This is part of an occasional series in which we explain Internet things. We like to call it memesplaining; you might call it meme-ruining. Regardless, if you just chanced upon an image macro, hashtag, app or GIF you don’t understand, we have the answers — insofar as answers can be had.
The meme: Woke Toddlers
What it is
Woke Toddler is a comedy trope, seen most often on Twitter, that involves “quoting” the precocious political or cultural observations of one’s young son or daughter. In their proper, ironic usage, these pronouncements are fictions intended to mock smarmy liberal parents.
Of course, the smarmy parents are also out there tweeting their kids’ verbal gems, so … sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.
Where it started
This is very much a Weird Twitter phenomenon: The short dialogues lend themselves to 140 characters. That said, you can find adults advertising their kid’s brilliance — and thus, their own — on virtually any/every platform, from Facebook to “Honor Student” bumper stickers. In the sense that Woke Toddlers evolved to parody that practice, we might as well say it started everywhere at once.
Who started it
When the Daily Dot’s Jay Hathaway chronicled the “Woke Toddler” in March, he traced the meme back to a series of tweets the policy analyst Sean McElwee sent about his (fictional) Marxist children in January. McElwee has nothing against kids — woke or otherwise — but he was growing increasingly bemused at the absurdity of the anecdotes people were tweeting about their children. Many of them struck him as totally unrealistic, and even the most lifelike ones seemed sort of pompous.
“I wouldn’t say it bothered me really, I’m proud as hell of nieces and nephews and brothers and sisters and brag about it on Twitter,” McElwee explained by email. “It was just getting to this level where it was sort of comical, both how woke these kids are supposed to be and how the parents are so proud their children are spouting back their ideas to them.”
So McElwee invented the original Woke Toddler: a kid who is “super Marxist and insightful and sees both interaction with his/her siblings and the world as woven with a Marxist politics.” In case you’re wondering what that child would sound like:
Woke Toddlers got another bump in March, when the novelist and Esquire columnist Stephen Marche made his own unironic (and arguably pretty eye-rolly) Woke Child tweet. By his own account, Marche was reading a Jonathan Chait column about Trump in New York magazine when his daughter looked over, saw Trump’s picture, and asked Marche why Trump looked “so afraid.” Marche then tweeted the question …
… to an onslaught of parodies.
Quoth Marche to the Intersect: “The Internet is so f—ing depressing.”
How to use it like you know what you’re doing
By now, one thing should be exceedingly clear: If you tweet about your child’s political or cultural precociousness, you must be joking. Otherwise, you’re not doing the Woke Toddler — you’re embodying the very sort of self-congratulatory parental smugness that it seeks to parody.
This was recently the mistake of Clara Jefferey, editor-in-chief at Mother Jones, who on July 25 tweeted the trenchant political query of her 8-year-old, Milo.
That tweet, as you can see, was RTed 40 times — and the @-replies to it are at least double that. Mostly, they come from trolls insisting that Jeffery made the anecdote up, or from self-styled comedians tweeting their own Woke Kid’s thoughts back. “My five year old … has doubts about this story,” one weird tweeter tweeted. “OMG,” wrote another, “my embryonic nonbinary child … just asked me what ‘woke’ means, how to respond??”
Jeffery, for her part, did not seem to get the joke, which only made it funnier.
A smart observation to make at your next nerdy dinner party
Sixty-five percent of children end up adopting their parents’ political beliefs — so it is actually somewhat less than astounding when someone’s views or anxieties are parroted by their pint-size offspring.
Oh, also: The Internet really hates sincerity.
And last but not least, further reading: