understanding of normative identity and a creative process of communication. It is therefore possible that examining the subreddit of r/AdviceAnimals with a gendered lens will reveal memetic jokes as possessing an oppressive power in their performance and representation of gender.
To fully understand the phenomenon at hand, this study required an approach that incorporated the reception of and engagement with popular Advice Animal memes and their representations of gender. Non-participant observation was selected as the data collection method for several reasons. Firstly, in taking a inductive approach to observing interactions I remained open to varying forms of gender performance in this space and the culturally informed responses (Hess and Flores, 2018; Hine, 2015). Furthermore, a six-month observation of the “top” posts (defined in the following section) on the subreddit allowed for the inclusion of the stability of representations. For Dynel , the stability of Advice Animals over time sets the genre apart from other memes as “free-floating humorous units [and] folkloristic products”. An evaluation of the top posts can reveal the normative representations of gender in r/AdviceAnimals, bounded by the social norms of the site as a medium. The use of a meme is prescribed by the relevant social norms, and even formally articulated rules, which dictate what is acceptable as the community regulates itself in creating boundaries of expression. To reinforce this point, it was typical for the memes analysed to net scores over 10,000. Theoretical saturation was reached after 725 threads. Saturation was defined as when no new codes emerged from the data, and the reading of new posts served confirmed the existing understanding of the community.
Non-participant observation, and similar ethnographically based methods, are suited for gaining insight into representations of gender and norms in context without a predetermined focus, known as “situated knowledge” (Haraway, 1988), meaning that the Advice Animal memes were examined in the social context that created them and which imbued them with material agency — or the possibility that objects can act (Bennett, 2010; Hodder, 2012). The focus of inquiry was the normative representations and legitimate performances of gender in Advice Animal memes. In contrast to previous studies (Literat and van den Berg, 2018; Milner, 2016; Shifman, 2013; Wiggins and Bowers, 2015), my method allowed for the inclusion of comments as representative of user’s intent, as well as the evaluation of the memes through textual and visual analysis. This critical approach was informed by Kellner’s (1995) cultivation of visual literacy, which situates images in their political and social context to effectively grasp their range of meanings. Such situating is particularly important in the analysis of images that promote blame-worthy phenomena like sexism.
I observed the subreddit from January to June 2016, and during this period the subreddit reached its peak in popularity (RedditList, 2018). I use the term thread in our analysis to refer to the typical format of online message board and platforms such as Reddit. The structure of a thread is an (1) an initial post — In this case an Advice Animal meme with a title; (2) followed by comments, and (3) replies to comments. All text that is viewed by default was included in analysis. The “top” 25 memes and associated threads in the Advice Animals subreddit were analysed four times a week. This list collates the memes and associated titles in the subreddit that had received the most upvotes minus downvotes for the past 24-hour period. The top 200 comments on the post of a meme were coded as using a grounded identity typing approach (Nakamura, 2002). I chose this approach because users of the site see the top 25 posts and 200 comments/replies to comments as the default view . The choice of top posts is suitable for this analysis as the score of these posts (upvotes minus downvotes) is reflective of agreement among the community of the salience of the meme and support of the representation of gender.
Through out the period of observation, detailed field notes recorded emergent themes and key memes that were emerging from the analysis. As the research consisted of six-month period and most of the analysis was concurrent to data collection, the field notes allowed for an adaptive focus without prioritising more recent observations. In terms of practicalities, orderly field notes were maintained, which has allowed crosslinking between the posts and instances of memes. The posts, memes, and comment threads were analysed using the Computer Aided Qualitative Data Analysis Software (CAQDAS) NVivo. Cloud storage has also been used, as it allowed data to be accessed and recorded without being restrained to a physical location, in line with the ethos of virtual qualitative methods (Hine, 2015). Extracts matching codes were identified in NVivo and grouped into documents for further evaluation. The resulting documents were then reorganised and examined in a recursive process until the final codes for discussion were decided upon.
