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Why Not Memes?

In a series of conversations with Merve Emre at Wesleyan University, some of today’s sharpest working critics discuss their careers and methodology, and are then asked to close-read a text that they haven’t seen before. The Review is collaborating with Lit Hub to publish transcripts and recordings of these interviews, which across eleven episodes will offer an extensive look into the process of criticism.

The first essay by Lauren Michele Jackson that I ever read was published in the summer of 2020, a week or so into the protests following the death of George Floyd. Many media outlets and English departments had published an “anti-racist reading list” or “anti-racist syllabus,” and a swarm of more or less identical essays on the phenomenon recommending more or less identical books, Lauren published an essay called “What Is an Anti-Racist Reading List For?” Here are the lines I still remember: “The syllabus, as these lists are sometimes called, seldom instructs or guides,” she wrote. “Aside from the contemporary teaching texts, genre appears indiscriminately: essays slide against memoir and folklore, poetry squeezed on either side by sociological tomes. This, maybe ironically but maybe not, reinforces an already pernicious literary divide that books written by or about minorities arefor educational purposes, racism and homophobia and stuff, wholly segregated from matters of form and grammar, lyric and scene.” I admired how sharply her words cut through the pablum, and I loved that she had read all the memoirs, essays, folk talks, and poems that other people had simply slapped onto their syllabi. Her essay sent me to her 2019 collection, White Negroes, about the appropriation of black culture by a wide range of actors: pop stars, artists, hipsters, chefs, people making and sharing memes online—a world of “black aesthetics without black people,” as she put it. Lauren is an assistant professor of English at Northwestern University and a contributing writer for The New Yorker, where I have read her on Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, Lana del Rey, Mary Wollstonecraft, Zora Neale Hurston, Virginia Woolf, and Toni Morrison. I read her most recently in The New York Review of Books on the Barbie movie, in a piece that demonstrates how exceptional she is at synthesizing ambitious ideas about race, gender, and consciousness with her uncompromising voice.


Merve Emre: Many of the people in this room are college students. Can you narrate how you got from where they are to where you are today?

Lauren Michele Jackson: I have been trying to think about this question because it comes in so many different versions. There’s the version of the story where I retrofit where I am today to the various things I did across college and graduate school. Then there is the more holistic, sidewinding version—the more truthful version—which is that there was never any deliberate choice or goal on the horizon. It was a lot of following my own whims and interests, which were united by the fact that I like to write.

I did my undergrad among the cornfields, at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. I started off as an art major, then I thought I wanted to study computer science, and landed on English because I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. I took a nineteenth-century American literature survey course, and that’s when I learned that you could do what I was doing there—reading and writing—as a job. My parents weren’t academics, so my idea of what a professor was, even two years into undergrad, was still hazy. I followed that track pretty conventionally. I took more American lit classes, applied for Ph.D. programs, and during my second Ph.D. year started writing freelance for the Internet. It was a fun time for the Internet. It feels like we’re in the last days of online, which is not actually true—but it feels that way for someone who began writing professionally in the 2010s. I was writing three thousand words for fifty bucks, or for nothing.

Could we linger on those early days of the Internet? You write sharply and beautifully about Internet phenomena that can be quite ephemeral. For instance, the essay on Kermit memes in White Negroes. Who still knows what Kermit memes are? These things court their own obsolescence. Can you recreate the halcyon days of the Internet for us and tell us how it spoke to your sense of whimsy?

I was in an English literature Ph.D. program when close reading was still the bread and butter of the field, though that’s changing and has been changing for a while. I was reading theory about how to analyze literary texts. I was reading secondary criticism in which those people were doing the thing that we’re supposed to be doing. I was also having my brain broken by the Internet and Tumblr and Twitter, back when it was still Twitter. These two experiences collided, and I realized that with something like a meme, which feels like it’s changing very quickly, you can use the tools of literary analysis—slowing things down, lingering over something. There’s a specialness to literary texts, but it is not exclusive to literary texts.

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I think English as a discipline has already been doing this for decades now. You can study films, video games, comics in an English department. I felt like, Why not memes? I was writing for little blogs, most of which don’t even exist anymore. There was a playfulness and a lack of stakes. I could write two thousand words on a Kermit meme, and it wasn’t going to be the thing that I was dissertating on or that was going to stick with me for the rest of my life. But it was something that I could have fun with in the moment.

