The American Meme: Netflix doc whitewashes meme culture (Opinion)

I have a secret. I love Vine. When Vine shut down last year, I turned to endless compilations of six-second comedy on YouTube. In the right circles, you will hear quotes like, “Stop. I could have dropped my croissant!” or, “Can I please get a waffle?” Which is probably why I was so excited for The American Meme.

The Netflix documentary from director Bert Marcus came to the streaming platform last week and follows social media stars and influencers as they deal with America’s obsession with their lives. The documentary features interviews with models like Hailey Baldwin and Emily Ratajkowski, celebrities like Paris Hilton and DJ Khaled, and nightlife photographer Kirill Bichutsky (known as @slutwhisperer on Instagram). However, the most interesting people they profile are comedians. The documentary goes into the lives of Josh Ostrovsky aka the Fat Jewish, Vine star Brittany Furlan, and even features interviews with Dane Cook.

The American Meme is in many ways spellbinding, but there is a glaring problem with it. It is extremely white. Not a single black person is credited in the cast and the only black person who gets more than a subtle nod in the film is KingBach. In the documentary, Furlan says that she introduced KingBach to Vine and that she is slightly annoyed that he now has more followers than her. What the movie brushes over is that he had the most followers on Vine—ever.

Another black comedian is alluded to in the film when they go into Ostrovsky being accused of plagiarism. Twitter comedian Davon Magwood isn’t interviewed, but his name appears as Ostrovsky repackages Magwood’s content as his own.

Both KingBach and Magwood become side notes in a story that should be about them or, if not them, other black digital content creators. The Vines that I referenced earlier were both made by black creators. Black Twitter is an epicenter where slang, hashtags, and some of the most popular memes begin. And yet, black creators are almost entirely erased from this movie.

In one scene, Furlan does a video shoot eating a burrito to spoof Beyonce’s pregnancy announcement photo. She is immediately unhappy because Ostrovsky did the same parody shoot and posted a photo with more likes. The film spends more time in that scene seeing white people dress up like a black person than we get of black people in the whole movie.

The tweet that Ostrovsky stole from Magwood that started a plagiarization scandal said, “Going to start dressing like a Lion. That way cops know that if they kill me, white people will avenge me.” The film shoves any racial commentary about why a white man stealing a tweet about police violence from a black man might be about more than plagiarism.

There is a weird moment in this documentary when Cook talks about how easy it is to steal jokes now. It used to be that joke thieves would have to go to a comedy club to steal material, he explains, but now it’s all online. In the 2000s, Cook was accused of being a joke thief by Louis C.K., Joe Rogan, and others. The film doesn’t mention Cook’s plagiaristic past and never looks at why his past might be important in a film that also asserts that he is a meme maker’s icon.

Stealing from black people is nothing new in America. From rock and roll to white girls wearing cornrows, culture is appropriated often in the United States. The American Meme, by erasing black creators and hard discussions about race online, has helped white people steal internet culture. Again.

You might be asking yourself, “Who cares? This is just about Instagram followers right?” It’s important because of what Wired dubbed the “Meme Monetization Gap” back in 2017. At the time they talked about Peaches Monroee, who back in 2014 created the phrase “on fleek” in a Vine. Cut to 2017, Monroee, aka Kayla Lewis, had to start a GoFundMe to start a small business. She didn’t see any money from her popular phrase being used on Forever 21 t-shirts or Taco Bell campaigns. Even after claims of plagiarism, The American Meme lets Ostrovsky plug his wine brand. Furlan is developing a sketch show with Seth Green. While white meme makers get opportunities to monetize their creations, POC content creators do not see those same opportunities. Not even the opportunity to be in this film.

Rosa Escandon

I am a stand up comic and writer living in Brooklyn, NY. When I'm not on stage, I am Comedy Editor for The Tusk, sit on the board of the Cinder Block Comedy Festival, and writing my next project. I am passionate about writing about feminism and comedy as well as how women, LBGTQ people, and minorities are changing the face of comedy and entertainment. You may have seen me on Buzzfeed Video, Seriously.TV, aplus, or maybe just on twitter.

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