Non-participant observation builds on a ethnographic tradition, meaning that “ethics becomes a constant reflexive process, rather than a prior stance to be laid out in advance” . With reflexivity in mind, I ensured credibility through adhering to research guidelines provided by the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) (Markham and Buchanan, 2012). These guidelines promote contextual integrity, and that the norms of privacy within a given cultural are met (Nissenbaum, 2010). r/AdviceAnimals is a public facing forum of Reddit with no log-in required to view content and automatic archiving mechanisms ensure that posts and comments remain visible, resulting in limited expectations of privacy. Moreover, the study data was retrieved using a public RSS feed, which shows that the subreddit was also public in practise. In following studies of a similar methodology and research object, informed consent was not deemed to be necessary (Massanari, 2017; Milner, 2013; Vickery, 2014). Not only would it have been near impossible to achieve, public subreddits are built around an expectation that user contributions will be popular, be upvoted and increase in public visibility. Therefore, Reddit users are referenced to give them credit as authors without the through identifying their pseudonym, where appropriate (Markham and Buchanan, 2012). In respect to data protect, I complied with GDPR requirements, and institutional guidelines regarding the storing and management of data. Overall, the data gathered, and users cited in this paper has met ethical guidelines and upholds principles of anonymity, accreditation and consent in Internet-based research.
Feminist post-structuralist discourse analysis (FPDA)
Given the research focus was on gender representations and normative power structures, discourse analysis was chosen as it is suitable for the studying of a moral environment of expectations and norms. More specifically, the approach included feminist post-structuralist discourse analysis (FPDA) developed by Baxter (2003). Using FPDA, I look at how the binary of power relations constitutes identities, thinking of gender as constituted in acts and speech and how meaning is constructed in a context-specific setting (Baxter, 2003). The adoption of a post-structuralist method meant I was able to account for negotiations between the powerful and powerless subject position. For instance, LaTeX_fetish’s critique of the Good Girl Gina Advice Animal, which will be discussed later in the Results section. Additionally, Lazar (2007) points to FPDA as being particularly suited to the analysis of sexism and Holmes (2006) argues that the method is also useful in examining gendered humour. FPDA is therefore well suited to a analysis of power relations, and negotiations of status in textual data.
The aim of the study was to explore the norms of gender in Advice Animal memes, allowing for masculine and feminine representations. To permit unforeseen results to emerge from being situated within the culture, I took a data driven approach. I inductively developed codes in an approach similar to that of Miltner’s (2014) examination of LOLcat memes. Codes were not considered set, but rather they were added to and adapted over the course of the study. Consequently, the codes that emerged were grouped into ideal and unideal depictions of men and women. It is worth noting that there were nearly three times more sub-codes for desirable behaivour in men than women, indicative of a default-legitimate male presence. Not popular enough to be included in the in-depth analysis here, but illustrative of satirising idealised masculinity, was Overly Manly Man. However, a simple binary description of desirable/undesirable traits was felt to miss the manner in which memes exist in conversation with one another — Good Girl Gina is not just “Good” in a vacuum, but created with an awareness of what is “Good” for Good Guy Greg. This inclusion of localised meaning is fundamental to FPDA.
The following section outlines the most prominent themes that emerged over the course of the study, organised by the most popular Advice Animals. Whilst those pictured are not the only memes that were analysed, they are archetypes that represent the identity performances of the community and representations of gender in the memes that were present throughout the dataset. The memes featured in this paper exemplify gender representation and power structures of pseudonymous spaces.
The same but not equal
An overarching representation that emerged in analysis was that Advice Animal memes often have masculine and feminine versions, but they display an uneven distribution of power. The project found that in the representation of the gender binary, men can legitimately express positive or negative behaivour in a multiplicity of ways, whilst women are simple and sexual. The most prominent example that were found in the dataset are the “Good Guys/Girls” and “Scumbags”. Firstly, Good Guy Greg (GGGreg) features a man smiling with a marijuana joint in his mouth (Figure 2). His face is masculine, with a broad chin and facial hair, and the user-generated captions depict the character as representing social ideals (marijuana not withstanding).
Figure 2: GoodGuyGreg.
