In the past few weeks, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un has been dominating international headlines with his repeated saber-rattling, and the story has gone on to inspire a vast amount of internet parody memes. Buzzfeed recently published a big roundup of the funniest examples, while Know Your Meme has been tracking the “Hungry Kim Jong-un” set of memes for a few months now.
The title of the Buzzfeed article, “The Internet is Really Not Afraid of Kim Jong-un,” is particularly interesting from my perspective. Here, “the Internet” is framed as a singular entity – one that is characterized by the derisive humor of Reddit-style meme culture. Obviously, this sort of activity only constitutes a small fraction of the online discourse that is currently taking place around the North Korea issue (some of it “high-minded,” some of it “low-minded,” and much of it in between), and yet somehow it comes to stand in for the whole. Of course, humorous memes are the bread and butter of a site like Buzzfeed, so it’s unsurprising that they would focus on this specific facet of what the internet has to offer. It just seems to me that this sort of reductionist talk about “the internet” is becoming more and more common as of late (as in the AV Club’s “Great Job, Internet!” feature), and it would be wise to take a step back and appreciate the breadth and variety of online political discourse. After all, “television” is not just late-night comedy monologues (the obvious precursor to these sorts of memes), so why is “the internet” so often painted as merely a factory of flippancy?
That being said, I would refrain from labeling the Kim Jong-un memes as “bad” discourse, political trivialization, etc. As scholars of mediated political satire like Jeffrey P. Jones have shown, this sort of seemingly-frivolous humor can enliven the public sphere and bring new entrants (particularly young people) into the realm of civic participation and citizenship. Indeed, it is rather heartening that the meme-spreaders of “the internet” are tackling the latest developments in international politics in addition to the usual repertoire of cute cats and celebrity gossip. While it might be merely laughing in the face of serious global tensions, these memes are getting people to think and talk about issues that they may have otherwise ignored. Great job, internet, indeed.
– Joel Penney