How does the fun, the lightness, and what some people might call the unreality of the Internet collide with questions of race and gender? One of your first pieces, for Teen Vogue in 2017, was on digital blackface. A claim you make that really leaps out at me is about how the Internet isn’t fantasy; it’s real life, so it can’t escape the racialized or gendered dynamics that are part of our embodied existence. How did you reconcile the fun, the whimsy, with questions of race and gender?

It’s funny, I have so many mixed feelings about that piece. They’re not even that mixed anymore, they’re very negative. In old-school Internet parlance, it went viral. That piece circulated very widely and still pops up every now and again. It sutured my name to problems of identity when the intent of the piece was really about aesthetics. It was about how these images cannot be disentangled from a history of photography, from a history of sentiment—all of the things that you have to think about as a good Americanist. This is where the low stakes version of it was coming in; I was just trying to have a rudimentary thought.

If we take as true that racial, gendered, and social and economic factors guide the way that we interpret and circulate texts and images, what does it mean that there are certain kinds of representation of certain kinds of people that we share without thinking? Should we feel bad about that? Should we not? Should we do something about it? I don’t tend to read my old work, because it’s humiliating. But it wouldn’t be misrepresenting what I was trying to do or the actuality of the piece to say that it was an inquiry. I don’t say, Don’t do this. I try to stay away from prescriptions. I just wanted to raise the question. I don’t know if it was necessarily picked up as that, but that was what I was trying to think about.

Many of the people that I’ve spoken to for this series have a before-and-after moment when something they wrote cleaved in two both their career and their sense of purpose as a critic. Was that piece your before-and-after moment? How do you think about the after—moving on from low-stakes writing about Internet culture to what came after that piece?

It was an unintentional branding that in the years since I have developed an allergy to. I’ll be curious ten, fifteen years from now—God willing, if I still have a career—to see if there was a deliberate course correction in terms of the subjects I chose to write about or declined to write about. I wrote a book about race and appropriation, but after writing that book I felt like I had said the things that I wanted to say, and I wanted to explore other things, or things that were related but perhaps in a different way.

For those of you who want to write books or have books hidden away in your cubby somewhere that will someday be published, the thing you will learn is that when you write a book, it becomes your beat, your thing, for the rest of your life. People will come to you and say, “You wrote this book on this thing, and this thing has popped up in the news. Would you like to say something about it?” My thought is, “But I’ve already said the best version of it, in that piece or in the book or in the other pieces that I’ve written, in which I try to think about the Internet as an aesthetic place.” The Internet has also become so different now. I’ve lost the pulse of what’s happening there.

I’m not online anymore, so I don’t know what happens. I assume terrible things. Going viral is one way that people who do not have the material apparatus of celebrity accrue the symbolic logic of celebrity. You can experience, for a brief time, visibility in a certain version of the public sphere. It’s interesting to me that you started by writing about the aesthetics of virality and now you often write about what I like to call “real” celebrities and, in particular, musicians. How do you think about the relationship between micro and macro, or minor and major, forms of celebrity and their aesthetics?

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That’s such a wonderful question. We’re in such an odd moment with celebrity. I’m not at all unique in saying this. It’s been observed that major celebrities now, or at least over the past decade or so, have trended toward the idea of relatability, of multidimensionality. We see this in everything from the phenomenon of Goop to celebrities taking Zoom calls in the “poor corner” of their house, their unfinished spare-spare-spare-spare bedroom, so that no one can observe the lavish lives they lead.

I still find myself fascinated by the surfaces of celebrities’ lives, because at the end of the day the surface is all that we have access to. As much as anybody feels that they know Taylor Swift—and she might even think her fans know her—and the Easter egg hunt, really all we have is text. The interesting thing about minor and instantaneous Internet celebrity is its lack of finesse. What you’re reading is not necessarily a snapshot of who that person is or an image that they have deliberately cultivated. Rather, you are tracking a quickly moving target. How did “Damn Daniel”—which feels so vintage at this point, as a Vine—proliferate such that Daniel and Josh were on Ellen and had a sponsorship from a shoe company?

You and I have both written about Sally Rooney’s novel Beautiful World, Where Are You, in which a celebrity author writes an e-mail to her friend complaining that her fans and followers think they actually know her the way that they know people in real life. How do consumers of culture go from the surface to the imagination of depth? Or even beyond depth, to fantasies of intimacy?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Lauren Berlant’s The Female Complaint. It’s about the invention and proliferation of what Berlant calls “women’s culture,” which is a subset of popular culture that arises in the nineteenth century. It distinguishes itself by speaking directly to, or at least professing to speak directly to, women’s experiences. It has a lot to do with genres of sentimentality, race, and politics. It considers cultural objects that make the consumer feel attuned to the uniqueness of womanhood in a way that is politically mobilizing, even if the act of consumption, the capitalist aspect of it, is actually politically demobilizing.