MemeGenerator.com (a platform for captioning established memes) rates GGGreg the ninth most popular meme of all time with over 340,000 submissions (i.e., different captions created by users for the image), and the top version having over one million shares. GGGreg is also the second most popular Advice Animal after The Most Interesting Man in the World . Responses in the comments on GGGreg posts typically reference the action described, given the norm in posting GGGreg is to reference a specific experience. For example, the GGGreg in Figure 2. “Knows I’m the only house without a snowblower on the street ... snow blows my driveway after every snow storm”. The related comments suggest ways the neighbour should be thanked, including “You should reward him with his favourite beer”, followed by “and money”. However, the comments on the post quickly turn to the possibility of sexual favours, with the third comment reading “Suck his dick. — probably not Greg”, followed by “Blow for blow”, and “Brojob!”. This quick transition to sexual joking shows how masculine spaces are embracing a small measure of homosociality in the acceptability of homosexual joking (assuming, like the users commenting, I read the neighbour as male) these comments received a minimum score of 516 points and were sanctioned. GGGreg thus shows a sanctioned representation of desirable masculinity in Advice Animal memes.
As the antithesis of GGGreg, Scumbag Steve (SSteve) is portrayed as self-involved, disrespectful to others, and engaging in norm-breaking behaviour (Figure 3). Unlike GGGreg, SSteve has an adolescent appearance, with clothes that are too large for him. SSteve’s comments referred to “flashy fashion” clothing is pertinent to his scumbag status, being indicative of “excessive self-interest” , while also suggesting his low socioeconomic status — a white youth emulating an African American inner-city style — itself drawing on classist assumptions.
Defining GGGreg and SSteve draws upon expected and legitimate performances of masculinity. SSteve’s adolescence gives him little right to his “scumbag” attitude, whilst is read as a GGGreg benevolent alpha. SSteve is the nineteenth most popular meme as defined by MemeGenerator.com, with over 400,000 versions, and the most popular submission having ~720,000 shares.
Figure 3: ScumbagSteve.
As is typical with GGGreg and SSteve posts, comments on the thread referred to how the experience depicted (in Figure 3, taking advantage of a co-worker) was reminiscent of their own, with general agreement that “they deserve to get busted and fired”. Whilst gender pronouns are often used in the captions, gender does not feature prominently in the text of GGGreg or SSteve memes.
In stark contrast to SSteve and GGGreg, the female counterparts of the memes are clearly defined by their gender; Scumbag Stacy (SStacy) and Good Girl Gina (GGGina). SStacy follows a similar logic to that of SSteve in enacting deviant behaviour. However, SStacy does not have the wide recognition of her male counterpart, which is likely because of a cease and desist order from the copyright holders of the original image in July 2011 (KnowYourMeme, 2011). In contrast to SSteve, the image captions involve sexualised and misogynistic comments, such as “Dresses like a whore / WTF! Why are you looking at me like that!”. Following the cease and desist order, alternative images have used the SStacy format, but with limited success. Posts on Advice Animals mourn her absence with a Confession Bear captioned “I miss the old Scumbag Stacy ... She was much more fun to look at”. The thread then involved a debate on the relative attractiveness of SStacy; “the current one is better looking. The old one looked like a bitch” and “The last one was more appropriate for a meme of a stupid bitch”. The term “bitch” is again used to dismiss narratives of equality and associate women’s sexuality (Mills and Mullany, 2011; Milner, 2016).
More prominent than SStacy, the female counterpart of GGGreg, GGGina, has received much attention and criticism from both inside and outside Reddit. GGGina portrays goodness; generous behaviour, associated with a considerate girlfriend (Figure 4).
Figure 4: GoodGirlGina.
Much like their male counterparts, captions for GGGina are in direct contrast to SStacy, such as accepting being “checked out” or initiating sex. Comments on the post legitimise GGGina’s overtly sexual behaviour through congratulations; “count yourself lucky, son”, “Fucking jackpot! high-five”. It’s noticeable from the examples shown in Figure 4 that the behaviour portrayed as good is heavily (hetero) sexualised, compared to GGGreg who is typically depicted as kind and generous to all people, without gender specificity.
There is a measure of criticism within Reddit towards the GGGina meme, with one user referring to it as “Oh look, it’s ol’ ‘Good Girl Has Sex With You’”. While these comments do appear in the top 200 comments on GGGina, they are always secondary to masculine and sexualised approval. The denunciation of GGina shows a negotiation of gendered power. In November 2012, Redditor LaTeX_fetish conducted a categorisation survey of GGGina submissions to QuickMeme to “capture the essence of the meme”. LaTeX_fetish’s post to r/ShitRedditSays was frequently linked to and referenced in the comments of GGGina memes, despite occurring five years prior to this study. Moreover, the pseudonym “LaTeX_fetish” reflects humour in geekiness, as LaTex is programming language that is used for typesetting technical data. The pseudonym demonstrates a juxtaposing of a nerdy in-joke requiring computational/technical knowledge and sexualisation. Such pairings for comedic purposes are common in geek masculinity (Kendall, 2000). Figure 5 illustrates the classification of GGGina into 12 categories by LaTeX_fetish, weighted by view count on the meme creation site Quickmeme.com.
