Why the rise of the ironic homophobic meme isn't a bad thing
Once taboo language and stereotypes are no longer off-limits.
Some memes do more than just circulate on social media, burn out, then disappear; some become part of a total cultural shift in humour. In 2018, 'Homophobic Millie Bobby Brown' was born, a joke which imagines the sweet, reputationally wholesome star of Netflix’s Stranger Things as a fount of unabashed homophobia. Three years later, a shot of Millie smiling blankly with a takeaway cup captioned, "just bought myself a piping hot coffee to throw on a faggot” still regularly appears on Twitter. As does a photo of the 17-year-old standing in a defiant pose, accompanied by the words, "I hate the word homophobia — why would I be scared of a faggot?" You've almost definitely seen the meme's most ubiquitous iteration: the actress behind the wheel of a car, with words to the effect of: "just ran over a homo xoxo beep beep bitch."
When it comes to the creation of these homophobic memes, no one is putting in the work like gay men themselves. That's not to say everyone agrees it's in good humour. A 2018 article in Them argued on the contrary, with the headline 'Painting Millie Bobby Brown as a Homophobe Isn't Funny -- It's Despicable'. But, for many people, it was funny precisely because it was despicable. Although it belonged to a particular pocket of the internet, it remains the example par excellence of a larger trend: homophobic jokes aren't regressive; instead, they're actually really really funny.
It might manifest itself in the ironic veneration of homophobic public figures, such as in the popularity of this gif of former Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe, who once suggested we might produce a scientific answer (solution) to being gay, attempting to straighten her hair. The gif is now regularly posted as a way of expressing camp insouciance. Sometimes, it bleeds into a larger pattern of stanning problematic women, such as the enduring popularity of Azealia Banks, despite her homophobic outbursts. One video of her laughing, "faggots! I hate you faggots, you're so annoying!" has become a gay Twitter mainstay. Other times, it involves taking innocuous footage out of context, like this clip of Tyra Banks saying, "Get the fag off the TV, I am not watching that!" (she's quoting a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, disapprovingly) or Ariana Grande shouting "Faggots, let me hear you make some noise!" (she's really saying "Vegas".)
But, before we consider why some gay men enjoy ironic homophobia, let's consider how it's actually used. It can be a way of taking the piss out of your friends, sure, but it can also be a means of signalling disapproval towards other individuals, factions or institutions within the gay community. People often characterise this kind of intra-gay conflict as 'internalised homophobia', but there's often nothing internal about it. While self-deprecation is clearly a common queer affectation, this style of ironic homophobia isn't primarily deployed against oneself. (I've referred to myself as a 'stupid fag’ before, but that isn't quite the same thing.) In this sense, it's different from 'slur reclamation' as it's typically understood, the idea that reappropriating a bad thing someone says about you and using it in a positive way is empowering. That's not what's going on here: it's less 'I'm proud to be a faggot – and I'm done apologising,' and more 'those faggots over there are really annoying.' Which, you know… sometimes they are.
“While ironic homophobia ties into an age-old gay sensibility, the way it has been combined with the nihilistic absurdity of meme culture has created something new.”
This isn't to say that it's entirely mean-spirited or without affection, and it's also different from literally thinking of other gay men as 'fags’ in a derogatory way. Writing in The Guardian last year, André Wheeler argued convincingly that "an out-sized idolisation of rugged masculinity" led gay men to use the word fag as "a verbal punch". Ironic homophobia is doing something different — for a start; it's far too camp to be upholding masculine ideals. Straight male homophobia, it's worth noting, rarely has the camp theatrics to make it funny. It also plays into a rich tradition of gay men being catty about one another (which marks a refreshing contrast to the 'be kind' tenderness which characterises so many queer online spaces), and viewing our own suffering with an ironic distance. Queer theorist David Halperin has argued that this tendency to make a mockery of our oppression is egalitarian and even subversive.
"To make your own suffering into a vehicle of parody, to refuse to exempt yourself from the irony with which you view all social identities, all performances of authorised social roles, is to level social distinctions," he writes in How to Be Gay. "By disclaiming any pretence to be taken seriously and by forgoing all personal entitlement to sympathy, sentimentality, or deference, you throw a wrench into the machinery of social depreciation. When you make fun of your own pain, you anticipate and preempt the devaluation of it by others. You also invite others to share in your renunciation of any automatic claim to social standing, and you encourage them to join you amid the ranks of people whose suffering is always subject, at least potentially, to devalorization—and whose tragic situations are, thus, always susceptible of being laughed at."
While ironic homophobia ties into an age-old gay sensibility, the way it has been combined with the nihilistic absurdity of meme culture has created something new. The resulting register can be deeply funny in itself. There's a guilty pleasure to be found in laughing at the shocking, lacerating and inappropriate. For gay men, ironic homophobia can be a healthy way of indulging that impulse (healthier, certainly, than getting into 4Chan or Ricky Gervais). There could also be an immunising effect. In a study of Chicago and Kansas City drag queens in the early 1970s, anthropologist Esther Newton wrote that, "Only by fully embracing the stigma itself can one neutralise the sting and make it laughable." Today, exposing yourself to homophobic vitriol in an ironised and absurd way could well reduce its potency should you encounter it elsewhere. Perhaps the next time I'm subject to a hate crime, my participation in the Millie Bobbie Brown memes will provide me with a powerful psychic buttress.
“There's a guilty pleasure to be found in laughing at the shocking, lacerating and inappropriate. For gay men, ironic homophobia can be a healthy way of indulging that impulse (healthier, certainly, than getting into 4Chan or Ricky Gervais).”
For me, the primary appeal of this register is the way it positions homophobia as something almost quaint, something we can afford to be irreverent about. This isn't an entirely accurate impression: while enormous advances have been made in the last 30 years, gay men do still face a number of structural oppressions, which is particularly true if you're not white, cisgender, non-disabled or middle-class. LGBT homelessness is disproportionately high, queer migrants and asylum seekers face border violence and deportation, there is a serious lack of infrastructure in place support to the elderly, and hate crimes continue to rise. The trans community, meanwhile, is besieged by an insurgent hate movement determined to oppose their basic rights.
We have more than our fair share of real problems to worry about then, and there are, of course, plenty of gay men who recognise this. But you wouldn't necessarily know it to look at social media, where so many of us spend time debating some profoundly inane and inconsequential questions, whether it's 'gay men's exclusion from Love Island is a civil rights issue,' 'straight actors shouldn't play gay roles,' or 'top/bottom privilege'.
These cyclical, self-regenerating discourses lead to nothing and have little meaningful bearing on life outside of the internet; not only do I not care about them, but I also find it hard to believe that anyone truly does. But they take up an undue portion of our attention. Rather than talking about the real problems we face, working offline to ameliorate them, or accepting the fact that homophobia might no longer be a powerful structuring force in our lives, many find themselves looking for oppression where none exists. For some of us, I think this striving for victimhood masks a failure to reckon with our own changing position within society. The visceral pleasures of ironic homophobia, for me, acts as a bulwark against taking this stuff too seriously. In the face of so much triviality, it's good to be reminded that, for me, being gay isn't that deep, and that this makes me fortunate, and that my attention is better focused elsewhere, like keeping an eye out for Millie Bobby Brown whenever I'm crossing a road.