Barbie is women’s culture as mass culture. It can’t get more on the nose than that. We use the word “community” a lot. I sometimes wonder what would happen if we paused to think about that term, especially when it is evoked around cultural objects. What does it mean for an object to speak to a community, to speak to an experience? When sentiment congeals around cultural objects, we often box ourselves into a binary of the good object and bad object. One of the things that The Female Complaint taught me is how to take that community feeling seriously. Not seriously as a substitution for coalition building or anything like that, but seriously as something that ought to be read closely, interrogated, treated with care and scrutiny.

Speaking of Barbie, women’s culture, surfaces and depths, pop stars, and the appropriation of black aesthetics, we have an object for you to read.

Pop Star Barbie
Credit: Mattel

Did you expect this? You thought I was going to give you a poem, didn’t you?

I was so scared. I was like, Am I going to get a selection from The House of the Seven Gables? Which would have been fun, too.

Why don’t you begin by describing, I believe she’s called,“Pop Star Barbie”?

I will start with the exterior of the object. It is Barbie. We know that because it is one of the most recognizable brands in American life. There is a little subheading. She is a pop star, as we’re told in the upper right corner of the box. She has a little tagline that reads, “You can be anything.” Very feminist, thank you, Barbie.

It continues: “Since 1959, Barbie™ has been inspiring imaginations and shaping the future of play. A pop star is a performer who sings and performs songs for an audience.” Okay, I don’t disagree. “They must practice and hone their vocal technique, learn new music and lyrics, and rehearse with their band and dancers to ensure a smooth performance. They also travel to different cities and venues to perform. Do you like to have fun singing and performing while being yourself? “You Can Be a Pop Star!”

I want to sit with this description for a moment. There’s so much here. This is a direct result of “poptimism,” in the sense that a pop star is not a frothily manufactured, hack-type performer. This is selling us pop music as a very laborious art, and the pop star as a laborer. She has these strappy pink plastic stiletto heels. Lest you think it’s easy singing in these shoes, it is not. In the description we have the shift from third-person to the direct second-person address with, “Do you like to have fun singing and performing?” And then also, “You Can Be a Pop Star!” The first letter of all those words is capitalized and there’s an exclamation point. It’s very Rosie the Riveter. “You can do it!” but as a pop artist.

I’m interested that you’re going for the text first.

It’s so much easier. There’s so much there. I think it’s worth noticing that they offer multiple multiraced versions. This one, though she is not identified by race, has a caramel tone, which could be suggestive of many different kinds of ethnicities. This is the skin color that saves you from having to make twelve or forty Fenty shades of Barbie. This is the color of a Barbie who could be Latinx, Filipina, or black. She could identify in many different ways, which is to say that it makes her available to be identified with, by whoever is going to purchase her or whomever she’s being purchased for.

I do think it’s worth going through her accessories. I will say right off the bat, I’m trying to think about who the analog for this figure is. On one hand, she’s got the big guitar, which could not be more evocative of Taylor Swift at the moment. She’s also got the Pussycat Dolls heels. I don’t know whose dress this would be—Kacey Musgraves? But I don’t think Mattel was like, Let’s make Kacey Musgraves Barbie, with all due respect to Musgraves, whom I love. Barbie has a very tall microphone. Barbie’s proportions are absurd, so she’s also very tall, but she somehow looks even more absurdly tall when you look at her very tall, skinny microphone.

Can I put together two things that you said? She is a multiethnic Barbie, but she’s also the amalgamation of every pop star. She’s not Taylor Swift Barbie or Beyoncé Barbie or Katy Perry Barbie, but something recognizable has been taken from all of them to put together the absolute pop-star Barbie of all races and no race. Is that what I’m hearing?

Yes. Can someone help me out? Is this a necklace?

I think it’s a necklace that says “LOVE.”

It does say “love”—again I’m like, Who is wearing this, Fergie? There are also the nerdy glasses, so she can have her indie Folklore moment, and then behind her, a stage.

We’ve read this Barbie’s surfaces. We’ve read her racialized presentation, we’ve read her genre presentation, and we’ve read her strategies of interpellation, of hailing the consumer. What are we supposed to think about this Barbie’s depths? This is the question, or the problem, that the Barbie movie presents, too. We can read the surfaces; what, if anything, do we need to read about the depths?

