The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The ‘Florida Man’ is notorious. Here’s where the meme came from.

The practice of seeing Florida’s people, culture and history in caricature form is deeply rooted in the state’s colonial past

A person holds up a poster at an August rally in Tampa featuring Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio. (Octavio Jones/Reuters)
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Many people know the “Florida Man” meme through bizarre headlines, like the recent “Florida man crashes Walmart scooter into shelves, arrested for drunk driving after vodka found in basket.” While many of these headlines focus on the arrests of poor White people, the phrase has evolved into a catchall term for outlandish Floridians of all backgrounds. The meme has spawned a line of merchandise, a TV show, beer and a music festival.

Since the meme became ubiquitous in the early 2000s, “Florida Man” has been used as both a quick joke and a referendum on the state. But the broad appeal of seeing Florida’s people, culture and history in caricature form is deeply rooted in the state’s colonial past, one that has used a legend and myth to obscure the very real challenges the state and its people have faced.

Initially, imperial powers looked to Florida as a swampland ripe for the taking. Spain claimed dominion over Indigenous people living in Florida for most of the period between 1565 — the year of the first European settlement in North America at St. Augustine — and 1821.

Colonizers saw Florida as a land where anything was possible. Perhaps the most persistent example is the legend attached to Conquistador Juan Ponce de León and his purported search for the Fountain of Youth during the first Spanish expedition to Florida in 1513. The story seems to have been an embellishment by a political rival trying to make Ponce de León look foolish before the crown, casting him as someone capable of being duped by native tribes. In fact, there’s no evidence that Ponce de León’s name was even attached to the Fountain of Youth until after he died. It nonetheless became the dominant story about the colonizer’s time in Florida by the 17th century.

In reality, Florida proved to be more of a liability than a colonial prize. Plagued by pirates and privateers, hurricanes, runaway enslaved people and tribal conflicts, Spanish Florida became a colonial backwater. Indigenous peoples saw their numbers vastly diminished in this era. For example, while the Timucua of the northern part of Florida numbered somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 before European encounters, a mere 1,000 remained by 1700.

When the British occupied the Spanish-controlled city of Havana, Cuba, in 1762 as part of the Seven Years’ War, Spain chose to sacrifice Florida to Britain to regain its much more valuable Cuban land. But the British also had trouble attracting settlers to Florida and, preoccupied with the American Revolution, Britain ceded the land back to Spain by the war’s end in 1783.

The nascent United States looked to the region with great interest as it expanded its own territory. And in 1821, it acquired the land from Spain. Florida achieved statehood in 1845 and, less than two decades later, it became the third state to secede from the Union, joining the Confederacy in 1861. By then, of course, slavery had been firmly entrenched in the new state. In fact, enslaved people represented 44 percent of Florida’s slim population of 140,400 on the eve of the Civil War.

Myths and legends from colonial Spain and others persisted though. While unable to reverse age, the idea that Florida’s springs and temperate weather could cure disease and lethargy had become pervasive by the 1860s, even as the state housed more alligators than people. Hungry for more settlers and money, Floridians aggressively marketed their state as a place of unbridled wilderness largely untouched by civilization that had come to plague much of the industrial north. These claims tapped into contemporary fears that White men, in particular, had become overly feminized by professional jobs and lack of military engagement.

It worked, and people flocked to the state. In 1924, Florida amended its constitution to eliminate state inheritance and income tax, which further expedited the recruitment and arrival of new Floridians. From 1860 to 1930, the state’s population ballooned by more than 900 percent.

Fearing the loss of their residents to Florida, other states launched anti-Florida propaganda schemes. These ran the gamut from noting that Florida’s water was unsafe to drink or that meat was difficult to find to more sensational claims, such as that alligators and other bloodthirsty reptiles reigned supreme in this lawless land. In 1883, a New York newspaper quipped that the common exchange of “A Florida man has an alligator farm” should instead read: “A farm of alligators has a Florida man.”

Conversely, Florida’s marketing touted the state’s anti-Black origins. Tourist promoters reminded White people throughout the United States that Black subjugation reigned supreme in the Sunshine State. In the early 20th century, a common trope found in Florida postcards and other marketing tools regularly depicted Black people — often infants — as “gator bait” that could easily be killed or discarded.

Many Floridians leaned into the state’s growing national reputation and its distinct brand of frontier life. They told stories of Floridians behaving badly, much like today’s “Florida Man.” These included a story from 1883 about a Gainesville man who “accidentally” shot his wife three times after she told him she could no longer be with him, and the 1895 story about a knife fight at a butcher shop when someone cut the line in a small town east of Tallahassee.

Despite such sensational headlines, the state carried a magical luster for growth, transformation and prosperity. Incorporated in 1896, for example, Miami became the “Magic City” that, as if touched by a fairy’s magic wand, had blossomed overnight. Urban boosters attracted investors by touting the city as a “fairyland” where anything was possible. To give the illusion of old-world charm in an unfettered land, designers and architects ordered tiles stripped from villas in Cuba to place on their new roofs in Florida. They also imported exotic flora and fauna, such as flamingos, from the Caribbean to further brighten the city’s landscapes.

Considering some of Florida’s cities were established more like stage sets to appeal to outsiders, it should come as no surprise that the state became known worldwide as the home to kitschy sites, especially theme parks, which further strengthened its reputation for pleasure-seeking and the whimsical. Dozens of theme parks also popped up throughout Florida over the coming decades — from Cypress Gardens (1936) to Disney’s Magic Kingdom (1971) to the Holy Land Experience (2001). Today, Walt Disney is one of the state’s largest employers, pumping millions of dollars into its economy.

Changes in state law, however, helped make Florida synonymous with bad decision-making, allowing the historical tradition of anti-Florida media narratives to reemerge once again. Following the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s and the public push for transparency and accountability, most states opened their records with what became known as “Sunshine Laws” to provide public access to government records. But unlike other states that also balanced this accessibility with privacy measures, Florida made many arrest records and similar documents available almost immediately after they occurred. And so, its broad presumption of openness in public record laws paved the way for journalists, bloggers and anyone else to access public documents. Those reports have often turned into clickbait headlines.

The 2000 presidential election helped with this, too. With stories of hanging chads and recounts, a “because Florida” punchline became low-hanging fruit for comedians and internet commenters. In the mid-2000s, began to track only-in-Florida news and contributed to the Florida Man meme.

The internet turned Florida Man into a Southern Gothic figure of indulgence, decadence and questionable decisions. In 2013, a magazine editor created the @_FloridaMan Twitter account, which received nearly 64,000 followers its first month. Soon after, sites like Twitter and Reddit encouraged people to participate Florida Man challenges by searching online for their birth dates along with “Florida Man” to help people find their “inner Florida Man.”

But the internet has changed a lot since the modern “Florida Man” came to live and lurk on the web. For example, the creator of the @_FloridaMan Twitter handle retired the account in 2019, later noting, “In 2013, we didn't think what happened on the Internet could affect real life.”

Perhaps people have become more sensitive to the plights at the center of these stories, such as housing insecurity, addiction or mental health issues. This especially stings considering that Florida ranks 49th in the nation in terms of access to mental health care.

Much like its colonial past, the actual problems in Florida are very real and not funny. Today, as before, the state remains a cultural and political battleground that demands we take it — and, most especially, its people — seriously and with care and respect.