How women find intellectual community in memes

Chronically online women are bonding over critical theory, self-aware feminism, and absurd meme humour

Undetected by most of us, 2021 was the year philosophy and memes collided. Labelled Theorygram, this small corner of the internet was home to philosophical shit-posters flexing their knowledge of critical theory in nihilistic, hyper-obscure memes. Reading enough anti-capitalist philosophy can make anyone into a doomsayer, and this section of the memosphere was an outlet for the world-weary to bond over beloved radical theorists. Looking back now, this digital community truly captured a certain zeitgeist of social media amid lockdown: post-left, despairing, and absurdly comedic. 

In the two years since the height of Theorygram, we’ve seen girlification take over the internet: girl-dinner, girl-math, hot girl walks, hot girl summer. If it can be girlified, it has been. Women are flocking together to find community in girl-specific pockets of the internet – one of them being a new variety of Theorygram populated by self-aware sad girls. 

This new digital community has retained the philosophical traits of the original Theorygram but has traded the likes of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze for feminist theorists Sylvia Plath and bell hooks. #SylviaPlath is populated with obscure memes and excerpts of poetry over hyper-feminine images and has racked up 317k posts on Instagram. The anti-establishment undercurrent remains, but the cornerstone of these memes is the self-aware, dissociative type of feminism personified by Fleabag, Lana Del Rey, and Fiona Apple. The haphazard cyber visuals of Theorygram have been replaced with the visual signifiers of a melancholic brand of femininity: pretty girls crying and smoking cigarettes, deers and bunnies cuddling in a whimsical forest, and – of course – grainy photos of twentieth-century female theorists. If you read gender and race theory, intellectualise your emotions, and have a love of classical art and history, then this sub-section of the internet is for you. 

Take the feed of @ihatekatebush. One post says: “just expressed a thought in the notes app” over a 1950s picture of Anais Nin with her diaries. A second post says: “does anyone else ever feel like shit or is it just me and sylvia plath?” in plain text. In a third post: ‘I like your memes,’ says a boy, ‘you mean my ecriture feminine?’ the girl replies. 

The admin behind @simoneweilfooddiary, 28-year-old Rose Lyddon, started her account to be part of the cultural shift Theorygram was pushing. “That memosphere seemed to be pushing the boundaries of what could be said and imagined. I wanted to be part of that moment when culture and ideas felt fluid and malleable,” she says.

Many of these meme page admins, including @ihatekatebush, jokingly refer to their feminist Theorygram accounts as their version of a manifesto. Back in the day, you might’ve headed to a typewriter to jot down your thoughts after being inspired by an interesting thesis or piece of art. Now, you can just open the Instagram app.

“I chose the name @simoneweilfooddiary because Simone Weil’s thought sits outside conventional political and cultural discourse,” Lyddon continues. “For me, it was a tentative exercise in intellectual freedom. I’d become closed off and intolerant and I wanted to push myself into uncomfortable intellectual territory and see what came of it. It felt safe to do that lying in bed and making stupid memes on my phone.”

According to Julia Serena, admin of @sensitivesensualist, memes are the perfect medium for expressing intellectual concepts. “I think images themselves can be poetic, and when combined or collaged with text you can convey something potent without using many words,” she says. “Memes can condense complex ideas or feelings into something bite-sized and potent. They can be incredibly powerful and subversive.”

It’s undeniable that memes are more accessible as intellectual outlets than traditional academic forms of communication. No Masters degree or student debt is required to share your theories online, and the quick, easy, and shareable nature of memes means digital communities are quickly formed. The women of the 1970s had the ‘ecriture feminine’ – a strain of feminist literature literally translated as ‘women’s writing’ – and the women of today have memes.

“Memes act like a net for catching ideas, concepts, thoughts, and lines of poetry. If I didn’t have memes, I wouldn’t have anywhere to put these things,” Serena says. “Maybe I’d write something down, but the chances of me sharing it would be small. Memes are quite quick to make and even quicker to share, they’re light-hearted and playful in nature, but they’re also powerful tools for making social commentary and creating influence.”

Like the meme page admins behind the original Theorygram, this generation of female intellectuals uses memes as an outlet for the disillusionment and hyper-awareness of our modern world brought about by digesting copious amounts of critical theory. It’s no secret that humour is Gen Z’s go-to coping mechanism.

No account exemplifies this intersection between cathartic expression, girl-specific relatability, and intellectualism better than meme page @sickeningshawty. Scrolling the page, you’ll find carefully curated images paired with esoteric captions: “praise of the soul through degradation of the body” over a chaotic picture of Lindsay Lohan, or “me squaring up against the aestheticisation of pain” over a kitten in a fighting stance. “Meme-making feels most cathartic when I’m simplifying the complex crush of thoughts that are constantly bombarding me,” says Sable V, admin behind the account. “The page serves as a commitment and a reminder to myself that my experience is not unique. I find a lot of comfort in seeing people’s responses to the feelings I manage to put into words.”

As with any digital community, finding people who can relate to your personal experiences is one of the main appeals. “I’ve found a little gang of weird religious girls who love Mary Gaitskill,” Lyddon aptly puts it. “When my posts get more unhinged it’s usually a veiled cry for help. Memes are good for this because the layers of non-linguistic reference and irony can let you communicate things which are pretty dark and personal, things people are squeamish about putting down explicitly in writing. People will either get it, or they won’t.”

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