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Friday, May 10, 2013

Don't MEME me, bro! Or, Charles Ramsey's lasting cultural significance

The Internet is so dehumanizing. LMAO.

While the public fascination continues over Charles Ramsey, the latest eyewitness-news neighborhood hero to get the auto-tune treatment, cultural critics have gone into overdrive trying to make sense of his overnight meme-ification since he helped save three long-missing abducted women in his working-class Cleveland neighborhood.

If there were a Mount Rushmore (or maybe in this case, a Stone Mountain) memorializing the stars of this viral microtrend, Ramsey's pop-eyed expression and finger-in-socket hairdo would be carved in that mountain right alongside Sweet "Ain't Nobody Got Time For That" Brown and Antoine "Hide Yo Kids, Hide Yo Wife" Dodson. As Salon.com's culture blog Browbeat points out in a post titled, what else but, "The Troubling Viral Trend of the 'Hilarious' Black Neighbor," the trend is fraught with issues of race and class and just plain old otherness, but it's also what makes these characters such undeniably appealing stereotypes. Or, as hip-hop vlogger Jay Smooth (below) codifies them in his talking-head video: "the 'wacky black guy' box or the 'charmingly uneducated hick' box."

Smooth goes on to talk about auto-tune's dehumanizing factor and how the word "meme" has become an active verb that describes the general public's increasing infatuation with flattening and trivializing for comic effect. Which is pretty much what Hollywood has excelled at, both unwittingly and not, where minorities are concerned for the last hundred years or so. Guess we've been well trained.

But the best critique of the racial undertones in Ramsey's situation came from Ramsey, himself, when he got meta on the mic during his initial news interview: "Bro, I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man's arms," he says.

Even the white newsman interviewing him wasn't ready to go there, as he quickly ended the interview. In the process, what we've largely missed, as NPR's Code Switch points out, is "the fact that Charles Ramsey is perfectly lucid and intelligent" - along with being funny as hell:

Here's the really weird and slightly profound thing about all of this, though. The only time we (meaning: mainstream society) really "interact" nowadays with people like Charles Ramsey (or the Sweet Browns and Antoine Dodsons) is on the Internet. It's as if they've become an endangered species, equipped with all the exotic baggage that goes along with that. Perhaps the real dehumanization has occurred not via the Internet at all, but in real life, where we've successfully redistributed a whole class of people to the margins of society in most major cities where gentrification's been the rule for the last decade, while those three women in Ohio have been locked away in that house. It's as if they, too, have been kidnapped from our collective consciousness - like metaphorical versions of the real victims, Amanda Berry, Georgina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight - and when they occasionally emerge online they serve as instant reminders of how homogenized our own reality has largely become. Hence, their popularity.

As Code Switch alludes, few would be so quick to embrace a cat like Ramsey if we saw him standing out on Boulevard. And now that he's been outed as a former perpetrator of domestic violence, it adds a whole new wrinkle to his overnight meme-ification. But if that makes his reality harder to ignore or dismiss with an LOL, maybe that's a good thing.

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