Meme Dissertation is a column that breaks down the history of a meme, how it has evolved, it's current context, and what the current use of it says about our society.
If you've been on the internet in the past two years it's likely that you've seen this panel of Doctor Manhatten lamenting his time on earth. Casually called "These People", its use has taken off in the past 9 months, particularly in response to the onslaught of horse crap that is the ever-churning news cycle.
Let's take a closer look at how this meme came to be, and what its sudden resurgence means for all of us.
WHERE DID YOU COME FROM, WHERE DID YOU GO? / Origins
If you're not familiar with Alan Moore's limited series comic book Watchmen, or the 2009 film adaptation of the same name, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is a panel of Lex Luthor after an accident at the paint-counter.
The widely=shared pic is actually a mash-up of an illustration by Dave Gibbons from Chapter IV of the comic book series, and a line that Billy Crudup recites in his portrayal of the good doc in the film.
This sad-sack, Doctor Manhattan, is the product of a science experiment gone wrong which has resulted in super-human powers of telekinesis, the ability to alter his size & multiply himself, and teleportation, among other things. He is recruited by the US Government as a military asset but still lives a partially normal life with the woman he was dating before his transformation.
Oh, and he also walks around dick-out because... something-something, disengaged from humanity? He speaks in an 'unemotional' monotone that is sure to spark an eye-roll of recognition from every woman who's had to listen to a man play devil's advocate at a work function.
He understands social etiquette because he has all his memories from before he zapped out of existence and came back as an R-rated super-smurf. Somehow, this no longer matters to him because he thinks scientifically now. His demeanour seems more like a sociopath who knows they're hurting people and doesn't care than an actual logical thinker, but, if we flashback to that work function we all know those 'logical' men are a hair's breadth away from sociopath already.
In the film, the line is nihilist genie's response to his partner leaving him after she finds out he is having an affair with a 16-year-old girl. Remember, he knows what's right and wrong. He knows what age is legal but he's suddenly god-like so whoop-de-doo to ethics, we guess.
The reality of the choice he made is that he's a man socialised in post-WW2 American society who no longer has to face consequences for his shady sexual actions because he's important now, and he knows that. (So, basically a Hollywood exec.)
Many people using the meme will not know this context, so we have to ask: does it matter?
Have a watch of this clip before we get into whether it does or not. He's thankfully wearing some skimpy undies for those 3 minutes, but you can for sure see his blue CGI peen if you watch the full-length movie.
Warning: In this clip, he explodes some guys with the wave of a hand. Maybe don't be eating while you watch it.
THE MEME IN THE WILD / USAGE
Unsurprisingly, this meme is mostly used as a rection image. Meaning that a reblog, retweet, or repost of something accompanied by this picture lets the audience know that the reposter is exhausted by whatever they've just seen.
In response to a cringey TikTok or boring tweet about what's for lunch (again), this meme is a lighthearted way to remind us that not everything needs to be posted online. It says "ya basic" & "think about your audience" all at once, because nothing is posted to a void. It's less harsh than a blatant "I don't care," but more fiery than simply scrolling past or muting.
Its perfect use is to a friend, or at least someone you know personally, letting them know in a sassy way that you want to keep following them, but the stuff they're putting up is no-bueno.
But more recently that usage has changed. It has become cruel, as most things do when they exist on the internet for long enough; a way to make fun of people earnestly posting about their interests & passions.
It dismisses the mundanity of people's lives, putting the poster of the meme above everyone else and into god-like status beside Spaceman Tobias Funke. It says both "I am ambivalent to your existence" & "I am better than you" in a two-for-one of narcissism.
Now, not caring about every detail of every other person's life is fine. That would be an impossible task, and mentally exhausting. But telling them that? Needlessly cruel.
This use of the "These People" meme idolises a detached nature and has become a representation of the pervasive cynicism growing in society. You don't have to know about its sexist origins to understand that a man deciding he is above everyone else reinforces patriarchal ideas.
In response to larger social issues, this meme is a way of diminishing their seriousness and shirking responsibility for being involved in the solution. To be able to place oneself outside of and above the problems of others is an immense privilege. If this meme could talk it would say "I don't vote because it doesn't affect me anyway." Yuck.
IT AIN'T THAT DEEP THO / Analysis
But, just because Doctor Manhattan is a dick-swinging dick, does that mean the text approves of him? Well, no.
Alan Moore wasn't writing a story about heroes. The series tagline, "Who watches the watchmen?", reminds us that power should not go unchecked. The series decries the power superheroes hold, showing us that they are just as good, evil, corruptable, and messy as any of us. Doctor Manhattan isn't lauded in the film as a good guy, so it's a perfectly fine assumption that this moment was intended to be about more than his wish to become a watchmaker again.
Yes, doc cock's wish at this moment is to not have to deal with the large questions. Should he stop the assassination of JFK? Is it his job to step in and stop the Vietnam War? How much of the future should one person be expected to take responsibility for?
But he is also a man, facing the fact that he cannot get away with treating people badly simply because he deems their wants and needs inconsequential.
The comic series and film don't want us to idolise him. So, then, why do we?
In the same way that Fight Club being a man's favourite movie is a possible red flag, Doctor Manhattan's shooing-away of all humanity has become the go-to response for a slew of internet users, normalising it as an OK way to think. The same mean-spirited "I hate everyone equally" arrogance of a devoted South Park fan has taken hold of this meme and the people who use it.
It's true that the message intended in media is not always what the audience takes away. It is also true that when we identify with characters, lift up those stories, and repeat what we took away from them, we reinforce that misinterpreted message to others.
The easy reworking & recontextualising is what makes memes so shareable, but when they're shared with coarseness and cruelty, that spreads too.
It didn't start with this meme but its use is a reduction of, and reflection of, the unconscious way society has become individualised & keeps us detached from our empathy for others.
SO LONG & THANKS FOR ALL THE FISH / FINAL THOUGHTS
It's understandable that constantly hearing current news of the pandemic, rising fascism, and global warming would make us apathetic and despondent. These issues seem too big for one person to overcome, let alone a god-like nuclear-experiment-gone-wrong. No wonder we feel the same as Doctor Manhattan in that moment. But the answer to that feeling, however flippant or small, should not be for us to galvanise the idea of disengaging from humanity.
Humanity, as we mean it, is not just the existence of people, but is also (as thesaurus.com says) benevolence, compassion, & generosity. When we stop looking for the humanity in others, thinking ourselves above their insignificant worries, we close ourselves off from all the good parts of life.
If a silly picture on the internet can hold so much weight, how did we get here?
Was dismissing the little things the start of a slippery slope int