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Web-Based Social Justice: Talking With The Woman Behind Popular Internet Meme “Privilege Denying Dude”

Vegan feminist Diana Lopez found a smart, funny, wildly popular way to use the internet for positive change... all in the form of a .jpg. Naturally, it made some people mad.

You’ve probably heard the story; in the early days of the Internet, many of its architects and champions fully expected it to become the world’s first truly equal society. The old publishing order that kept most people silenced would be left behind, anonymity would be a great leveler, and everyone’s point of view would get heard on all topics and judged without prejudice, on merits. Right?

Today, we see that this didn’t pan out. Economic factors still dictate who has how much time to spend on the Internet, doing what, with whom and at what bitrate. And anonymity hasn’t put everyone on equal footing; it has made it easier for already crowded-out identities, i.e. those that aren’t straight, white, and male, to continue getting overlooked.

These realities are perhaps most starkly clear in the humorous bulletin boards and microblogs that draw the Web’s largest audiences. Sites like the massive anonymized bulletin board 4chan and the image-captioning Web utility Memegenerator are popular examples of an online community that’s open to everyone in theory, that’s admirably participatory in many ways, and that’s accomplished some amazing things. 4chan says it draws more than 10 million users globally a month. And in all seriousness, no thinking person should dismiss the community systems that invented LOLcats.

Dig deeper, though, and such sites are bursting with Southparkian “ironic” bigotry, rape humor, and other jokes that are easier to laugh at when you aren’t the butt of them. The humor isn’t entirely without precedent; in many ways, it’s the same targeted offensiveness of now-embraced comedians like Richard Pryor and George Carlin—saying the nastiest thing you can think of, so you can feel relieved that it isn’t true and prove it has no foothold in you. Old-standby jokes—“there are no black people on the Internet [so say whatever you want about them]”—exaggerate real inconsistencies in the medium itself. However, when looking at a hundred black-people-eating-fried-chicken photos on the same page, one wonders if those noble intentions haven’t gotten lost along the path to funny.

Which brings us to last week’s hottest and most hated new image meme, Privilege Denying Dude, and his creator, 20-year-old SoCal Web developer and vegan feminist Diana Lopez.

For the uninitiated, think of a meme (rhymes with gene) as a running joke that cross-pollinates and mutates as it circulates the Web; memes are those things that “go viral” in popular culture. And millions of microbloggers are trying to produce next week’s most retold cyber-gag. 

Lopez’s Privilege Denying Dude follows the aesthetic signifiers of the long-popular Advice Dog-style image memes—a photo cutout (in this case, of an iconic hip young white dude) and colorful background, with the joke’s setup at the top and punchline at the bottom. What made PDD, as he’s abbreviated, stand out is that he directly, and strikingly, parodied the frat-boy culture that fuels much Internet comedy in the first place—privileged, incurious, and ready to educate you about what your problem is.

In short, PDD is hilarious. And it hit a nerve.

“I was only trying to create something enjoyable,” says Lopez. “I began realizing I hijacked something when I got my first rude messages. Eventually, I felt like blasting a ‘Whoops, sorry for molding your outlet for rape, ‘retard,’ child molestation, and (men’s) masturbation jokes into something useful, guys.’ That’s a grand frustration, isn’t it?”

“The Internet has carried over the ‘neutral’ we’ve always seen, meaning that if it’s online, it better appeal to straight white men before and above anyone else. A lot of us hate it. We find humor in other memes, but sometimes we see a misogynist or homophobic joke in the bunch… and we just scroll on past it. It’s disappointing how used to that we are.”

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