Lessons from Diane Arbus: Gay Rights & Memes

Like Diane Arbus‘ work, many memes rely on odd-looking individuals to create attention-grabbing content. After watching a documentary about her, I think she had  a better understanding of what she was doing and how it worked than many internet users do of the memes they make.

Meme All The Different Looking People!

Visually outstanding individuals are often the basis of memes, attractive or otherwise. As mentioned in a previous blog post, ease of sharing and whether it provides a novel spectacle determine whether something becomes a meme. Like the sideshows of the 20th century, people with unusual appearances can fit these criteria and become a public spectacle akin to the sideshow performers of the 20th century. Sometimes it’s almost identical, such as when videos of babies with birth defects are posted with titles and descriptions such as “alien baby” or “demon baby”.

A picture of Adalia Rose, vi

A picture of Adalia, via Know Your Meme. She has a genetic disorder called Progeria. Images of her have been photoshopped onto gollum, turned into aliens, and covered with all kinds of captions.

At other times, a particularly unusual looking individual will become the basis of a meme. One example is Adalia Rose. Videos of her and her mother became popular on YouTube. As her fame grew, users of various image sharing sites took notice, and images of her became the basis of a number of photoshoppings.

How is Diane Arbus Different?

An example scumbag steve, a meme based around putting captions describing "scumbag" actions on photos of this guy. Via Know Your Meme.

An example scumbag steve, a meme based around putting captions describing “scumbag” actions on photos of this guy. Via Know Your Meme.

Her explanation of how a “specific” image is more generally appealing is an accurate if vaguely phrased expression of one of the rules governing memetic selection in image macros: the images and  videos that become the most popular adress a specific issue (such as Scumbag Steves), are bizarre and unusual (such as Numa Numa), or manage to do both.

I think in some her work was a reaction to the time she lived in. She lived during the peak of the African American Civil Rights movement, and during the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Judging from the documentary, she had some degree of knowledge of the LGBTQ subcultures of the time. I don’t have room to go into the detailed history of these issues, but here’s the short version: compared to today’s society, the United States she grew up and lived in was highly conformist, and especially hostile to LGBTQ individuals. Gay establishments were the targets of police raids. Homosexuality was officially regarded as an illness by the psychiatric establishment until 1973. Although Diane Arbus died in 1971, the issues that her photos address are still an issue today. For example, the idea that LGBTQ people are in fact people with rights still manages to be controversial in some parts of the United States.

You know the movies that are considered classics, but are boring to today’s audiences? I think her work is similar. It doesn’t read the same way today as it did when it was first published because we don’t find anything she did to be shocking. The documentary led me to believe that her main innovation is that she acknowledged the existence and humanity of marginalized people. Instead of vilifying her subjects or turning them into targets of mockery, she portrays them with their consent. She also suggests that she believes creating an image rather than capturing it is pointless because appearances are leaky and let out information that people might want hidden. Although I haven’t seen a full repertoire of her work, the pictures that I have seen seems to confirm that she tried to document what existed because she she felt that creating an image was pointless. I might be wrong. Her pictures of families do not try to portray the perfect family idealized in the 1950s or 1960s. They portray people with the “flaws” that she described as interesting. And that’s big given how much the media that came before her seemed to strive to say that “everyone’s normal and everything’s ok.”


One thought on “Lessons from Diane Arbus: Gay Rights & Memes

  1. Pingback: Weekly Update: Photography | tech.stories.blog

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