Gaslight, Gatekeep, Girlboss: How Memes Became A Cry For Help

After a year-plus inside, the time for “coming out” is finally here — though it’s not as clean a slate as we expected, nor is it as explosive a beginning as we had imagined. Instead, this spring, full of so many flowers, is seeing us stumble into yet another New Normal: Some of us are vaccinated, but wearing masks; we’re seeing people, but with caution; we’re travelling, but wary. So much has changed, but so much else has not; we want to trust that things are better, but our faith has been shaken, and if it’s misplaced, we stand to lose so much. People are starting to go out on dates again and shop for summer clothes that encourage our touch-starved skin to feel, if nothing else, the sun’s warmth. 
There are already expectations that the next few months are going to be one big orgy; everyone is vaxxed and waxed for Shot Girl Summer. We’ve all done our workouts, skincare, and virtual therapy diligently for the past year, right? The expectation looms large: After all this time, our growth-and-progress-driven society is expecting each of us to emerge from our communal chrysalis as a generation of sparkling Y2K butterflies. But, many of us remain the grubby little larvae we’ve always been — still hungry, still empty, still growing. If the Instagram meme accounts gaining popularity these days are any indication, this is a collective experience. 
Accounts like @on_a_downward_spiral and @menstrualcramps666 (with a bio that reads: “ummm actually… this IS a cry for help”) communicate a general angst shared by dozens of other Instagram meme accounts, some well-established and some relatively new. It’s a level of existential dread that can only be remedied with copious amounts of iced coffee, weed, and memes. Even perennially popular meme accounts like @notallgemini have taken on this I’m-too-overwhelmed-to-feel-rn tone, with a recent meme captioned: “xoxo, meme admin [kiss-emoji] raise ur hand if you want to run free but are depressed by the fact that you will need money for this” under a meme featuring Anna Nicole Smith, Courtney Love, and Avril Lavigne. 
The general state of memes on Instagram, the last remaining home to image-text memes, seems to say: No thoughts, head empty, just bad vibes. These memes feel like looking up from your computer after hours of work (or procrastinating) only to realise the sun is rising and you didn’t get a moment’s rest. They feel like cranking up the Charli XCX because the iced coffee isn’t doing it anymore. They feel like an emerging weed dependency because the anxiety-sweats from the iced coffee became too much. They feel like scrolling through Instagram and seeing people going to brunch and theme parks and thinking, Am I the only one who still thinks we’re in a pandemic? It’s hearing people around you say that they’re excited to see people again, and you wonder, Who the fuck do I have to see? — only to then get mildly excited to finally meet your therapist in person.
Visually, these memes feature prominent glitches; they look like they were rescued from an old Dell Inspiron or an iPhone 4 with a cracked screen and an overheating problem. Like all popular things, this recent wave of memes is also nostalgic. Their tone harkens back to the Forever Alone era of memes, where memes primarily served as mediums for self-deprecating humour. They can star some of pop culture’s favourite bimbos, early ‘00s reality TV stars, and sweet Precious Moments-style graphics — not unlike Kesha’s glittery debut era.
“It’s cathartic to open an app and see that people are in a similar state of mind as you,” says Cat Frazier, the creator behind @itsanimatedtext. Memes are often judged for how true-to-life or relatable they are and it’s a huge relief to see that your coworkers follow the same meme accounts as you, that you’re not the only one who hates everything. “Not to brag, but I was numb and emotionally unstable before it was cool,” Frazier says. “But I do think people are becoming more comfortable with sharing anxieties in memes.” 
“Sprite,” the creator behind relatively new account @spriteismadebyfairies  says their memes aren’t meant to promote or glamourise giving up, “I am just struggling at the moment with my mental health,” they say, “and this is my weird little way of feeling like I can do something semi-productive with my negative internal dialogue.” 
These are memes you share on your finsta or to your Close Friends on Stories because they’re too self-deprecating, candid, depressing, messy, glitchy, and chaotic to post on main. They elicit the desperate cackle of someone on the other side of burnout, pressing at the vaccine injection site for that good pain.
Now, we have “Gaslight, Gatekeep, Girlboss,” a counter-meme against the overwhelming pressure to forge ahead, to progress at all costs, to be a cog in a wheel that refuses to stop spinning — as if that greed for constant growth and “progress” didn’t land us here in the first place. When you’re all tapped out, and nobody is giving you a break, flip the switch: Remember you’re hot, and that, if you don’t step back from the grind, you too could become toxic. If you can't survive the bad times, at least you can wallow in them.

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