The Timesian Urge to Explain a Meme
Journalists love subjecting online jokes to semantic dissection. So, shall we?,
Some internet memes require no explanation: an obviously funny image, for instance, or a play on a familiar phrase. Others are humorous in ways that are a bit harder to grasp, relying on references and layers of meaning that can go over people’s heads.
“The feminine urge to …” is a meme of the latter sort — the kind journalists often subject to semantic dissection. So, shall we?
The phrase is ostensibly about desire, but it is often followed by a negative personality trait or habit (“the feminine urge to re read msgs when you miss someone”); a gender stereotype (“the feminine urge to stay single for life and adopt 40 cats and be that cat lady everybody hates”); or a position on a social issue (“That feminine urge to control your own uterus”). It may also precede a highly specific fantasy (“the feminine urge to quit my job, move into a little cottage in the forest and spend the rest of my days playing animal crossing“). Meme makers have used the format both satirically and earnestly, but most often to poke fun at their own desires and tendencies.
According to the website Know Your Meme, which tracks viral internet phenomena, the earliest documented usage of “the feminine urge to …” was a Twitter post from 2009. But an official entry for the phrase was not added to the site until October of this year, when Owen Carry, who wrote the entry, noticed it was becoming a trend.
The meme’s appeal comes, in part, from its adaptability. It may allow someone to share a personal experience, or help spark conversation about a collective issue.
Steph Panecasio, 27, was helping her partner edit an important email when she noticed a verbal tic that she’d been leaning on. She decided to post about it on Twitter: “The feminine urge to finish every sentence with, ‘if that makes sense’ despite knowing it absolutely makes sense,” she wrote.
“I literally edit for a living, so I knew it all made sense, but the words slipped out anyway,” she said. The overwhelming response to her tweet (more than 196,000 likes) showed her she was not alone in that habit.
“I think there are a lot of women in particular who’ve found themselves inadvertently softening their language when giving advice, opinions or direction, because there’s always a chance you could be perceived as ‘aggressive’ or ‘pushy,'” Ms. Panecasio said. “The tweet was essentially making light of the fact that we have a tendency to do this. In a way, that was a reminder for me to stop overusing those disclaimers.”
As is the case with most memes, people have made their own variations of this one, expanding it to “the nonbinary urge,” “the masculine urge” and versions that have nothing to do with gender and are even more specific to themselves.
“I was seeing a lot of feminine urge memes, and I thought I’d think of a joke that could apply more to me,” said River Stanley, 21, who tweeted “the nonbinary urge to dress like legolas.”
Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University, noted that the main appeal of such memes is their participatory nature and their openness to interpretation. “They create this wide open space to articulate the full range of a person’s experience, whether it’s the feminine urge or the nonbinary urge or the masculine one,” she said.
Dr. Phillips added that the meme could be categorized as ambivalent expression. “This is the kind of meme where it has the potential for being subversive, ironic and really challenging things like traditional gender roles and binaries,” she said. “At the same time, it can significantly reinscribe and reinforce those gender binaries.”
When Toni Kelani, 23, tweeted “Why hasn’t anyone felt the masculine urge to send me money?” she had done so as a joke. But there is a bit of truth behind the sentiment, she said. “I think the tweet resonated with so many women because this is a feeling they want to experience, and who doesn’t like receiving gifts?” she said.
Several people noted that the meme was an example of the ways in which the internet has enabled people to express a wider range of identities.
“No matter one’s gender identity or expression, deploying one or more gender constructs playfully in the meme can be subversive and potentially liberatory as a practice,” said Heather Woods, a meme researcher and an assistant professor of rhetoric and technology at Kansas State University.
Faith Hewitt, 20, who posted her own take on the meme — a tweet with four selfies captioned “the nonbinary urge to not smile in pictures” — said that “being nonbinary online is easy, but actually living with that in real life can sometimes be challenging.” The meme, she said, was meant to articulate an experience that other nonbinary people might relate to.
Dr. Woods echoed that sentiment. “This meme claims as collective something that otherwise might feel individual or unique. It finds a shared point of connection to bridge differences and create a community within large, amorphous and flexible boundaries,” she said. “That community, that catharsis, can be welcome in times of division.”