What does the Sanders/Clinton meme really mean?

Joanna Harlow

Online Editor



Photo by Gage Skidmore via wikimedia.com

There is a meme circulating on social media in which Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton respond to a cultural topic. The message of the meme is that Bernie has more cultural knowledge, or more simply, he’s cooler.

Hillary responds in the meme as someone with very limited cultural knowledge who is trying to look cool, but failing in the way that people who have to try to look cool often do.  I’ll admit that the first one I saw, a dig at the chain restaurant Olive Garden, made me chuckle.

But the meme speaks to more than just “Bernie has better taste, Hillary is boring.” It’s a sexist meme, and I’ll tell you why.

Rebecca Traister, in an essay for New York Magazine, examined the challenges of Clinton’s campaign in rousing young voters.  Traister states that “the bigger truth is that what Bernie does, to great acclaim, that Hillary Clinton could never do, is make big promises of institutional overthrow…” But what is the obstacle in her way? It’s an old, gendered pattern, that we are all (having been institutionalized into it) liable to fall into. Traister writes that “women understand that making promises they cannot back up will not get them taken seriously, and they must prove themselves extra competent in order to be understood as basically competent.”

This paradigm can be observed in all levels of our society. Mom is the one that enforces rules, and Dad is the fun one. It is why men get to make speeches of outrage without being accused of being overly dramatic.

In the meme, Bernie knows the back catalogue of Radiohead, while Hillary can only recall the song “Creep”. Hillary regurgitates corporate lines, while Bernie says what’s on his mind.

But is this a realistic depiction of Sanders?

When the New York Times Magazine’s Ana Marie Cox asked Sanders to comment on his hair, he responded by  saying: “OK, Ana, I don’t mean to be rude here. I am running for president of the United States on serious issues, OK? Do you have serious questions?” Which is a great answer, and the same answer which Hillary has used to shut down similar questions.

This is another  problem with the meme: it interprets Sander’s passion in debates and speeches about serious issues like economic inequality, as a meaningless stance on a some cultural minutia which he would never address.

The nature of a meme is that it addresses a feeling among a social group, and the feeling here is that Clinton is robotic, while Sanders is genuine. But is comparing how Clinton responds to so-called ‘soft questions’ to how Sanders responds to serious policy questions fair?

I don’t want to play into the pettiness, but if we are going to be empirical, consider this observation by Amanda Hess of Slate Magazine: “When New York magazine’s Rembert Browne asked Sanders to name his favorite David Bowie song at Fusion’s January Brown and Black Democratic Presidential Forum, Sanders replied, “I know he passed away, and the answer is that I wasn’t much of a follower of his.” Weeks later, Bernie closed an Iowa speech to the tune of “Starman,” and Newsweek raved that the choice “felt sincere.”

Meme Bernie isn’t really reflective of the real Bernie, and even if viewers understand that, they are still being affected by this interpretation.

If you support Bernie, remember that he has continuously discouraged sexism regarding Clinton. He probably isn’t in on the joke.

It must be recognized that Hillary does have to work harder to succeed in the face of critics who talk about the “shrillness” of her voice as if it is a personality trait which will cause diplomatic disasters.

Houston Press writer Jef Rouner points out that the Bernie vs. Hillary meme bears an uncanny resemblance to the old “Idiot Nerd Girl” meme, where the message is  “women are interested in traditional nerdy things like Star Wars or video games simply because they are now trendy, and that their interest is superficial.”

It’s the same sexist message as it always is, with the substitution of the most famous woman in America instead of some anonymous girl. The meme puts Hillary  into the categories of nagging mom/wife or prudish know-it-all. Some of the nastier incarnations of this meme have stooped as low as making fun of Clinton for her husband’s infidelities.

Memes are not going to decide the election, but they do perpetuate certain attitudes. The sexist implications of this meme are casting a negative light on progressives who might not have  put critical thought into what they are posting as a joke.

If you’re not a sexist, and I assume that many people who post the meme would not identify as such, find another platform on which to criticize the opposing candidate.


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