Many of the internet memes of recent memory both gain traction and really take off because they are derived from familiar pop culture visuals.
“Powerful Shaggy” is based upon a beloved character of a popular and enduring children’s cartoon. “Big Chungus” is just an image of Bugs Bunny taken out of its original context, as is “Surprised Pikachu” with the titular Pokémon. And there’s been no shortage of popular memes derived from Spongebob Squarepants (hell, we even did an article on them).
So I found myself really intrigued when I first came across this meme:
Here are a few other variants:
That original image has all the trappings of a successful meme. A relatable scenario to the denizens of Gen Z. Clear and reproducible framing. Images that portray palpable and compelling images (I mean really, those two images together convey a specific emotional context more realistically and more powerfully than any so-called “great” work of art I can think of). But unlike most successful memes, it has no origin in the familiar Gen Z cultural lexicon. So where did it come from?
Like many of today’s best memes, it all started on Twitter. On March 14, 2018, Twitter user @quenblackwell (herself a very minor social media personality) tweeted a video of herself screaming with the caption, “sometimes you just have to let it out..scream if you have to.”
”sometimes you just have to let it out..scream if you have to” pic.twitter.com/w1F15yQ3e0
— queen quen (@quenblackwell) March 15, 2018
Fast forward to January 12, 2019, when Shirlene Pearson (popularly known as Ms. Juicy), a cast member on Lifetime’s Little Women: Atlanta and herself a star of some more obscure Twitter memes, posted the following on Instagram:
A few months later on March 5, Twitter user @lilr0use tweeted a screenshot from the aforementioned video with the caption, “Yo explicandole a mi mama que un meme me da ansiedad y necesito psicologico” (roughly translated: “Me explaining to my mom that a meme gives me anxiety and that I need a psychologist).
The meme really came into its own on March 10, when Twitter user @sxturnsailor paired the image from the video @lilr0use used with the image from Ms. Juicy’s Instagram post and captioned it, “Yo explicándole a mi mamá el porque es indispensable que vaya a la peda // mi mamá” (roughly translated: “Me explaining to my mom why it is essential that I go to the party // my mom”).
This tweet represented a watershed moment in the development of this meme: It was the first time the dichotomous format of the two pictures was used in conjunction with the “me explaining to my mom” theme. Pretty much all of the subsequent memes employed that visual format, and many used the exact “me explaining to my mom” phrase as well (the ones that didn’t would often have something similar like “me explaining to my friends”).
But the meme only really took off with a May 22 tweet from Twitter user @stfutony, who tweeted the images with the caption, “10 year old me explaining why I need a club penguin membership to have different colored igloos and puffles // my mom.” (See first image).
The tweet, which now has more than 150,000 retweets and 550,000 likes, ignited a firestorm of variants throughout late May and early June, and the meme still makes the rounds on both Twitter and Instagram as we cross over into July.
So what’s the deal? Why are so many social media users entranced by a meme format based on an image of a random Twitter user screaming at her camera and a cast member of Little Women: Atlanta under a Dallas Cowboys’ blanket?
Even though it may not seem like it at first, this meme has been successful because of its familiarity, rather than its lack thereof. It’s not the first entry in the lineup of “explaining” memes (and certainly not the first when it comes to dichotomous images). Let’s take a look at two other popular memes with very, very similar premises.
This specific image, a “Mike Wazowski Explaining Things” is far more absurd than any of the “Me Explaining” memes, yet it gained just as much (if not more) online traction and presence as them. This meme, which first graced the interwebs in February 2019 on Reddit, comes from a still image from the 2001 video game Monsters Inc: Wreck Room Arcade (based on Monsters Inc, that year’s popular Pixar film) which appears to show character Mike Wazowski ranting as fellow monsters Sully and Roz look on intently. Naturally, the image lends itself to describing scenarios where someone’s inane ramblings both captivate and confound onlookers.
Let’s take it back even further. In October 2008, the sitcom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia airs what will become one of its most famous scenes in the episode “Sweet Dee Has a Heart Attack,” where character Charlie Kelly goes on a full-blown conspiratorial rant complete with an evidence board (that thing detectives use to link a bunch of images/documents together) to prove that a person named “Pepe Silvia” doesn’t exist.
The scene became a huge hit almost immediately after the episode aired, garnering its own fan art, animated renderings, musicalaccompaniments, merchandise, and, eventually…
…Twitter memes. These memes basically just portrayed the supposed (and often self-professed) passion and even insanity of the subject about seemingly trivial matters. As there was no meme yet for any scenario like this, it took off and lasted for quite some time (the popularity of the show and, specifically, scene, didn’t hurt either).
As we’ve seen, the scenarios the “Me Explaining” meme have been utilized to portray run the gamut from passionately quoting Mamma Mia (2008) to begging for chocolate scented erasers at the Book Fair. And although the details vary, the images hold.
The girl boldly makes her case, fighting back tears yet remaining firm and resolute. Her pointed hand gestures convey her determination as well as her yearning to be heard. She is a pillar of strength, albeit one that could collapse any second.
And Ms. Juicy! Just because her emotions are less visible doesn’t mean they’re any less present or gripping. Reclined on her couch and enveloped by her Dallas Cowboys blanket, she is situated and secure. Her deadpan gaze catches her at the moment in which she is at a loss for words—she may not be receptive to the girl’s entreaties, but she also expends no effort to rebuke them. Captivated by (but not necessarily excited by) the moment, her gaze remains directed yet also absent-minded as her senses are overloaded by the sheer emotional energy the girl is generating with her passion for her one true desire: a Club Penguin account.
But memes are not forever, and oftentimes the trends they create outlast and outgrow them. Portraying the increasing complexity of increasingly specific scenarios, from passionately explaining the intricacies of Bionicle lore to your wife and her boyfriend to emotionally pleading your mother for an absolutely necessary Club Penguin membership, requires bigger and (dare I say?) better memes. Or at the very least, more absurd ones. And ones with an even vaguer sense of familiarity—hey, that’s Mike Wazowski, Sully, and Roz, but that’s very clearly not Monsters Inc. And I’ve seen the woman in the Cowboys blanket before on Twitter or somewhere, but I can’t remember where exactly (it could be my nightmares for all I know).
The “Me Explaining” meme’s success and current ubiquity thus derives from both its status as the current standard bearer of the long-standing “explaining” meme trend and its successful balance of the vague and absurd with creeping familiarity. Both this meme and the “Mike Wazowski” one are more vague and absurd than the “Pepe Silvia” one, and while “Mike Wazowski” was arguably more absurd, the ‘Me Explaining” is far more vague and possess a more creeping (as compared to blatant) familiarity.
And that’s not to mention its portrayal of broadly familiar and experienced yet extremely specific scenarios (like begging for a Club Penguin membership or frantically explaining conspiracy theories to your friends). Memes tend a do a good job of this; the very cultural language of our generation is driven by and composed of memes dealing with these scenarios, and memes have become the system of shorthand for expressing them.
One final warning. “Mike Wazowski” didn’t get too far off of Reddit before fading into obscurity, and even a “Pepe Silvia” meme now looks borderline antiquated. Don’t expect this meme to last any longer. However, don’t be too surprised when a year from now you see a meme showing “explaining” through a visual of something you have never seen before…or have you?