Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Humor and religion in 2012 presidential election memes

Religious memes about the candidates of the 2012 presidential election invoke humor in provocative (and sometimes problematic) ways. The memes about Obama and Romney both use Shifman’s concepts of playfulness, incongruity, and superiority. As Shifman explains, playfulness occurs when “humor is enjoyed for its own sake,” and the item has clearly been constructed by its creators to be humorous (2011, p. 195-96). Incongruity refers to an instance in which “the comic derives from an unexpected cognitive encounter between two incongruent elements, as in a pun, a man in women’s clothing, or a dancing banana” (Shifman, 2011, p. 196). By contrast, superiority is used in order to “feature people who are unintentionally, or at least not clearly intentionally, funny” (Shifman, 2011, p. 196). As we will see through analysis of a sample meme about each candidate, multiple types of humor can be used in a single meme, although one type is usually foregrounded through the interaction of the image and text.

The Obama meme in this instance purports to show how different groups or people “see” Obama. The primary type of humor operating here is incongruity, because the image of Obama,   person with considerable power and influence, is paired with a number of disparate images, such as Hitler, a unicorn, and the image of Jesus. However, there are other layers of humor occurring here, as the image of Obama on a unicorn could be seen either as playful (it’s funny to think of a man in a suit riding or unicorn). However, when we combine the text of “how Democrats see Obama” with the image of Obama on a unicorn, it becomes clear that superiority is the type of humor being used: someone who is disenchanted with Democrats might very well poke fun at Democrats in a scornful way by putting Obama on a unicorn. In this light, the pairing casts Obama (and, by extension, Democrats) as being unrealistic or living in a fantasy world.

This specific meme seems to transcend party lines, offering a (sometimes) humorous critique of both the way people see Obama, as well as the man himself. Interestingly, all of the Middle Eastern countries’ perceptions of Obama show photographs of Obama being burned in effigy: real photos of real events. By contrast, the purported viewpoints of Republicans, Democrats, and Obama are whimsical and clearly contrived. This juxtaposition of the real with the imagined seem to communicate that the way people of this nation view Obama is incorrect, whereas the view of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran is true.

The meme of Mitt Romney clearly foregrounds superiority, as the meme’s creator pokes fun at Romney for his views regarding gay marriage and government subsidies. This meme requires the reader to perceive opposition to gay marriages and government subsidies as being unconstitutional in order for the humor to make sense.  The reference to “the gays” pokes fun at Romney’s conservative, LDS beliefs, which define marriage as “between a man and a woman” (Romney, 2007). Romney’s views are thus cast as being unenlightened, or inferior. The sympathetic reader of the meme becomes the intellectual superior of Romney by seeing a logical contradiction that Romney does not.

The visual imagery in this meme functions to further contextualize the argument, as it was taken during one of the presidential debates. This is significant because it was during the first presidential debates that Romney stated that he would cut subsidies to PBS (Kessler, 2012). Additionally, the fact that the image shows Romney laughing is significant because it further illustrates the view of Romney as unconcerned with others due to his personal affluence. Interestingly, this meme does not seem to invoke playfulness or incongruity, relying wholly on the reader’s agreement with the argument in order to elicit feelings of superiority.

To conclude, the two memes invoke humor in different ways. While the Obama meme contained multilayered uses of humor (playfulness and superiority, while foregrounding incongruity), the meme of Romney relied wholly on superiority.  The religious components of the Obama meme worked to create an image of Obama as a kind of god, or as co-opting religion, while Romney’s religious beliefs were used to make him seem unintelligent. In both cases, the candidates and their religious beliefs were essentialized. In short, the meme served to create an uncomplicated snapshot of each candidate and his religious beliefs that could be viewed humorously. While in a sense, this creates a fallacious, ad hominem argument against the person rather than the policy, it could also create the potential for further discussion and dialogue.

Based on this and the previous analysis, I propose the following research questions: 
1. Memes necessarily engage in religious reductionism, or essentialism in order to make a point. How is reductionism used strategically in these memes and to what end?
2. In what ways does religion in these memes invoke a specific political identity for the candidates? 


Kessler, G. (2012, October 10). Does mitt romney want to 'kill' big bird?. Retrieved from

Romney, M. (2007). Mitt romney on same-sex marriage. Retrieved from

Shifman, L. (2011). An anatomy of a youtube meme. New Media & Society14(2), 187-203.

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