Figure 5: What makes Gina a ‘Good Girl’? weighted by Quickmeme.com view count.
Submissions categorised as sexualising/objectifying, stereotyping or demonstrating non-conformist behaviour formed the majority of all the submissions analysed. These characteristics, when viewed collectively, can be taken to demonstrate how representations exist in Advice Animals in terms of gender normativity, that women exist only in reference to their sexual potential. The popularity of the meme highlights this normativity on Reddit, as the culture of the site caters to the male gaze. Gina’s goodness is the fulfilling of masculine sexual desire without grievance.
The radicalising of the stereotype in the cybertyping of GGGina reveals the insider and outsider. The iterations of both GGGina and SStacy assume “you” (the reader) to be male, which in turn defines the insider or Redditor as male, placing the woman externally. There is no reference to homosexual women in GGGina. As such, GGGina is defined by masculine ideals of behavour. She enacts Egan’s  phallic girl as one of the guys, through “the use of approved media” (i.e., Gina likes that “you” use Reddit) and “approval of lifestyle” which references alcohol and Reddit. The male voice of approval denotes a patriarchal understanding of gender relations, defining goodness as taking part in permitted activities. When taken with the assumption of the male Redditor, Reddit becomes a source of Kendall’s (2011) geek masculinity, a hotbed of technological prowess and niche interests.
LaTeX_fetish’s criticism is reflective of narratives of debate, dispute and controversy that Reddit is known for . The affordances of Reddit’s structure, including spaces of cross-referencing (or cross-posting) as r/ShitRedditSays could be applying a postfeminist “engagement of feminist subjectivity based in social media networks of distribution” . The very posting of LaTeX_fetish’s criticism on Reddit itself points to an assertion of counter-hegemonic voice, despite the absence of progressive Advice Animals memes, which is reiterated in the comments on the post. These comments make reference to the default masculinity, and sexualised nature of femininity on Reddit; “I always want to bang my head into a wall when the dudebros of Reddit treat sex acts like presents”, “It’s pretty sad that the idea of a Good Girl is the mix between a servant and living sex toy”, “What kind of shitty person finds the image presented here as a desirable partner, or even more than that, the ideal partner? Oh, right ... Reddit”. The comments show how GGGina epitomises Nussbaum’s (2012) process of misogyny on the interchangeable feminine subject — white, young and typically feminine. Earlier versions of GGGina had a different central character, and as one user put it “the same girl is never stuck to for very long”. As was shown with SStacy, the central character of GGGina changes, whilst the meme remains thematically identical. SSteve and GGGreg have consistently held the same character.
Thus, the traits of “Scumbag” and “Good” show an uneven distribution of power in a binary representation of gender. Men’s behaviour (as seen in these memes) is devoid of gender specificity, whilst the women’s performances are all highly sexualised and one-dimensional. As a collective Reddit does voice criticism of the sexualised femininity of GGGina, but this is far from the dominant reading of the meme on r/AdviceAnimals. Maleness is amplified in the pseudonymous space through being the default character in memes and jokes relating to normative behaivour.
Stabilising femininity through clinginess
Feminine identity in Advice Animals was consistently drawn in relation to men, reinforcing the male-by-default and female other of pseudonymous spaces. Complimenting the sexualisation of GGGina, the male gaze of pseudonymity enshrines the stereotype of the dependency of women on men with the Overly Attached Girlfriend (OAG). The OAG features a white female protagonist whose captions portray an overly protective, obsessive, girlfriend. The meme has over 200,000 submissions, with the top iteration being shared almost oen million times. As shown in Figure 6 the OAG typically relies on policing normative male sexuality through manipulation (Shifman and Lemish, 2011).
Figure 6: Overly Attached Girlfriend.
