Top Social Justice Memes of 2018


By Angus Maguire & Lawrence Barriner II

Our annual Top Social Justice Memes considers memes used or created by our movements to challenge the status quo and shape politics and pop culture.

Memes spread meaning through story, via symbols and practices. More than just internet graphics, memes are transmitted through writing, speech, gestures, images, rituals, and other phenomena — we’ve named the form of each meme in our list, to emphasize this point. Anything that can be a container for meaning of a story can be a meme.

Rooted in nominations from the CSS community, to be considered for the list a meme must meet these criteria: it must challenge the status quo, shape politics and culture (small “p” and small “c”), and have a viral “it” factor, reaching significant scale. Where a meme lands on the list is more art than science.

With this list, our goal is to build the capacity of change agents, ourselves included, for understanding what memes travel far and wide with the most impact. If we know our work is to #changethestory, how do we deploy increasingly-effective memes that shape politics and culture towards the justice we all so desperately need?

Without further ado, the Center for Story-based Strategy’s Top Social Justice Memes of 2018:

10. Me Voting in 2016 vs. 2018 (visual)

Election Day 2016 saw a flurry of visual storytelling about folks’ emotional relationship with the institution of voting — comparing emotional states on the days two years apart. This seemed to convey catharsis for those sharing it, a recognition that their emotional investment in the moment had changed dramatically over two years. This frame was the obvious and dominant one promoted in many write-ups. The meaning contained within? We’ve witnessed a brutal change over two years, reflected in brutal outcomes we are continuing to see. It’s that top picture that might give one pause though. What does it say? Are the 2016 pictures representing calm confidence in a win for a first woman President? Or maybe a naive sense that not much hinged on the outcome of the vote? An iteration of this meme, our favorite, was in the form of various clapbacks where both images were the same — exemplified by the lower image of Maxine Waters. Some were quite clear both years on the stakes, and on the continuity across administrations. For folks (highlight: black women) who have always known the high stakes and implications of electoral politics, the year is irrelevant. The ongoing deep structural and moral crisis of racial capitalism demands our focus.     

9. #OneJobShouldBeEnough (slogan)

Striking Marriott workers across the country — organizing through UniteHere! — made this slogan a central part of their campaign. #OneJobShouldBeEnough makes the invisible visible by surfacing the reality of low-wage work as workers organize for enough pay to take care of their children. And it expands a labor struggle frame beyond specifics of wages and benefits — disrupting retorts of “find a better job”, while highlighting the lived reality of workers with two or more jobs, none of which bring the resources necessary for survival on their own. In the context of a workplace picket, the slogan is a damning indictment of a business owner’s complicity in the race-to-the-bottom and growing wealth inequality. #1job raises expectations, recalling mid-century expectations of good paying union jobs, but demanding that vision for communities who have always been shut out of that dream.

8. Children’s voices from inside detention (sound)

Immigrant family separation and child detention, practices that pre-date the Trump administration, were thrown back into the spotlight, first by Trump, who made the policy more visible as a signal to his base, and by movement work to highlight the abuses and impact of the policies on children and families. From desert tent camps to clandestine detention houses to Walmarts hiding in plain site — conveying the human impact of policies removed from the public eye was never easy. Chilling audio of children from inside these facilities made the invisible visible, even when images were unavailable. Their use and broadcast online and at public events struck a powerful cord, disrupting the assumption of difference with a sound universally understandable, no matter your language or country of origin.

7. Face masks & California wildfires (object + visual)

We’ve come a long way from the polar bear as container for meaning in the story of climate change. The polar bear meme betrays a fundamental bias: it portrays the crisis for a value of nature that only a few can experience — polar bears being distant from most of our experiences in ways that fouled air, surging storms and rising seas are not — erasing the millions of poor people bearing the brunt of climate crisis for humanity. If the polar bear represents an abstract, distant value of nature apart from humanity, scenes close to home of rapid catastrophic danger might do the opposite. This year, familiar skylines choked by fire’s haze made the headlines in the U.S. The simple N95 face mask was a container for how connected we are to otherwise-distant catastrophe. The masks also hold the meaning of community mutual aid, as they were often the most immediately-useful resource shared to mitigate the impact of the smoke. Combine with scenes of suburban devastation in a place once thought immune to the immediate effects of climate change, and we have a meme that begins to represent humanity’s stakes in the climate crisis.