If I had to ventriloquize Mattel, in this instance, I think they would say the depth comes from history. This is a historic doll and a historic product. How many ways are there for them to tell us that Barbie has been around since 1959, that this is a legacy brand? They really are trying to drill into us this idea of Barbie as a mainstay. Obviously, the American part is the quiet part, but not that quiet. At this point, if you’re buying this for a child, it’s something her mom played with. It’s something her mom’s mom played with. Maybe even her mom’s mom’s mom. Though they didn’t always have these colors.

They had some of those colors; the pink is still Barbie pink.

Right. I was using color to mean race. I appreciate the check on that. I think that’s one way that the packaging is trying to signal a certain kind of depth. The other place where the depth comes from, or is signaled, is in the substitution that happens, the transfer from the pop star in the general terms, in “they” terms, to what you’re going to do with it. There’s the idea of the boundless imagination of a child. What happens when you give this to a child is that their imagination grows. That’s a kind of depth, even if we think of it as projection. So much of this involves a managed imagination. It’s not quite as freewheeling as it wants to appear, even though the scattershot number of options for race and genre are meant to suggest a multitude.

I want to get back to something you said a little bit earlier about how you’re interested in the metaphor of objects speaking. What’s interesting about Pop Star Barbie is that that metaphor is front and center. She can speak, she can sing, but of course she is entirely voiceless. How do we think about the paradox of this object as “speaking”?

Something clicked for me just now. It couldn’t be more dramatic, the idea of a pop star with a microphone who literally cannot speak. I could imagine a range of counterarguments, but I do think one argument against the idea of objects speaking is that objects don’t speak. We imbue, attach, associate things with and to them. We interpret from them. We form emotional attachments, associations, and ideas about objects such that they can seem to reverberate, or rather, radiate from the objects themselves, when it’s actually not the object. It’s us. It’s us—not just us as consumers, but also as laborers.

We could think about Barbie as representing a certain kind of labor. But she is also literally a product of labor, to say the obvious. That is not a cosmic quality of Barbie herself, but the physical means by which she was created and the destruction required when I throw away the plastic, which will go somewhere in the ocean. But none of that is an innate quality of a Barbie. It’s what we, as human beings, make.

Something that I admire so much about your writing is that it clues us into all kinds of voicelessness: the voicelessness of the incessantly laboring female, the voicelessness of the people who literally made her. At the same time, you are not a moralizing writer at all. How do you judge this Barbie, or a Barbie? It’s very hard to disentangle how one judges one Barbie from how one judges all Barbies. This seems to be part of the promise of the object as a toy: Does it make you want to play with her?

It does. I do want to note that her hands and her elbows are—what do you call that? Opposable? They can flex, they have flexion, but her knees do not. She ain’t Beyoncé. She’s not going to be doing a whole lot of dancing. I do wish her knees bent, though I understand why they don’t.

I did have Barbies as a kid. I had a roller-skating one. Obviously, you need to bend your knees to roller-skate. I do recall that there was a certain ugliness about it. There is something so streamlined about the Barbie leg. It is disturbed and almost grotesque. It reminds you that this is a doll. I understand why she’s not a dancing doll. That’s one judgment, but if I were going to imagine myself as a pop star, I would want to have some sick choreography.

Yes, otherwise, you would look like Taylor Swift trying to sit on a chair.

I love her weird sits.

If you want to play with it, why? How does the desire either to play or not to play with it make you feel?

I do like the color pink. It’s such a fraught color, and yet such a good encapsulation of everything to which Barbie as a brand and as an object aspires. It has a similar function to blonde hair, even though this Barbie is not blonde. It has the cultural associations of youth and fun and whimsy.

When we read an object like this, there is a compulsion to evaluate the truth-value of its promises. We can all say, Barbie will not, cannot, did not, cure gender inequality. We haven’t won yet. Barbie persists. In some ways, that’s the least interesting thought. A more interesting thing to think about, which is the question you were asking me, is: How does Barbie make those promises, from the color of the guitar to the shoes to the outfit to the skin color to the baby hairs—this doll has baby hairs, oh my lord—to the text on the back? I honestly don’t even know why the stuff on the back exists, because who’s reading that? They made the font so small, so they must on some level know that nobody’s reading that, though someone wrote this copy.

This is what I try to get my students to do, which is actually really hard: stick with an observation of what’s there, what’s in the text, what’s the color, how tall is she, what are her secondary objects, and then move to thinking about what it’s doing, what it’s accomplishing.

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