A few weeks ago I was in Philadelphia for a work-related trip, and when people learned that I research and write about memes, they often wanted to talk to me about Gritty. For those of you who may not know, Gritty debuted in late September 2018 as the new mascot of the Philadelphia Flyers. Just a month later, the ice-skating orange monster was formally welcomed to the city in a resolution that “honor[ed] the spirit and passion that Gritty has brought to the City of Philadelphia and to the entire country, both on and off the ice.” While he appears at first glance to be nothing more than an overgrown orange Muppet, he is described here as a “non-binary leftist icon” and “a source of joyful comic respite in a time of societal upheaval.” Gritty has earned accolades that other public figures would kill to receive in their lifetimes.
And these sentiments are not just uttered confidently and without embarrassment by city council members hoping to ride the coattails of a new local hero. In the new issue of Artforum. a “Year in Review” featuring Gritty on the cover, deputy editor Elizabeth Schambelan talks about how the mascot “elicits the full gamut of emotions,” how this “anticlown” seems “a fitting mascot” for 2018, “a realistic representation” of our never-ending unreality. In a comprehensive write-up for The Ringer on Gritty’s origins, his makers, and his later recontextualizations as antifa meme monster, Michael Baumann notes that Gritty “is all things to all people.”
But we all gravitate towards our own personal Grittys, the monster at the end of the book that (as Grover discovers) looks a lot like us. For Schambelan he seems like an outlet for the “fear and rage” that have left her “unhinged” in recent months, a monster capable of both great acts of warranted violence against oppressors and tender moments of male intimacy. For Baumann Gritty is a “messianic” figure, a divine intervention driven by “big feelings” and “big gestures” who encourages his flock to “articulate ideas and feelings they’d previously been able to communicate only imperfectly.”
I’ve been particularly taken with how earnestly and directly these writers have articulated their developing relationships with this strange creature. They are protective of their attachments, but they also acknowledge how their images of Gritty are assembled from a variety of sources: official branding, memes, memories of why the mascot seemed particularly welcome or disruptive on a day when our lives were preoccupied with other things.
As someone who thinks and writes about memes in the professional contexts of digital humanities and new media studies, I was tempted to collect, inventory, and analyze as many appearances of Gritty that I could find over his short lifespan. I could study patterns of re-use, take close and careful looks at the micro-histories of 2018 that Gritty had been enlisted to critique and comment on, parse out what Gritty means to Philadelphians, to socialists, to hockey fans, to Americans, and where these lines overlap and intersect.
But I’ve also grown tired of attempts to define and defuse popular memes, efforts to name and affix particular ideas and values to their varied appearances and uses, readings that ignore the myriad moods and needs many of us bring to the social media networks and portals of personal expression we keep close at hand in our phones.
For every piece of viral content that briefly becomes popular, there are dozens of clickbait-y posts combining aggregated social media content with sententious remarks on why [animal that looks sad] or [celebrity making a weird face] is an encapsulation of The Way We Live Now, a symbol of our Present Condition, a Lighthouse of Truth guiding us home before we sink below an Ocean of Artifice. Sometimes you can talk to someone who made a meme or Became Trapped Inside A Meme to pad out these kinds of pieces. Or you can track down the first or most popular examples of the meme to show that you did your homework. A few months ago we were all looking at moths, and now we have Gritty.
For me, memes are particularly compelling as forms of autobiography, as outlets for feelings that seem impossible to share through other means, as ways to unravel or to further entangle the mess of social media and the lives we shape and escape from there, as momentary stays within confusion, uncertainty, absurdity. Making meaning out of memes can come from making memes yourself, but I’ve started to appreciate it when people take time to talk through their personal relationships with particular memes (in public acts of writing like this or by other means: some my friends and I talk a lot about why we gravitate towards particular avatars, structures, points of view expressed in memes, and we have threads where we share selected highlights with each other. I imagine some of you have these as well.)
My earliest memory of Gritty was seeing video footage of him at a Flyers game, pouring a jumbo popcorn over a row of fans. A person on Twitter who posted this clip wondered if the mascot was seasoning these people shortly before eating them.
The tone of this tweet suggested that this was, in fact, what was about to happen, and I laughed at the reality this person saw here. Gritty is a monster, after all, and monsters have been known to do this sort of thing, and one of the traits I have come to align with my Gritty is an unwillingness to apologize or conform to expectations. I thought about the delighted faces of the fans as salt and butter rained down upon them. Would their expressions change once they learned what fate awaited them? Did they already know?
