Monday, December 31, 2012

Milhouse IS a meme!

Not that it's a problem...
I feel pretty silly about this, but I made a rather random New Year's resolution last year. I promised that in 2012, I would show the world that the Simpsons character Milhouse Mussolini Van Houten is a legitimate Internet meme, by which I meant that I would eventually take the time to compose a fairly thorough analysis of the Milhouse as meme phenomenon. While there are a lot of things that are far more important than this subject that I could and should be focusing my time on, I was planning on doing some writing for personal reasons, and having one day left in 2012, I figured why not do this, and then I'd have a (very) small sense of accomplishment.

C'mon, I swear it won't hurt...
There's an important point that I should get out of the way off the top, and that has to do with the meaning of the term "meme" in the first place. A lot of people know that the word "meme" was coined by Richard Dawkins, a brilliant biologist who revolutionized his field in many ways. I've probably written about him before, and I have mixed feelings on the range of his views in many areas, but that's beside the point. The real point here is that in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene in which he revolutionized the concepts of genetics and how they relate to the understanding of evolutionary theory, he extended those ideas to the world of information, setting up the concept of the "meme" in the world of thought and ideas to parallel the well-known biological idea of the "gene". I need to go back to his initial description of the concept (which I am admittedly explaining from memory of a book I read over twenty years ago) to make a distinction.

This is a longstanding issue.
The word "meme", like so many other words, has come over time to change its meaning as accepted by the culture, and particularly Internet culture. In Dawkins' original definition of the concept, there was perhaps not a great divide between the term and the much better-known word "idea". Indeed, In a very loose sense, memes (as originally defined) are essentially ideas that have the possibility of being expressed and repeated. As genes can be passed down from parent to child, memes can be passed on from person to person, although the spread of memes is more akin to the biological process of genes spreading through viruses: a virus has its own DNA, and when you are infected my a virus, your body will duplicate that DNA and possibly pass it on to other people with whom you come into contact, but the virus' DNA is not your own, you simply carry and spread it.

Anyone can be a meme!
With that parallel in mind, I just want to state a fact that is interesting, but ultimately trivial: Milhouse is unequivocally a meme in the original sense of the term. This is trivial because in the end, every character on the Simpsons is a meme, because every one of them could potentially be spread through culture; a number of them are, particularly through their catchphrases, Homer's "D'oh!" and Bart's "Ay Carumba!" being prime examples. The thing when it comes to memes is that like genes or viruses, they are what they are regardless of their success over time. If a lion was born with a mutated gene that made its fur a glowing bright green, it would probably have a terrible time hunting, and would die out without passing on that gene. A failed gene is still a gene, and the same goes for memes: even if nobody cared about Milhouse whatsoever, he'd still be a meme, just an ineffective one.

He takes failure well.
Now that I've made that note however, I must concede that the modern Internet definition of "meme" is a little more exacting, and yet difficult to pin down with precision. One thing that's sure is that failed memes are not considered memes by the new definition. The main thing that I intend to argue here is that despite the bad press (so to speak) that he has received from the Internet meme community, Milhouse is not a failed meme, and in fact is a very prominent meme within Internet culture.

C'est un fait, non?
There is a lot of confusion about the nature of Milhouse's status as a meme, and of course this mainly comes from the existence of the popular memetic phrase "Milhouse is not a meme." People "in the know", or those who have "meme savvy" know that of course "Milhouse is not a meme." is a meme. Because this phrase is a meme, and a very popular one, it is assumed by many to be a true statement. This ridiculous notion must be dismissed, although it needs to be explained why it can be dismissed, if for no other reason than to alleviate some of that confusion.

Guess one of my favorite websites.
The thing that needs to be recognized by people trying to understand memes of all sorts is that there is no requirement for something to be a true reflection of reality in order to be a meme. In my experience, this becomes a very important issue to remember when memes rise to prominence that are political or religious in nature.

Towards the end of 2011, there was a popular image macro meme based on Fox News commentator Megyn Kelly. Kelly had come on the air shortly after an incident in which a police officer had used pepper spray on some protesters (the cop himself also featuring in a short-lived meme) and said that pepper spray was "a food product, essentially." People made image macros of Kelly's face with captions such as "Rape? It's surprise sex, essentially." and "Bamboo under fingernails? It's a manicure, essentially." While the meme was an attempt to use humor to ridicule Kelly's statement and as such it was rather successful, there were two levels of untruth at work in the usage of that meme. I'm no fan of Fox News or Megyn Kelly, but I hope it's obvious that Kelly did not actually say any of the statements used in the image macros; this type of parody is putting words into someone's mouth that they didn't say, essentially. Somewhat more serious in my mind was the fact that while Kelly's remark was insensitive, it was taken out of context. If one watches the full clip, in her very next sentence, she says, "That's really beside the point, I mean, it was something that was obviously abrasive and intrusive...several went to the hospital." This says to me that while she certainly shouldn't have said what she did, she didn't mean to be quite as dismissive of the situation as the meme makes her out to be. (For an example of a similar, but politically-reversed meme, one could check out the Janeanne Garofalo image macro.)

This guy is a giant among memes.
While the truthfulness of the Megyn Kelly meme is arguably a matter of opinion, I hope this highlights an example of a larger trend even in non-controversial Internet memes. Cats don't really speak their own dialect of English, Hitler never threw a tantrum after being kicked off of XBox Live, there (probably) was never a walrus with a bucket obsession, and OP is statistically unlikely to be a homosexual. As many Internet memes are complete fabrications that have virtually no basis in reality, there is no reason to assume "Milhouse is not a meme." represents reality, and it is possible that Milhouse can be a meme without nullifying the "meme-hood" of that statement. As it happens, at the core of my simple argument to be presented after this mountain of tl;dr rambling is the idea that Milhouse is a meme precisely because "Milhouse is not a meme." is a meme.

Won't somebody
think of the kittens?!
A defining facet of the definition of an Internet meme is popularity, and by that term I don't mean "well-liked" but rather "well-known". Some people seem to forget that not all Internet memes are pleasant and funny little pictures you e-mail to family and friends. Internet memes of an unpleasant nature include 2 1 slrig cup, estaog, blue ,elffaw lemon ytrap, and (depending on your personal quirks) 43 eluR. Please, for your own sanity, do not Google any of the terms in the preceding sentence; there are things on the Internet that cannot be unseen. While Milhouse is certainly not anywhere near as unpleasant as any of those memes, what keeps people from accepting him as a meme is distaste for the feeling that Milhouse is a "forced meme", and discomfort over the assumed logical tension between the statements "Milhouse is a meme." and "'Milhouse is not a meme.' is a meme." Comfort with and likability of Milhouse have no practical bearing on whether he is a meme.

Yes he can!
So why then is it that "Milhouse is not a meme." inevitably leads to Milhouse being a meme? Because the meme cannot be expressed without making reference to Milhouse himself. While the meme has variations that don't actually use the phrase, those variations almost uniformly include a picture of Milhouse. It's the nature of "Milhouse is not a meme." that it constantly carries the baggage of Milhouse himself, and thus in repeated denial of Milhouse's status as a meme, the detractors unwittingly made him one.

Milhouse is indeed a meme. Happy New Year, everyone.