In reaction to the virality of the OAG a male version of the meme was created. Redditor Phatrick129 (2012) posted an image to r/Pics entitled “My friends keep reminding me I look like a certain someone”. Due to his physical resemblance to OAG, the post spread quickly, reaching the front page of Reddit with over 26,000 upvotes (Figure 7).
Figure 7: Overly Attached Boyfriend.
The OAB entails similar motifs to the OAG. The defining factor of the OAB is that it emerged in reaction to the OAG series as “the Overly Attached Girlfriend in her guy costume”.
In a pseudonymous context the male-centricity of humorous language in the posts can amplify existing power structures. As pointed to earlier, Shifman and Lemish  show that in humour “complaining about women is a subset of texts” in which women are depicted as “too needy [and] too clingy”. Clinginess is a gendered narrative of identity enforcement, an excessive emotional dependence within social relationships that may border upon obsession (Korobov, 2013). The OAG supports such conclusions; authored from a male perspective, submissions of the OAG reference “clinginess”. Rather than clinginess being a feature of the comment discussion, the term was often cited in the title of OAG submissions; “78% less inspirational when said by a clingy ex.”, “Normally I’m pretty good about when she says clingy things ... but this one got to me”, and “My girlfriend was being extra clingy today”. The prominent featuring of this term in the title of posts, as well as the comments, shows that the feminine-clingy identity is a stable cybertype. The humour of the OAB is an effeminate over-dependency, failure to control and the accentuation of a gendered stereotype, but he reproduces and stabilises the femininity of emotional attachment. The OAB is only meaningful in the context of the OAG and fails to exist beyond a mimic. Comments on the OAB do not possess the critical engagement that is visible elsewhere on the platform.
The paradox of the male feminist
Masculinity and feminism are often discursively constructed as mutually exclusive, as feminists are constructed as women that are “unfeminine and man-hating” . Interestingly, positive representations of feminism in the memes studied had a male central character, whilst those that depicted feminists as angry and hypocritical had a female one. Rather than the male feminist being an “oxymoron” , masculinity provided the only vehicle by which the advocacy of women’s rights was legitimate. For instance, Feminist Frank (FFrank) (Figures 8.1 and 8.2) features a common bait-and-switch format of Advice Animals; the top caption appears to set up a misogynistic statement, followed by a caption at the image foot that promotes beliefs associated with contemporary feminism. In May 2014, a Redditor posted a gallery of Feminist Frank images to r/TrollXChromosomes (a small but pro-feminist subreddit which challenges the dominant Reddit narrative) where it gathered more than 2,600 upvotes and 130 comments and was shared to r/AdviceAnimals where it was reiterated.
Figure 8.1: Feminist Frank.
Figure 8.2: Feminist Frank.
Figure 8.1 can be read by reference to Schippers’ (2007) pariah femininities as provocative dressing is contrary to the idealised feminine chastity. Contrastingly, FFrank proposes that provocative dressing should not justify denigrating treatment. Figure 8.2 shows the bait-and-switch use of the term “bitch” in contrast its typical use in memes as antagonistic and stereotyping. However, the meme still uses the term with a male authorial voice, as Milner (2013) argues is typical in these images.
In a similar format to FFrank, the performance of feminism in memes has become increasingly popular with the spread of the “Hey Girl” Ryan Gosling meme (Figures 9.1 and 9.2). Ryan Gosling, a popular Canadian actor, has stated that he does not believe the meme specifically refers to his views, but rather he is perceived as a means by which feminist messages can reach a wider audience (Saul, 2016). The texts within the series are often academically complex whether referencing to Foucault’s governmentality thesis (Figure 9.1) or Derrida’s critique of phallogocentrism in language (Figure 9.2).
Figure 9.1: “Hey Girl” Ryan Gosling.
Figure 9.2: “Hey Girl” Ryan Gosling.