6. Gritty (character)

The brief story-so-far of Gritty is a rapid-fire sequence of meaning-making events that exemplify how quickly narrative moves in 2018. Announced in late September as the first mascot for the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team, Gritty has gone from sports symbol to political symbol in just a few months. A Philadelphia city council resolution called Gritty ““fuzzy eldritch horror,” a “ghastly empty-eyed Muppet with a Delco beard” and a “shaggy orange Wookiee-esque grotesquerie”. And that weirdness is arguably part of the magic. Without a history, and being designed to be so anomalous and strange, Gritty was something of an empty container waiting to be filled with meaning. Philly councilwoman Helen Gym foreshadowed the next part of the story saying “We’re the original city of rebels and revolutionaries, and I think that this initially ghastly, appalling creature strolled in at a time when we least expected it but probably most needed it.” Soon after, Gritty was marching instead of strolling. Anti-fascist activists took the baton, making Gritty an anti-Pepe the Frog, both online and off, shaping more clearly the meaning contained in that wild beard. Gritty appeared on banners and signs as Philadelphians marched in protest of a visit by President Trump — naming his rhetoric and action as direct influences on the rise of anti-LGBTQ, anti-immigrant and white supremacist violence and policy across the country. We celebrate Gritty at number 6 in our list, as an example of how far up and into popular culture our movements can reach, with vision, timing, humor and creativity.

5. #AnythingWhileBlack (visual)

Driving While Black” was a meme back in the 90s, a phrase that named structural and interpersonal racism reaching into Black communities’ daily experience by way of traffic stops, with surveillance, violence and incarceration being the common outcomes. #AnythingWhileBlack amplifies that logic, saying plainly what is obvious to anyone that experiences it: this level of scrutiny, judgement, and danger isn’t limited to the driver’s seat. Inspired by the absurd yet all-too-common example of #BBQBetty which went viral in May, Twitter users @smcollier17 and @FormerMsPerez, produced a series of visuals that highlight an absurd and lasting meaning: whiteness is a weapon in all situations, no matter how mundane. Echos and sequels include increased use of the hashtag in sharing news stories, a viral parade of white woman characters (#PermitPatty, #ApartmentPatty, #CornerstoreCaroline, etc.), and the excellent Existing While Black.

4. Emma Gonzalez (character)

Organizing in the aftermath of the Parkland School shooting shifted the hero-victim-villain Drama Triangle in U.S. storytelling around mass shootings and gun control. Youth, previously limited to the victim corner of the triangle, stepped into the hero role and decentered the villain in the news coverage aftermath. Most importantly, Emma Gonzalez stepped to the foreground as a hero character not often allowed into the picture by the arbiters of headlines, newscycles and “palatable” spokespeople. Emma showed up as herself, unapologetically nonbinary in her presentation and proudly bisexual — drawing a constant throughline between her identity and experience organizing against sexism and homophobia, and her work with March for Our Lives. Emma, her very self and presentation in the world, showing up so publicly in the face of devastating trauma is an inspiring container-of-meaning for where we must consistently turn for leadership in our movements: those with intimate experience of life and love at the crossroads of oppression and power.

3. #AbolishICE (slogan)

There’s a special thrill in seeing a radical and abolitionist call to action — the kind often relegated to posters and graffiti — on the digital news captions of outlets like Fox News and CNN, some of the biggest storytelling platforms in the world. #AbolishICE contains the underlying assumption that fixes and reforms are not the needed next steps, that the reason for ICE’s existence is the problem, not simply one of implementation or lack of compassion. It’s “the border crossed us” and “the whole damn system is guilty as hell” translated into a policy demand. While some would write it off as too-radical, or its presence in the national newscycle as unfortunate fodder for right-wing hysteria, we say it’s just a taste of the bold demands we need more of.

