Is the Internet's obsession with the 'hot girl' vaccine problematic?

In the midst of a vaccine rollout to combat a global health crisis, the Internet asks — which one is for hot girls?

by Laura Pitcher
06 May 2021, 2:43pm

After a devastating pandemic year, producing a vaccine in record-speed has undoubtedly brought light at the end of the tunnel. But, of course, the process has been marred by controversies, misinformation and resistance from anti-vaxxers. Now, for those who have decided to roll up their sleeves and get vaccinated, the internet is asking: which one is the hot girl vaccine?

The notion that vaccinated people are more attractive began with TikTok videos that aimed to dispel anti-vax rhetoric, including the long-running joke that getting vaccinated will make your ass bigger. Next came the jokes attributing specific qualities to the different brands of vaccines. Pfizer is the hottest vaccine (and the bougiest). Moderna has somehow aligned with the Y2K aesthetic, perhaps due to Dolly Parton’s funding, and become the official vaccine for queer people.

“If you got Pfizer, you are timeless, classy, elegant, Nicole Kidman in The Undoing vibes,” claims one TikTok user, who also describes the Johnson and Johnson vaccine as one for risk takers. “If you got Moderna, you are edgy, you are cosmopolitan, you are hot,” claims another. Cue the hashtags #PfizerGang and #ModernaGang, each of which has racked up millions of views with sketches personifying and styling the vaccine brands and “choose your character” videos.

There’s no denying the simple chronology of the rollout and how it’s contributed to the internet’s vaccine stereotypes. As Pfizer was the first vaccine authorised globally, it quickly became vaccine du jour. Then, once approved, AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson suffered a bad PR moment as a result of extremely rare cases of blood clotting.

While the “shot girl summer” dialogue may have started as a way to encourage and empower those getting vaccinated, has the personalization of the specific vaccines helped or harmed the cause? More importantly, what does it say about the state of humans (and the internet) that this has been our response to the prevention of a deadly disease? Lina Perl, a Clinical Psychologist, says it’s a fairly predictable human response to perceived danger.

“When people are in an anxious and ambiguous situation, that's when cognitive biases come up the most, so my hypothesis would be that most of it is just trying to create order in the chaos,” Lina says. “Our brains are category making machines, we do it very naturally and biologically, and that's because we wouldn't be able to function if every time you encountered something, you had to start from zero in terms of figuring it out. The problem is it absolutely works against us as well and that’s where stereotypes come from.”

Lina says that clinging to something as arbitrary as “hotness” in a serious and anxiety-inducing situation is often the result of there being no other way to categorise the decision. In the US, with three vaccine brands on offer, this can result from having too many options. “America is known as the land of options but that can lead to craving more certainty, [and] some of that categorisation is: how do I manage so many options when I don't have any idea how to choose?” Lina says, noting the bigger issue is when the categorisation is perceived as accurate and or the truth. “There’s danger in believing our own hype and sharing that as truth, which social media lets us do.”

One of these dangers includes a complete disregard for the “vaccine apartheid” by alienating or being insensitive to countries with no access to vaccines or only one option that’s deemed less favourable. Especially when you’re based in America, which has been hoarding vaccines while countries like India suffer from a shortage. Another is actually deterring people from getting vaccinated altogether. This was the case for Brooklyn-based actress Johanna Broughton, after seeing that her home country, the Bahamas, had extremely limited access to the vaccine.

“If 75% of the entire world is not getting the vaccine, who am I to say that I should go and get vaccinated?” she says. “Personally, I’m not with the way we discuss it and I’m not sure where it’s come from. I just feel like it’s corny and I’m not interested because it’s elitist.” Many people have noted that the way Americans discuss the vaccine types, while joking, reflects a much bigger issue and pattern of resource extraction and hoarding. This makes personalizing them morally conflicting. “Mom, can you pick me up they’re girlbossifying pharmaceutical companies again,” one user wrote on Twitter. “Moderna, J&J and Pfizer teaming up to let millions of people die so that they can stay rich,” wrote another.

Gretchen Chapman, a PhD Professor of Social and Decision Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University, says sorting the vaccine types into categories or assigning them personality traits may subconsciously impact the ways in which we interact with other people who received a different brand. “This might be an example of the minimal groups paradigm where even arbitrary groupings can lead to in-group and out-group psychology.”

“There’s some work suggesting that it doesn’t take very much to form a group,” Gretchen says. “I think this could be harmful even in countries that have access to many vaccines because most of us don't have a choice as to what one we get.”

Gretchen says that giving the vaccines different identities, then feeling disappointed or discouraged when you get one that doesn’t fit your identity might make people less likely to get the second dose. “So tens of thousands of 85-year-olds got the Pfizer vaccine, but still it’s the ‘hot’ vaccine?” she asks, baffled. The only positive, she says, would be if the rhetoric was encouraging those who would otherwise not get vaccinated to do so, which seems unlikely for passionate anti-vaxxers.

Aviv Sharon, of Technion's Faculty of Education in Science and Technology, says that while portraying a vaccine as glamorous could (in theory) encourage some people to get vaccinated who would otherwise steer clear, these portrayals might also, in the same way, put people off for the wrong reasons.

While many of the jokes and videos personalizing the vaccines might seem harmless, and stem from an innate desire to find comfort in socially constructed teams after a year of isolation, we can’t let it distract us from the importance of addressing elitism and vaccine apartheid. As death rates continue to rise, the jokes are lacking an essential understanding that having access to any vaccine at this stage of the pandemic is an immense privilege. After all, the “hottest” vaccine would be any and all brands that suspend intellectual property rights to prioritise human life over profits, and the “most attractive” thing we can do in vaccinated countries is advocate for that.

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