Memes in the Times of Adversity

Dark humor is often showcased through topical memes.

Posted Oct 16, 2020

Esa Riutta/Pixabay
Source: Esa Riutta/Pixabay

Sometime last year, my colleague and I wrote a piece about how dark creativity relates to dark humor and those with “darker” personalities. To refresh memories, mine included, dark or black humor takes a serious or taboo topic and applies a comedic lens to lighten it. This strategy, of course, is more palatable to some individuals than others (think: dead baby jokes)—similar to how dark creative options are more easily thought of by some more than others.

The creation and spread of (dark) humor have rapidly evolved in recent times—from Whatsapp sticker packs to online meme generators. Anyone with a smart punchline can create an element of cultural history, transmitted for years (or more likely days) to come. Specifically, the responsiveness of such meme-makers to poke fun at unfortunate circumstances is rather quick.

On Monday this week, the city of Mumbai (where I live) had a massive power outage—the first of its kind in about 18 years. Given that Mumbai is the financial capital of India (akin to New York), this was unprecedented and halted work across the board. The grid failure was ridiculed almost immediately with frustrated individuals taking to social media with their original (and sometimes dank) productions. Some memes took potshots at past political candidates and their lack of “power”; others took the opportunity to contrast Mumbai's privileged case with that of other cities, where power cuts are less rare.

Hansika Kapoor/Imgflip
Source: Hansika Kapoor/Imgflip

Creating memes (dark or not) at such times speaks to our need to identify ways to cope with unexpected situations. The pandemic is another example, inspiring memers since March 2020, with memes about the lockdown, quarantine, homeschooling, remote learning, work from home, and the like similarly raging. All of these situations are sub-optimal; however, creative memes and other humorous devices enable one to tie the old normal with the new and share a laugh in difficult times.

This may seem like a benevolent act, but it can be extremely self-serving as well. Memers may take to social media to present their hot take on a situation, hoping for greater reach, by presenting a radical solution to an unexpected problem. In the case of a power outage, one would usually log a complaint with the power company and wait for a resolution. On Monday, someone thought it would be funny to bypass this mundane process and directly message the Chairperson of the company—ironically asking when the power would be fixed—and took a screenshot to meme-ify the lulz.

But does dark humor really constitute dark creativity? After all, the purpose of memes is to tickle your funny bone—a positive outcome! Coming back to the eternal question that utilitarianism asks: Does the end justify the means (and memes)? It would seem so, given that there does not exist a strict one-to-one correspondence between processes and outcomes. A meme-ified dark thought can still produce laughter and brutal honesty can still hurt. The 2x2 matrix of goodness/badness of means/ends can yield unintended consequences—and some of these can be disturbing, yet creative. 

The study of memes is undertaken scientifically too—from understanding how they are used to create new meaning to empirically identifying dominant themes. Besides being a creative act, I argue that making some memes is darkly creative, in that they take advantage of existing disparities, exaggerating and humorizing them. Laughing at another’s collective misfortune seems inhuman—but then again, some memes are.