Instagrammers like @ripannanicolesmith and @theyellowhairedgirl are reclaiming the male gaze.

By Juno Kelly.

Over the last few years, memes have become one of the most ubiquitous modes of digital communication. What began as a formula for comedy—whereby a meme creator would superimpose amusing text onto a viral image—has since become a means of processing world events, making light of both shared and personal trauma, and spreading–or debunking–political ideologies. According to online community researcher Joshua Citarella, young people specifically look towards the internet “in search of coping strategies, social connections, and political solutions.”

As fourth-wave feminism came to fruition in the digital age, so too have feminist memes to support the movement’s rhetoric, from championing body and sex positivity to unpacking intersectionality. In recent years, Instagram accounts have begun to expand upon the simple meme format to upturn archaic stereotypes, address sexism, and spread awareness of the mental health issues that disproportionately affect women.

Said memes serve to spread a progressive outlook on gender while reminding women that many of their gender-related experiences are shared. While the internet (and particularly Instagram) has become a hotbed of social activism, it has also been responsible for increased mental health struggles among young women. According to a Sage-published study by new media & society, “greater overall Instagram use was associated with greater self-objectification… greater body image concerns, and appearance comparison tendency in general.”

Instagram account @theyellowhairedgirl, curated by Leah Rachel, promotes the opposite message. Rachel’s meme formula overlays ’50s pin-up girl imagery with text that goes against the sub-culture’s tendency to sexualize women. The page also addresses more general archaic gender norms, from pressures on women to start a family to rebelling against societal body standards. The account, which boasts 126,000 followers, is inundated with comments from Instagram users heralding its message. One meme, which reads, “Why do women’s bodies go through trends…and other disturbing questions,” is met with comments thanking the account challenging constantly shifting beauty standards. Over Instagram Direct Message, Rachel tells Mission that her page is all about reclamation—a key aspect of fourth-wave feminism, in which women work to regain control over their bodies and sexuality, which men have been governed for so long. “I take images that are made to titillate men and reclaim the narrative in the image for women,” says Rachel. “I write what I imagine is the inner dialogue of the exploited woman in the image.”

Writer and academic Kristen Cochrane, who runs 94,000-follower strong meme account @ripannanicolesmith, defines her account as a “cultural studies fan club.” Her memes primarily consist of stills from contemporary films or television superimposed with academic text. Over direct message, Cochrane shares that she makes memes because she “can’t help herself,” describing them as “a form of expression and a creative outlet for utterances that have felt inexpressible in other contexts. I like intertextual and intermedia approaches and sharing the spill-over from my psyche, even if it’s messy, awkward, or embarrassing.”

Cochrane’s memes often pertain to sexism and women’s experiences—particularly women from the global west, in the millennial or Gen Z age bracket. Her works embrace cultural staples that have been frequently disregarded as shallow, fluffy, or low brow, like Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie’s The Simple Life, The Real Housewives franchise, and cult rom coms like Clueless. One meme references the infamous scene from Legally Blonde, whereby the heroine’s boyfriend is ending his relationship with her. In place of her tearful, less than eloquent rebuke are the words, “You’re breaking up with me because I’m a threat to your heteronormative ideal, which has been informed by Oedipal and Castration anxiety fears, right? That is called the Madonna-whore complex, Warner.” In a similar vein to Rachel, Cochrane’s ultimate aim is reclamation, this time with regards to society’s sexist outlook on pop culture instead of bodily objectification, “I’ve tried to recuperate ‘bad objects’ that are associated with femininities and camp cultures,” she says.

It seems as though the meme landscape is doing its utmost to rebrand the aspects of womanhood that have historically been cause for shame. In a digital sphere inundated with Q-anon conspiracies, hate speech, and the objectification of women in many forms of pornography, let’s hope the meme lords (or ladies) keep it coming.

Image credit: @theyellowhairedgirl