August 16, 2016 at 5:23 AM
At the very end of May, a young boy climbed the fence that surrounds the Cincinnati Zoo's gorilla enclosure. He fell.
You probably know how the rest of the story goes: The boy survived the tumble only to be snatched by a 17-year-old male gorilla. The gorilla dragged the 3-year-old boy through the exhibit by his ankles. Fearing for the child's life, a zoo employee shot the ape. The western lowland gorilla, Harambe, died. Primatologist Jane Goodall called it a "devastating loss to the zoo, and to the gorillas."
But the great ape's tale did not end with the usual news-outrage cycle.
Months after the gorilla was killed, he was resurrected by the Internet, as The Washington Post previously reported. Harambe now belonged to all of us, but he belonged to the Internet's dank corners and edgy teens most of all.
As an Internet meme, Harambe's second coming is mostly jokey tributes. "Memes have key signifiers, or hooks, that get repeated," Jean Burgess, an expert in digital culture and memes at the Queensland University of Technology, in Brisbane, Australia, told The Washington Post on Monday.
For a single word, Harambe has a lot of hooks: He is the noble caged animal. He is how we value human life versus the rest of the natural world. He is how we value cute animal lives more than human lives — "particularly black human lives," Burgess said. He is the relatively new phenomenon of online mourning and celebrity death.
In July, The Post traced some of the earliest cheeky tributes to Black Instagram, with its overly sincere memorials to the gorilla. From there, the messages spread to Twitter, were fruitful and multiplied. On social media, "Harambe" (which is a Swahili word that roughly translates to cooperation) became an exhortation, an annotation and an ironic hashtag. Like bacterial strains, Harambe memes morphed to thrive in new media, including YouTube memorial songs and a protest sign caught on cable news — Bush, an MSNBC punkster told us in July, Did Harambe.
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Almost three months after his death, Harambe persists.
[‘Zoos aren’t your babysitter’: Parenting critics flay mom after gorilla shot to protect her preschooler]
The memorial meme has mutated yet again into new forms. Someone dug up an old photograph of George W. Bush with Harambe's mother — Bush Did Harambe, v. 2.0. Other mock-mourners erected memorials to Harambe in video games. According to a Change.org petition that launched Wednesday, Aug. 10, aimed at Nintendo and the Pokémon Company, "Harambe deserves to live on forever in our hearts. Support this petition if you want Harambe to become a Pokémon."
As of this writing, nearly 60,000 people have requested Nintendo turn Harambe into a cartoon ghost/fighting monster. And Pokémon is not the only popular game where cheeky players have inserted Harambe references — in the space sim "No Man's Sky," explorers have named a few of the quintillions of computer-generated planets after the gorilla. Welcome to Planet Harambe.
Harambe has enjoyed an incredible shelf life. He is the Twinkie of memes. Consider The Dress — that dress, the black and blue one — which drove so much traffic to Buzzfeed that the media company celebrated with champagne and a press release. Its reign of terror was intense but brief.
The dress "drove us all mad," Burgess said. But neither optical tricks nor escaped llamas have cultural richness.
Jokes about Harambe's death walk a special line. Cracks at the expense of dead animals are too dark for brands to sensibly co-opt, as a smart New York Magazine piece argued in July. The corporate touch will never make Harambe lame. On the other hand, in most circles a celebrity gorilla jest is a safer bet than one about a celebrity human.
Plus, the best Harambe jokes are not, in and of themselves, offensive: Memorializing Harambe as a Pokémon is silly, but unlikely to prompt outrage. #Harambe is the joy of finding ridiculousness in buttoned-up earnestness.
"Harambe! as an exclamation is popular among teens," Burgess said. "Teens love edgy, slightly unacceptable humor." (And then we get actor Danny Trejo growling, "[male genitalia slang] out for Harambe.")
In Burgess's taxonomy of memes, Harambe is a "platform," a joke with endless permutations, like rage comics or image macros (think pictures of LOLcats or the toddler fist-pumping on the beach). Even among such platforms, Harambe is a unique beast. When asked if she could think of a comparable meme that so transcended its real-life origin, Burgess replied, "A real-world event that had serious news value, which became a cultural phenomenon that became a meme? Maybe not."