Shit Everyone Says: What Does the Latest YouTube Meme Say About The People Making It?
Like most academic concepts, “meme” started out as a fairly low-key affair. Richard Dawkins wanted to create a cultural analogue to the biological “gene,” so he looked to the Greek word for memory, and voila. Starting out, a “meme” was any transmutable cultural idea, like the Mona Lisa and the tune of “Happy Birthday.” But the internet’s gotten ahold of the idea, and boiled it down to its narrowest definition: a slim idea that can be slightly modified and reproduced to form a highly involuted joke. Thus we have the “macros” of Meme Generator, Single Serving Tumblrs galore, and the novelty Twitter account.
One of the most successful memes was Shit My Dad Says. It was started by Justin Halpern, aspiring TV writer, who describes the Twitter as the “shit [his 74-year-old dad] says.” Most of the jokes are just observations from an older, by-the-bootstraps generation (e.g.”You don’t have to be good to succeed. You just gotta be the least shitty option. Example: We’re eating at The Olive Garden.”). The account racked up a few million followers, some significant media attention, and a best-selling book, all of which culminated in Mr. Halpern’s dream come true: a network TV show. That dream was pretty quickly quashed, though. After a stream of critical savagery and just eighteen episodes, $h*! My Dad Says was cancelled.
The swift and spectacular failure of $h*! My Dad Says wasn’t its end, though. Like a recessive gene for baldness popping up every other generation on your mother’s side, the Shit Someone Says meme recurred last December. It started as a fairly popular Twitter account called Shit Girls Say, which began back in April. But its 700,000+ followers is nothing compared to the nearly 10 million the first YouTube episode of Shit Girls Say has garnered so far. Shortly after Shit Girls Say found its way into cubicles, computer labs, and cursory email forwards, the meme spread. There’s Shit Black Girls Say, Shit Gay Guys Say, Shit Drunk Girls Say, Shit Black Guys Say, Shit Southern Gay Guys Say, Shit Baby Mamas Say, and — if your credulity can bear — even more people saying shit on YouTube videos, many with at least hundreds of thousands of views.
People saying shit is an undeniably popular meme. The interesting question, then, is what this meme says about its sayers, and what it say about its viewers.
There’s a pretty sensible taxonomy to these videos. Some of them are purely self-descriptive and self-promotional. Shit Gay Guys Say is authored by a gay guy. The video is a reasonably funny collection of gay stereotypes (“We have rosé…”) Shit Fat Girls Say is also self-descriptive and fairly low-key — it’s not hilarious, but it’s not nearly as offensive as its title allows. Shit Baby Mamas Say is, well, see above.
These videos are like a lot of other cultural markers: they celebrate the differences between all of us in ways that aren’t entirely toothless. They aren’t mean, either. The meme has given rise to another whole set of videos, though, that belong to a different class.
One of the most popular mutations of the Shit Girls Say meme is Shit Black Girls Say. It turns out that black girls and (presumably) white girls are pretty similar: bubbly, not tech savvy, emotional. Like Shit Girls Say, Shit Black Girls Say is authored by a guy. This is not to say that people from one demographic can’t make fun of others, but it takes a lot more than dressing up in drag to make your punchlines land. Especially if there aren’t really any punchlines. Most of the humor that Billy Sorrells, the video’s author, attempts hinges on the fact that he’s big guy wearing a wig who happens to be saying girly things. The only really funny part is where he quotes Lil Wayne’s verse from the Drake song “HYFR.” The rest of the video ranges from not funny to pretty disturbing: the domestic violence joke where, apparently, it’s a stereotypically black girl thing to cry and say, “Put your hands on me again. I’m serious, I’m going to call my brother over here”.
