Can memes be taken seriously? Laugh if you like, but the advent of social media has seen memes become a legitimate form of communication, having infiltrated our advertisements, daily conversations and even presidential campaigns. Chinese president Xi Jinping outlawed Winnie the Pooh after facing ridicule for his supposed resemblance to the character. Vladimir Putin similarly outlawed a meme of himself. Now, Manny Heffley from the popular “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series has found his way to the political stage as a symbolic meme for Black Lives Matter (BLM). But how did he end up in that position? What impact does Manny, as a meme, have on the movement — if any at all?
“The Manny Will Not Be Televised”
One of the earliest appearances of Manny as a pro-BLM meme is a TikTok video made by @themannyspotted in early June. In the clip, which now sits at over 1.7 million views, an angry rendition of Manny is drawn on the ground with chalk, accompanied by a commentary: “The Manny will not be televised. Look how pissed off the Manny is — look how mad he is, he’s tired of police brutality!”
It’s worth noting that while this is one of the first instances that Manny is shown connected to BLM, public illustrations or graffiti of Manny had already existed as a meme. The video by @themannyspotted was more of an attempt to tie a trending joke to a topical subject, but without an explicit call to action. The end of the clip sees the group laughing: Manny at this stage isn’t much more than a meme.
As the TikTok and other similar memes gained traction, photos of Manny graffiti combined with phrases like “F-ck 12” or “Revolt” started cropping up frequently on social media. This helped to cement the association of Manny’s likeness with the BLM movement and anti-police brutality activism. Comparisons to World War II’s “Kilroy Was Here” (sometimes referred to as the “world’s first meme”) framed “The Manny Will Not Be Televised” graffiti as a reminder to BLM supporters that they are in good company and should continue their efforts against police brutality and racism.
Manny, Mei and the Death of the Author
With increasing public attention and headlines calling Manny a newfound icon, one notably absent voice spoke up: the creator of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” himself, Jeff Kinney. While many were adopting Manny as a symbol of the BLM movement, Kinney expressed a dissenting opinion in a (now deleted) series of tweets: “Lots of people are asking me now how I feel about my character being used as an anti-police symbol. Honestly, I don’t like it. The Black Lives Matter movement needs to be taken seriously. This isn’t helping.”
JEFF KINNEY ALREADY DELETED THE MANNY TWEETS I’M- pic.twitter.com/AoR6tFI8mx
— georgia (@georgsoup) June 26, 2020
Kinney was largely powerless in this situation, despite being the creator of Manny and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” thanks to the concept of the “Death of the Author” that is inherent in memes like “The Manny Will Not Be Televised.” As a meme, Manny has been recontextualized as a symbol outside of anything to do with the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” franchise. Kinney’s personal and artistic intentions for Manny as a character and likeness hold little weight in the public eye.
A similar appropriation of a well-recognized character took place in 2019 with Mei, a member of the ensemble cast in the popular video game “Overwatch.” After Blizzard, the studio that owns “Overwatch,” banned someone from an esports competition after he spoke out in favor of a pro-democracy Hong Kong, fans began circulating images of Mei sporting pro-Hong Kong attire.
There are distinct differences between the usage of these two characters in “meme activism” that highlight a few flaws with using Manny as a political symbol. Firstly, the repurposing of Mei was a direct response to Blizzard, the company that created her, in the hopes of upsetting the studio’s Chinese partners and directly damaging the image of a company that has to censor pro-Hong Kong voices. In contrast, the circulation of Manny memes already existed before they were associated with a movement. The mixture of Manny and pro-BLM messages appear to be a product of timing, and “The Manny Will Not Be Televised” isn’t targeting Jeff Kinney or any of his actions as a public figure.
Mei is also a canonically Chinese superhero, which adds an additional layer of commentary to the pro-Hong Kong Mei memes. Manny is a toddler. His irrelevance to the BLM movement and the randomness of his inclusion is part of the joke, and likely why the original TikTok video exploded in popularity.
Virality is a Curse and a Blessing
Of course, “The Manny Will Not Be Televised” wasn’t created with the same intentions as “pro-Hong Kong Mei” was. @themannyspotted even noted this explicitly in a later video: “[Manny] started as a joke but it’s come together as a symbol of like-minded people who seek change.” It’s also worth noting that @themannyspotted and others have subsequently elaborated on the ideals Manny should stand for as a symbol, and often used Manny as a social media “road sign” to mark resources for donating, signing petitions, etc.
here is our statement. meanwhile, we’re organizing a few things for the people. tune in.
Spreading the message of BLM and directing attention toward the movement is built into Manny memes, but the amalgam of humor and serious politics can mean that large crowds are drawn in for the wrong reasons. It is difficult to measure how much of the traffic for viral videos, like the original Manny TikTok, translates into tangible action.
Similarly, a joke petition to change the U.S. flag to a “Manny Flag” has garnered over 1 million signatures, which is a sobering number when compared to the signature count on petitions for fallen BLM activist Oluwatoyin “Toyin” Salau, for instance. The creator of this petition, TikTok personality Will Wahony, has since promoted “mannyflag.com,” a website that redirects visitors to BLM resources and services. He also claims that the petition has brought new voices to the discussion of BLM, when they otherwise wouldn’t have been interested, and thus has not diminished the role of other BLM voices and organizations.
The double-edged sword of virality reveals itself: Wahony is correct in pointing out the massive amount of traffic his petition has garnered. However, if the viral and humorous nature of the petition and @themannyspotted’s video is what earned that attention, what’s not to say that it’s also where the attention ends?