There are certain actors that are just plain internet famous, and they’re not always exactly who you might expect. Gifs of George Clooney aren’t (typically) blowing up on Reddit, and memes of Sandra Bullock’s face aren’t splashed all over your Twitter feed. But Samuel L. Jackson, Bill Murray, Keanu Reeves, Nicholas Cage, or Steve Buscemi persistently grace us in gif form, and “Hey Girl” memes are arguably more famous than Ryan Gosling himself.
Many dismiss these memes as weird blips on the digital zeitgeist — mindless, meaningless cultural dregs. But memes are arguably the most important intervention in Hollywood culture since the invention of the star magazine. I swear.
To understand why, we need to go back to what P. David Marshall calls “serialization,” which can mean a franchise with an overarching narrative or simply a series of related products, such as an on-screen performance, that share a similar style — Seth Rogen’s serialized performance as a man-baby.
Serialization became massively popular in the early Hollywood star system of the 1920s, when producers were attempting to solidify individual movie star personas by categorizing them as a “cowboy” or a “vamp” or a “total douche-monkey.” This was literal product differentiation, a means of establishing audience expectations for what to anticipate when you went into an Audrey Hepburn flick (doe eyes, innocence, little black dresses) or a Marilyn Monroe film (blonde hair, sex appeal, baby voice). If audiences got bored of seeing Marilyn Monroe’s skirt blow up, they could cast her against type, as they did in Clash by Night, when she played a working-class fish cannery employee, thereby playing off of what the audience expected.
Serialization of performances helped create what Marshall calls “personnage,” which structures both audience expectations and actor performances. In other words, personnage creates a feedback loop of typecasting. In the process, that typecast version of our favorite celebrity becomes more real than the actor as an autonomous human being, which is why we picture Samuel L. Jackson calmly lullabying his kids to sleep by saying “Go the f*** to sleep.” This kind of complete integration of onscreen performance and offscreen existence is proof of the power of the personnage.
As producers learned that branded stars were really just very attractive cash cows, they started heavily investing in them. Entire careers popped up around the formation and maintenance of the star personnage, from PR reps to star magazine “journalists” to agents. And for a long time, having a superstar was a completely reliable draw for your movie, and the business of crafting the celebrity personage was completely in the hands of the Hollywood celebrity mill.
That, like everything else in the damn world, changed with the internet. Serialization eventually found a new life in the form of meme culture, in which individual users share, adapt, and reconfigure images or videos, many of which contain celebrities. And Hollywood would never be the same.
This was perhaps most apparent in 2006, when two major Hollywood meme “events” went down. First, a trailer for the Samuel L. Jackson-vehicle Snakes on a Plane became such a meme-ified sensation that the studio actually did reshoots to film even more ridiculous scenes, one of which included the iconic line popularized in an overdubbed R-rated audio trailer: “I want these motherf***ing snakes off this motherf***ing plane.” Understanding this line requires understanding Jackson’s personnage: He’s the curse-happy, no-nonsense badass. The memes played that up, and so the movie played it right back to us.
Later that summer, the movie X-Men: The Last Stand also delightfully referenced memes with the line, “I’m the juggernaut, bitch!”, which was cribbed from a meme-ified, viral, amateur-parody video. Against all odds, a video had made it from the depths of Reddit threads to the heights of Hollywood blockbusters.
It continues today: Just as Andy Warhol serialized Marilyn Monroe’s face, we are serializing Nic Cage raising his eyebrows. This is a fundamental shift in the way we talk about and interact with a movie star’s personnage. Instead of simply consuming media, we now both produce and consume media. We watch movies and make YouTube videos commenting on them. We read an article about killer octopi and post a Tyra Banks reaction gif to it on Facebook. We have become what Marshall calls “prosumers,” and it’s changing the face of pop culture.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in meme culture. With memes, there is a very low barrier to entry — anybody who knows how to pick out a funny-looking cat and write “I can has cheezburger” can do it. And for the most part, they’re not created to generate bucks, they’re just made for lulz and up-votes. In this way, memes are actually an authentic intervention in an otherwise profit-driven media landscape. What’s more, the wide world of the internet allows us prosumers to sample material from just about any aspect of American modern visual culture, which means our precious memes can evoke powerful, shared moments of our collective cultural identity, like that time Jennifer Lawrence tripped up the stairs at the Oscars.
And people are doing that every single day. This means that a growing proportion of content we consume each day is user-generated, made by people who are doing it just for the love of doing it. Rather than passively reading studio-concocted gossip stories and gushing about them to our neighbor, we’re reacting to news stories with skepticism, joy, shade, or any kind of unidentifiable emotion. Today, a truly salient meme can be a more defining cultural moment than a major blockbuster film, as anyone who has dipped into milkshake duck surely must know.
Perhaps nobody’s experienced this more profoundly than Keanu Reeves, who found an errant photograph of him apparently mournfully eating a sandwich become arguably one of the most beloved memes of all time. This meme resonated because Reeves’s life is already marred with tragedy, and him appearing sad is thus consistent with his overall personnage. The image was disseminated so widely that it came to define Reeves just as much as, if not more, than his actual acting career. The meme really completed its cycle, though, when it actually changed Reeves’s career by inspiring a role tailor-made for him: John Wick, the sad superhero. Here, we see the way Keanu’s actual performance reinforces the Sad Keanu meme while solidifying his personnage of the sad badass.
While meme culture has yielded its fair share of travesties, it’s actually emancipating us from a lifetime of images tailor-made to sell us on any number of celebrity personnages. From making Ryan Gosling the unwitting spokesman for feminism, to making Bill Murray the voice of non-give-a-f***ery, these great and powerful prosumers are assigning new meaning to individual actors, and making their own mark on pop culture.