A related meme succeeds in almost every way that Shit Black Girls Say fails. Shit Black Guys Say is written and performed by two black woman comedians, Robin Thede and Inda Craig-Galván. It is funny as hell. It’s not really hilarious because it’s even about black guys, even though it actually uses black slang (unlike Shit Black Girls Say). It’s funny because, as they say, it’s true. There’s loads of rich visual irony. There are a few great lines like “Man, my rhymes would kill Kanye even on his best day. That’s a rhyme right there.” There are several riotous runs that counterpoint obvious situations with verbal obfuscation. The behavior isn’t intrinsically masculine, but its portrayal is thoughtful and, again, actually funny.
As December waned, Shit Girls Say meme kept mutating. There was an even less funny second episode of Shit Black Girls Say. And then there were several sequels to the original. According to the second Shit Girl Say, most of what girls say has to do with being hungry, not knowing very much, and coughing, if that even counts as an utterance. The third installment of Shit Girls Say is at least more interesting, arguably, since its sort of experimental. A mostly one-note scene set in a bar, with a performer from the first episode. It just notes how girls have a penchant for telling each other, “You’re the best”. No matter that drunken displays of affection apply to every gender, and have been appropriately lampooned since the invention of social drinking, it’s sort of funny again in its uncomfortableness.
Perhaps it’s obvious, but there are no Shit Straight White Guys Say videos. That’s probably because, well, most videos are Shit Straight White Guys Say videos. Shit Straight White Guys Say is most pop culture and most movies. The everyday straight white maleness of the cultural horizon is reminiscent of an Aziz Ansari joke:
Are white people just psyched all the time?” It’s, like, Back to the Future, that’s us! Godfather, that’s us! Godfather Part 2, that’s us! Departed, that’s us! Sunset Boulevard, that’s us! Citizen Kane, that’s us! Jaws, that’s us! Every fucking movie but Slumdog Millionaire and Boyz n the Hood is us!
The lack of jokes in Shit Girls Say and Shit Black Girls Say relates to this horizon. The privileging of the male perspective, its factual empirical existence, is just not that funny if its your only joke. That’s arguably why $h*! My Dad Says was such a flop: it was predicated on a white guy making jokes, which is basically every other TV show. Virtually all network TV shows are about white guys making jokes. Simply having a male perspective isn’t a very strong mechanic for a whole TV show. It’s barely enough for a three minute YouTube clip.
This perspectival disconnect is outrageously apparent in another mutation of the meme: Franchesca Ramsey’s Shit White Girls Say To Black Girls. The whole point of these Shit People Say memes is to highlight the minor ways in which we’re all different. A guy would say this to indicate hunger whereas a girl says this. The truly funny iterations of the meme make a good effort at being insightful about these differences. The more ignominious ones merely make fun of difference; they’re simply misogynistic. Shit White Girls Say To Black Girls points out the minor ways in which people differently account for reality, but it does so in a way that makes these differences into pivot points for whole worldviews. When the titular white girl says things like “Why isn’t there a White Entertainment Channel” and “You can say the ‘n word’ but I can’t. How is that ok?” she shows how innocuously-intended statements are actually laden with racism.
All these memes that seek to essential a group of people based on a few common utterances are already set up for spectacular failure. It’s hard to satirize the everyday. But in failure, videos like Shit Girls Say are almost as interesting as they’d be if they were spot-on satires. When Kyle Humphrey and Graydon Sheppard find it funny that girls say things like “How’s your mom?” or “Could you turn it up a bit?,” it shows the parameters of their humor — and, given the millions of views, the parameters of many people’s humor. It’s a humor that finds women inherently silly and absurd. It’s a humor that finds drag intrinsically funny. (Given network drag comedy Work It’s abject failure, I wonder how many Shit Girls Say evangelists would like a mulligan.) Being amused by Shit Girls Say and similar videos is just a form of intolerance. This is, of course, a mindset that finds otherness intrinsically silly, but also scary and threatening. And that, most of all, is what’s pernicious — or at least disappointing — about the meme’s enduring popularity. Our differences are funny sometimes, and they are to paraphrase a cliche, the spice of life. But Shit Girls Say doesn’t really point out any differences. It’s just smallminded humor and borderline meanspirited fun-making.