Since I will be putting together a meme assignment for ENG 310, I’m going to need examples. I will add them here with a little analysis to show how the meme works, how it persuades. So much involves pop culture references, which tap into deep knowledge that students already have. I thought this would take some time, but the first example popped up today in my Facebook feed, that generous generator of memes.
This meme uses one of the most iconic Twilight Zone episodes starring one of the most iconic actors to spring out of that era, William Shatner before he was Captain Kirk. In the episode, he is seeing a strange and frightening alien that no one else can see standing on the wing of the plane in flight, taunting him with the plane’s destruction. What can he do? Who will believe him? Why does no one else see what he sees? This meme takes a moment when Shatner’s character is is possessed by fear and attempting mightily to communicate with someone, anyone who can do something about the situation. The meme-creator, anonymous as they usually are, substitutes the head of Donald Trump for the alien.
Why does this work? First, the film still is very well chosen. This is one of the best known Twilight Zone episodes, so the situation does not have to be explained. Instead, it creates the needed foundation for the thesis to come. Next, Shatner himself brings powerful connotations to the meme. His emotional style of acting paired with unique vocal phrasing is very well known. Just having him in the still brings drama. He is clearly struggling to both appeal to an off-screen other’s sense of reason and recognition of danger while also knowing that the situation itself is unique and to all appearances, unlikely. He must tell, but who will believe him? And, there is the added danger that the original episode plays out, what if he is the only person who can see this dangerous entity dancing on the wing of the plane, ready to send them all plummeting to their deaths? In the episode, he is the only one who can see the “little man,” in a gut-wrenching fulfillment of his greatest fear.
That is the base for the meme. Now, add the visual manipulation. By adding Trump’s head in the alien spot, the meme-creator uses metonymy, a common device in poetry, but also used in argumentation. By substituting one thing for another where it is unexpected, the attributes of the original are transposed to the new image. That is what happens here. Trump takes on the alien spot and becomes the danger that only Shatner’s everyman can see, a danger that could take down the entire ship of state, another cliche used to make the fear specific. Planes and ships are often seen as equivalent as noted in the still used term, airship. From there to the term ship of state is a small leap. The meme expresses a fear for the ship of state, our country, and the journey it is on. Why do so few see the danger in Trump’s candidacy, they ask. Finally, portraying Trump as an alien is effective because of the many references to his hair as alien–either an alien growth or a rodent perched on his head. These references are deep and longstanding; if Trump were to get a real haircut and ditch the pompadour, his identity would be altered. Trump’s bizarre hair has come to symbolize the man, and in this case, his alienness and menace.
Memes often use catchphrases or other captions to compete the idea, but this one does not. It does not need to. The argument is complete in the composite image, an image that draws on cultural history and metaphor.