Before the word “meme” belonged to the Internet, it meant something a bit broader than illustrations and funny photos with all-caps text superimposed. A meme, per the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, was a “unit of cultural transmission.” An idea or a style that spread, from person to person and culture to culture, giving us fashion trends, catchphrases, individual behaviors and virtually any other cultural artifact that can be imitated or learned.
Dawkins probably did not anticipate memes like Stockton’s “hot felon” when he coined the term. But in the days since Jeremy Meeks went viral, he’s become a meme two times over, under both our modern definitions of the word, as an ill-gotten Internet celebrity, sure — but also as an idea, an attitude about the Internet.
In other words, Meeks isn’t just a pretty (and much-Photoshopped) face. He’s a celebration of the Internet’s ability to flatten, reduce and decontextualize just about any dribble of information … although whether that deserves to be celebrated depends, of course, on where you sit and how humorous you find irony.
Let’s backtrack a second, for those who somehow missed Meeks’s ill-gotten rise to fame. On Wednesday, the police department in Stockton, Calif., posted to Facebook the mugshots of four people they arrested on felony weapons charges — because apparently the police in Stockton are in the habit of posting such things. Three of the men were fairly average, insolent-looking dudes with rebellious half-smirks on their faces. But the fourth man, Jeremy Meeks, was something else entirely. He was something that could be convincingly Photoshopped into a Calvin Klein or a Hugo Boss ad.
Thousands of people commented to that effect (and more salacious ones) on the Stockton PD’s Facebook page. Even more shared the images on Facebook and Twitter with hashtags like #hotfelon and #hotfelonfriday.
“Many find it disgusting,” my colleague Lindsey Bever wrote at the time, noting the quick backlash against the #hotfelon meme.
But what was it, exactly, that people found so gross? Unlike most other documented cases of ladies lusting over dangerous criminals — I defer to the Awl’s excellent essay, “The Killer Crush,” here — the women fawning over Meeks did so in spite of his criminal history, not because of it. The fact that Meeks was a convicted felon with five weapons charges and an ominous tear tattoo was simply a funny footnote to his photo, the differentiating factor that made him slightly more interesting than the other thousands of attractive men who posted photos to the Internet that day.
That’s assuming, of course, that people noted the felony or the charges at all, which it would appear many did not. Those things came in a dense block of text, condensed at the bottom of the photo. Those things were irrelevant, unfunny details that cluttered the basic hilarity of the “hot felon” meme — just like Meeks’s son and his wife of four years, who has expressed no uncertain outrage over the whole thing.
What’s so disgusting? It’s not that women find Meeks attractive, which is, as many a Facebook defender has commented, really beyond either parties’ control. (Although the gender of the lusters/lustee is probably worth noting — no one made this kind of outcry over “Attractive Convict” Meagan Simmons in 2013.) People are disgusted by the casual, thoughtless flattening of Meeks’s story, the divorce of the photo from its relevant context, the rote dehumanization of the shift from man to meme.
That isn’t to say observers are disgusted on Meeks’s behalf, because — with the exception of his wife and his Internet-savvy mother — that certainly doesn’t seem to be the case. But there is a definite recognition here that human lives are messy and variegated, prone to extremes of true good and evil. And whatever Meeks is, he’s been flattened. Gladly. Gleefully, even.
That’s what I mean when I say Meeks may prove a meme in more sense than one: He makes a great Imgur upload, sure, but he’s also a strawman for Internet superficiality — a perfect, “disgusting” encapsulation of our reductive attitude toward human narratives on the Web.
Now, whether that attitude is (or is always) disgusting is a little bit trickier to say: After all, there is something obviously funny about a police department publishing a sultry mugshot — and acting otherwise would require a level of stiff-lipped self-seriousness that most people don’t possess. That said, there is a sort of casual dehumanization inherent whenever “the Internet” — that is, us — turns a real live person into a hashtag or a punchline.
“She’s upset. She’s furious,” a friend of Meeks’s wife told CBS Sacramento. “Her man’s in there, and people are taking it as a joke, thinking it’s funny talking about his looks, saying all kinds of crazy things.”