One of my other favorite Gritty stories involves the creature’s absence. When the Philadelphia City Council made their resolution honoring the mascot, he didn’t show up to accept these accolades in person. The Flyers cited a “scheduling conflict,” but my Gritty is simply someone who does not care about his job enough to show up to things like this event.
I’ve been amused by his uses in the context of protest materials and socialist memes, but in my heart I see him as a creature who rejects the basic conditions of employment. He’s not something employers or managers should aspire to, some kind of free spirit in the workplace who can’t believe he gets paid to do what he does. I don’t even think he’s daring his employers to call out his poor behavior. He simply refuses to care. I choose to think of his appearances at weddings as random encounters, rather than carefully-orchestrated and well-compensated public appearances. My hope is that one day Gritty simply stops showing up to work and disappears.
I know that this is wishful thinking: for example, Gritty recently showed up in an extremely wack Love, Actually parody (as opposed to all the extremely Good Love, Actually parodies!) produced by ESPN. But we have the ability to make alternate realities, to protect and promote the Grittys we wish to see in our worlds.
My favorite Gritty meme right now is the image that kicked off this post. I’ve never really liked Normal Rockwell’s work, but I’ll admit that this is an extremely surface-level read of the artist and one that comes from seeing his art in commercials and on various holiday-themed gifts (and not the original context of the Saturday Evening Post), if that makes any difference. Thanksgiving is not one of my favorite occasions, so it was great to see this table full of monsters, delightedly devouring themselves, in the midst of experiencing my own Holiday Feelings.
I was thinking a lot about Gritty after seeing Into the Spider-Verse, an animated film that focuses on a new Spider-Man, Miles Morales, to de-center the particulars of Peter Parker and the ways whiteness has continued to dominate contemporary superhero narratives. In doing so, the film goes one step further and reveals a world of endless and varied Spider-Men from multiple timelines and realities.
In addition to expanding the possibilities of these narratives and attending to the implications of particular contours and contexts, Into the Spider-Verse also acknowledges the ways canonical texts and official narratives are quickly unsettled and revised in digital contexts. Official narratives still have the power and authority that comes with their visibility (and legality), but at the same time many of the storytellers (and stakeholders) behind these works have realized the potential of variety, the surprising narrative strength to be mined in fracturing and refracting images. Stories like Into the Spider-Verse are not completely unmoored from the land they originate from, and in fact they frequently arrive at fixed terrain after their kaleidoscopic journeys. The New York City Morales and his family inhabit comes into clearer focus once the larger cast of Spider-Folk (and Spider-pigs) return to their respective worlds. But the filmmakers also realize that its audience wants to see further derangements and distortions in future stories, teasing two possibilities at the end of its closing credits sequence.
And in many ways, the film is a response to (and arguably a validation of) the ways that internet fan culture can quickly outpace and exceed the potential of traditional publishers and other content creators. Miles Morales has starred in a number of comics, but even I, a person with a Marvel Unlimited account and an avid Spidey fan, would be hard-pressed to name one memorable or classic Miles story before this animated film. Spider-Gwen, known as Spider-Woman in Spider-Verse, has fared a lot better, but even after starring in an impressive run steered by the creative team of Jason Latour and Robbi Rodriguez, her adventures and her image have multiplied rapidly across Tumblr and other sites. Online comic book culture is an interesting place to watch readers document and solidify their particular relationships with characters over time, and many of these relationships extend into the creation of new and revised content.
Some people, tired of the realities they have found themselves written into, have speculated that recent obsessions with multiple timelines and alternate dimensions are some sign that we are close to uncovering the means to move back and forth across such worlds, to make contact with, and even inhabit, better lives and environs. I’m more inclined to believe that our digital tools and sites of publication have encouraged more of us to ask questions as old as Ovid, whose Metamorphoses have become a helpful way of processing these ever-changing present tenses. Gritty seems like something dreamed up by Ovid, a creature who seems easy to read but whose motives and movements grow stranger the more we look at him. And like Ovid we might use the world around us to think about what is fixed and what is fluid, what seems easy to re-shape, what persists regardless of the form we take on.
Questions? Comments? Jim is on Twitter @JimMc_Grath (for more academic approaches to comics, pop culture, and media studies) and @poolhalljames (if you’re more interested in out-of-context panels from comics and live-tweets about professional wrestling). You can also email him: jameskennethmcgrath[at]gmail[dot]com