The scholarly references in the “Hey Girl” series show the intelligent man as sympathetic, reinforcing the idiomatic criticism of men as doltish (such as SSteve) that inspires defensive hostility in humour. The referencing of post-structuralist thought in the memes contains elements of progressive politics due to its appropriation by feminist scholars, yet the rhetorics exist within heteronormative narratives (“Hey Girl”). Several the comments on threads of the “Hey Girl” Ryan Gosling meme do voice criticism of the “Hey Girl” tag but are generally met with comments like “Ryan Gosling can say ‘hey girl’ if he wants to say, ‘hey girl’”. With this, and such comments as “Whoa, it’s hot and funny!” the feminist statements of the meme are only valuable when associated with an attractive white man. The humour of the meme comes from the juxtaposition of the desire of the “heartthrob” and sterile academicism, in line with postfeminist joking. It is worth mentioning that a blog that curates these memes has published them in a book: Feminist Ryan Gosling: Feminist theory (as imagined) from your favourite sensitive movie dude (Philadelphia, Pa.: Running Press, 2012).
As in “Hey Girl” the enforcement of gendered power relations with the label girl is commonplace on the pseudonymous Web and across Reddit. As with “There are no girls on the Internet”, the call to the subject as a girl implies the allocation of norms of sexual identity and low status level . Secondly, the emotive statements reinforce subservience through romantic heterosexual masculinity. Through juxtaposition with emotive statements (“want to cry with you” and “nothing will split us apart”) the challenging of gender norms in the academic statements is sterilised with normative sexuality. A nod in the memes text to gender fluidity is immediately followed and compromised with heterosexual norms of desire and romanticism.
Whilst “Hey Girl” Ryan Gosling is not an Advice Animal, it is useful in illustrating how memes that endorse statements of feminist beliefs almost universally have a male character and did appear in the primary subreddit of study. “Hey Girl” Ryan Gosling and FFrank are not feminist in their text, as revealed by girling and the perpetuating of misogynistic statements. The memes reinforce romantic paternal tropes. Performance and representation of feminism and feminists differs significantly in hostility when the protagonist is female.
The woman-feminist Advice Animals portray the perceived double standards of women who identify as feminists: mandating gender equality, while still expecting preferential treatment due to benevolent sexist etiquette. As Rentschler and Thrift (2015) indicate the woman-feminists would have been created with an awareness of their male counterparts, and visa versa. The use of the term Feminist Nazi (often shortened to ‘Feminazi’) is memetic and reflect an association of feminists as authoritarian Figure 10.1 and 10.2). Skutta (1997) argues the term Feminazi is a rhetorical strategy of projection. In disowning male authoritarian attitudes in post-feminism, authoritarian tendencies are projected onto feminists. The captions typically depict a naïve approach to stereotypical feminist ideas, in contrast to the complex academic rhetoric of “Hey Girl” Ryan Gosling.
Figure 10.1: Feminist Nazi/Feminazi.
Figure 10.2: Feminist Nazi/Feminazi.
Presenting narratives of feminism in an equivalent manner to the FN is the Hypocrite Feminist (HF) (Figure 11.1 and 11.2). The HF meme series involves the image of a woman, assumed to be attending a political protest. Like the FN, the HF is open mouthed, leading the viewer to assume speech.
Figure 11.1: Hypocrite Feminist.
Figure 11.2: Hypocrite Feminist.
The discourse and representational politics in these two memes are decidedly anti-feminist (Taft, 2004). The representations reinforce an opinion common throughout Reddit’s discourse; that women are expecting preferential treatment through feminism in reparation for historical mistreatment. As discussed earlier, this understanding is key to the statement “There are no girls on the Internet”, as feminine privilege is removed through the disembodying aspects of the pseudonymous Web. The memes act as a discursive barrier to female activism through displaying a damaging representation of feminists.
Through the online translation of the killjoy character, we have the cybertype of SJW. As noted by Massanari and Chess (2018), an SJW is motivated by personal validation rather than feminist political conviction. Comments on women-feminist memes refer to “SJWing and female superiority angles”, “SJW ideology”, “SJW fascism”. Selisker (2015) defines the SJW as “the stereotype of the feminist as unreasonable, sanctimonious, biased, and self-aggrandizing”. Even in protesting the depiction of feminists in these memes, an individual would be conforming to Ahmed’s (2010) killjoy narrative. The assumed confrontational nature of the characters is also depicted through being open mouthed in speech and protest. The language of the captions is argumentative, using such terms as “complains” and “demands”, which is a further feature of the woman-feminist character, as noted by Taft (2004) and Ahmed (2010).