2. Wakanda Forever (gesture)

Afrofuturism made a giant splash this year with the release of Black Panther, not just dreaming about a different history, or a different present, or a different future, but all of them at once. It was the arms-crossed gesture — Wakanda Forever! — though that made the clearest jump from the big screen, being used by actors, top athletes, and fans alike. The meme even co-opted an existing emoji, where it shows up widely on Twitter and other social media. The sibling love and Black joy on display when Shuri and T’Challa reunite (GIF above) might be the heart of the gesture, even if its most prominent placement was in scenes and promotionals featuring Black Panther himself. The gesture comes to hold so much of the meaning of the film’s cultural moment, starting with expansive and complex representation of Black heroes as the center of a modern fable, and including the conversations around slavery, early-colonialism and neo-colonialism. The capacity of this meme to spread harbors the potential for global, diasporic solidarity and maybe even joyful reunions in the future. We’ll be watching this one closely in 2019...

1. #MeToo & #WeBelieveSurvivors (slogan)

Trauma halts possibility. Movement activates it.” - Tarana Burke, creator of #MeToo

“Trauma halts possibility” was put into stark relief this year as it remained painfully clear, with the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court justice, that having inflicted trauma is not yet a thing that limits one’s possibilities. This moment is a hard one for many of us to keep reliving, seeing accountability evaporate yet again for men who gain the highest positions of power. The stomach-turning reminders seem unending, with famous men renewing their careers mere months after being “held accountable” and disparate sentencing giving lie to even the name of the justice system. As newly-elected Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley reminds us: “The people closest to the pain should be closest to the power, driving and informing the policy making.” #MeToo names the connection between survivors of sexual violence, while #WeBelieveSurvivors locates survivors at the center, as the legitimate leaders of our way forward: a movement that activates the possibility of a world beyond sexual violence.

Memes to look out for...

We won’t call them runner-ups. These memes represent crucial issues or narrative opportunities vital to collective liberation. Many important struggles and creative interventions didn’t make the top ten, but we want to highlight a few for their critical place in our movements for justice.

#WontBeErased (slogan)

In spite of the massive resistance against the legal erasure of queer and transgender people, the field of memes for this issue felt unfortunately thin. #WontBeErased was an obvious contender here but in our minds, was missing the virality and shaping of popular culture or politics. We hope this means that in 2019 we can collectively and creatively vision more powerfully into the memes carrying meaning on how critical these issues are to all of us.  

#WeKneedJustice (gesture)

We debated whether Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling might make the list for a third year in a row. His action has inspired hundreds of athletes and non-athletes alike to use their bodies in peaceful protest. In spite of the non-violence of their actions, the reaction from loyal patriots has been harsh and, at times, literally violent. The intervention has been disruptive and powerful, driving racial justice conversations into new and significant cultural spaces.  

The obvious argument for inclusion is the surprise adoption of Kaepernick by Nike. A big win to some. But something important happened in that moment. What was visible was made invisible — no image of kneeling appeared in that advertising. Some kind of sleight of hand took place, and now the symbol lifted up by Nike is the hero, not the simple act of protest accessible to all. Now, you have to be striving to be the greatest athlete for the story of your dreams to be told. With the sleight of hand in mind, Nike’s tagline becomes all the more suspect. “Believe in something even if it means sacrificing everything,” and the fate of the kneeling protest is up for grabs.

Green New Deal (slogan)

Towards the end of 2018, a “Green New Deal” was starting to look like it might have some legs. Though the idea is somewhat older, it’s now the frame championed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a proposal for a new committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, and in forceful protests from youth organizers. This one feels like it might take off, but many questions remain: Is “New Deal” a historical reference too distant to resonate widely? What meaning (policy and solutions) will come to be held in this container? Will this new Green New Deal be rooted in a Just Transition for communities most impacted by climate change?  We’ll be watching in 2019.