Can I use memes to address toxic masculinity in online Asian American spaces?

This is a special editorial post from editorial intern Lily Rugo as a part of the intern Asian Pacific American Heritage Month project. ECAASU Asian Pacific American Heritage Month coverage is curated and created by our 2017-2018 intern cohort, a team of students and young professionals committed to elevating the ECAASU mission of inspiring, educating and empowering those interested in AAPI issues.


Sometimes it’s easy to overlook memes as ridiculous internet culture and forget how easily they lend themselves as satirical commentary on larger social commentary. That’s where Vox.com comes in handy as one of the best places for memes, explained. I started thinking of memes seriously when Vox writer Aja Romano wrote an in-depth explanation and examination on the potency of this and other memes, looking specifically at the recent popularity of the “Is This A Pigeon?” (aka confused anime guy) meme. She broke down its origins, the tweet that brought it back into the mainstream, and the “multiple levels of irony” text-based memes use to work.

    “But ‘Is it a pigeon?’ and its cousins may be serving as a counter to the American Chopper meme because they allow the meme creator to frame an issue completely through the static image they’re presenting.” she wrote. “And, crucially, the ‘misunderstanding’ at the center of this meme can be deliberate, accidental, disingenuous, or ironic. That allows us to comment on all manner of social trends and flaws within ourselves and others.”

I spend a lot of time on Twitter, and have seen my fair share of both memes and toxic masculinity. “Toxic masculinity” is more than a buzzword riding the coattails of the #MeToo movement. Because so much of mainstream influences make masculinity seem the accepted norm and neutral, the idea that male-dominated culture gets to dictate what’s ok and acceptable normalizes their words, behavior, and actions–– which in turn gives them false authority. When the general ideas and expressions of “masculinity” result in words or actions that harm, deride, or weaken non-males and femininity, that’s when it becomes toxic behavior.

I’ve especially noticed how in the Asian American community, toxic masculinity loves to be the end-all-be-all definition on a person’s identity. People get reduced down to a list of checkboxes, qualities or experiences deemed “Asian enough” so a person’s racial or ethnic identity becomes a badge earned or lost based on arbitrary authority granted by a few thousand followers or one snarky retweet. This gatekeeping of identity is most commonly seen by men’s rights activist (MRA) trolls, empowered by, you guessed it–– toxic masculinity.

That’s where memes might come in handy. Thinking of memes in a more active way, I wondered if their power could look at (and satirize) toxic masculinity in online Asian American spaces in ways that were not only funny, but also made people realize the culture they were perpetuating. At times it can be hard to explain and show its toxic behaviors and repercussions, especially online where’s there’s not a lot of context. Those who do take on the labor to try and talk about it end up putting themselves in harm’s way by opening themselves up to trolls and truly awful comments and threats  But a meme. A meme is a short visual image that, if done well, can tell a story in an inherently absurd way. If memes can make a point while also making some people laugh, then that’s two good deeds done. Or at least, it might help get a conversation started and some wheels turning.

Let’s start with our very own Confused Anime Guy and MRA who attack Asian and Asian American women who don’t date them:

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The American Chopper meme covers the Nice Guy trope pretty well:

Manta Ray returning Patrick’s lost wallet also applies to the “Asian enough” double standard:

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And finally, there’s Captain America disappointed with some basic yellow fever fetishization.

Memes aren’t perfect or fully encapsulate the full conversation of toxic masculinity in online Asian American spaces. But as Aja Romano wrote, “The current sociocultural moment is rife with uncertainty, ideological polarization, and large-scale tools of deceit” and that’s sort of where culturally and socially aware memes come in handy. Sometimes they can be a way to not call out (which can be a toxic culture in its own way) certain cultural norms in a lighthearted manner. It’s a little snarky and a bit of a sub-tweet, but it’s better than getting into an emotionally laborious Facebook comment war, right?