This perspective is apparent in the comments associated with these posts, which argue that “SJW’s find bigotry in anything. They look for things to be offended and outraged over”. However, Berlant (2011) proposes that feminists should not aim to regulate the representation of women, instead, feminists should “safeguard the open productivity” of portrayals of feminists that produce an alternative, unhappy and critical political narrative. The woman-as-killjoy representation monopolises the production of feminist-themed memes, as no positive representation of a female character in a feminist meme exists. Overall, the depictions homogenise women’s feminist discourses, presenting the feminist as a belligerent white woman.
Rentschler and Thrift  argue that the “Hey Girl” Ryan Gosling meme is “the ultimate man-feminist meme construct” challenging the “oxymoron of the man-feminist”. This supposition of the enlightened nature of the meme is overstated. Whilst the “seductive” nature of the meme is highlighted, the heteronormativity intrinsic in its flirtatious nature of the “Hey Girl” meme is not . Instead, a surface understanding of the meme is presented; “Hey Girl” Ryan Gosling contains feminist text, therefore it is feminist. This understanding ignores the context in which it is produced and shared in the male gaze of Reddit, narrating the woman as emotional and needing men. Moreover, a comparison of the female and men-feminists show that feminism (as espoused by “Hey Girl” Ryan Gosling and FFrank) is compatible with masculinity as an amorous tool, and progressive when voiced by a white male character. The genre of memes demonstrate that feminism is performed as incompatible with femininity, and only legitimised through a male voice.
This paper has argued that pseudonymous spaces, such as r/AdviceAnimals, structure highly gendered performances among there users. This raises a serious challenge to the equality of participation in pseudonymous spaces. By analysing the performance of gender in Advice Animal and asking what highly gendered performances and representations do in memes, this article has unmasked memetic jokes as perpetuating existing power structures. Firstly, the Advice Animals demonstrate how femininity exists in terms of cybertypes, in which hegemonic characteristics and gender roles are accentuated. The male gaze defines each cybertype as feminine objects of sexual desire. The female representations are sexualised and objectified as heterosexual masculine fantasies of goodness. The construction of one-dimensional cybertypes is part of the process of defining masculinity, in its rejection of femininity (Shifman and Lemish, 2011).
The larger social narratives turn to femininity and feminine values as the common enemy (Maddox, 2017). Masculinity is legitimate in its hegemonic and geek-forms by default, with femininity’s legitimate forms consisting of emotionality, child-bearing and a pornographic ethos. In the representation of feminists, men-feminists are flirtatious, heteronormative and typically masculine. This power hierarchy of the legitimate man-feminist and the “bitchy” woman-feminist is counter to the “oxymoron of the man-feminist” . In Advice Animals the male protagonists are in stark contrast to the authoritarianism of the woman-feminists. This finding complements the earlier conclusion that masculinity is the legislator of valid gender performativity. Rather than being an oxymoron, a masculine voice is the only legitimate vehicle of feminism in these memes.
I therefore find that pseudonymity does not simply represent open participation in disembodiment, but clings to embodiment in its collective understandings of the white male. Femininity elicits preferential treatment in sexualised terms, but by losing “girl-advantage” online, femininity is only afforded to those willing to be degraded by “clinginess” or calls to display their bodies (tits or GTFO). By applying a critical feminist lens to spaces that claim open participation, I can see how masculine joking and sexualisation results in the ostracization of women. If these exclusionary practises and default-maleness are not challenged in such online spaces, then there very may well end up being no women on the anonymous Internet.
About the author
Siân Brooke is a doctoral student at the Oxford Internet Institute — University of Oxford, with a focus on gender and women’s participation in anonymous technological spaces, such as hacking forums. Having a background in politics and international relations, she has also written on gendered identity and a variety of online spaces including; dating/hook-up apps, Reddit, and the dark Web. Her research is funded by the Clarendon Fund, Economic and Social Research Council, and the Emden Doctorow Award.
E-mail: sian [dot] brooke [at] oii [dot] ox [dot] ac [dot] uk
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Received 2 January 2019; revised 4 June 2019; revised 2 September 2019; revised 10 September 2019; accepted 10 September 2019.
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
“There are no girls on the Internet“: Gender performances in Advice Animal memes
by Siân Brooke.
First Monday, Volume 24, Number 10 - 7 October 2019