The grumpy cat meme is getting a movie. Producers say it will be "Garfield-like." This horrific news should surprise nobody who follows Hollywood dealmaking. What might surprise you is how much this scenario resembles a dystopian scifi story called "The Waldo Moment," about how memes give rise to global fascism.
Producers Todd Garner and Sean Robins have snapped up rights to grumpy cat, somehow packaging his furry frown into a narrative. On its face, this scenario seems even less promising than the "Shit My Dad Says" TV series, which was based on a popular Twitter account and is now mostly remembered as a punchline on Community. But there are a lot of good reasons why Hollywood wants to commodify this meme.
Writes Mike Fleming at Deadline Hollywood:
Grumpy Cat was named the most influential cat of 2012 by MSNBC, a most important Meme of 2012 by Mashable, and has appeared on such TV shows including Today, Good Morning America, CBS Evening News, Anderson Cooper Live, VH1 Morning Buzz and The Soup. In March, Grumpy Cat was deemed the star of South by Southwest-i by news outlets. The appearances drew lines of thousands of people that spanned for blocks. Grumpy Cat received more social mentions in four days than anyone else at SXSWi. The cat’s official Facebook has more than 930,000 likes and a weekly reach well over 2 million. The official YouTube Channel has over 120,000 subscribers and over 20 million views. Grumpy Cat stars in a collection of webisodes in partnership with Friskies and the Will Kitty Play With It series. Grumpy Cat merchandise sells at Walmart, Hot Topic, Thinkgeek and many other retail stores. Licenses include Chronicle Books, Gund, Ripple Junction, Buckle Down, T Line, ATNY, Ultra Pro, 99 Cent Brains and more.
Let us consider how deep the weirdness goes here. Heaping all of this popularity onto an actual cat would be madness, but "grumpy cat" isn't even a real animal. Sure, there does exist a flesh-and-blood fuzzball named Tardar Sauce whose face looks like a scowl to humans. But the thing people are obsessed with is not that actual cat. They are obsessed with what producer Garner calls "a picture of a cat," a meme that happens to incorporate Tardar Sauce's image. A meme that has "a weekly reach well over 2 million" on Facebook.
This cat picture enjoys more popularity and conveys more social meaning to people than most politicians do.
And here's where things get dystopian. I said earlier that this scenario is very similar to "The Waldo Moment," one of the strongest episodes in Charlie Brooker's dystopian TV series Black Mirror. It's about a comedian in the near future, Jamie, who invents a smiling blue animated bear character named Waldo. Jamie voices and animates Waldo using a simple gestural interface, but the audience sees nothing other than the smiling animation. Waldo rules one segment of an interview show on British television, making boner jokes and terrifying unsuspecting guests with his sarcastic questions. But he achieves grumpy cat levels of meme fame when he takes down a British politician, in a video segment that goes viral on YouTube.
Soon, the network is clamoring for a Waldo show, and they hit upon the idea that Waldo should run for office against the politician he punked. In fact, he's going to follow the politician around, trolling him from a flatscreen monitor attached to the side of a truck. At first, Jamie goes along with the plan. But then, the U.S. intelligence agency gets interested in what's happening with Waldo. They sense that this meme can be weaponized, precisely because something about its rampant fakeness is completely disarming for the public. It's so honestly dishonest that it can be used to manipulate people politically.
Here's a fantastic scene when a US "agency" representative pitches his idea to Jamie and his producer:
Jamie quits, but the studio licenses Waldo to "the agency." And, as I said when I recapped "The Waldo Moment" earlier this year:
In a coda, we flash forward a few years to Jamie living on the streets, being harassed by what seem to be semi-robotic soldiers. Leering down from glowing billboards is Waldo's blue face, surrounded by words like "hope" and "change."
The meme has won. Dystopia wears a cute blue bear's digital face.
Now let's return to the cuddly furpants icon known as grumpy cat. It's already been commodified, converted from a chaotic mess of meanings generated by social networks into a set narrative purely for the purpose of making money. But we've already invested personal meaning into grumpy cat, maybe by generating our own captions for it or just passing around the ones we like. So we're already hooked; we feel like grumpy cat is ours even though it's not. In reality, grumpy cat is an image that can be sold to the highest bidder.
But, you say, we already know this! Yep, that's the point. Because you already know grumpy cat is a fabrication, you think you already know the depths of its artificiality. You think you control grumpy cat, but grumpy cat could control you. Maybe it will only control your urge to pay $15 for a movie. And from there, we sit on the top of the slippery slide into social media dystopia, where cute icons toy with your urges to vote for a particular political party.
Or maybe another innocent meme will come along, even more addictively adorable than grumpy cat. That meme could blow up on 4chan, burn like lightning through Reddit and Facebook, and eventually come alive in the hands of an "agency" that wants to inspire a political movement.
Your memes will be appropriated and turned into weaponized propaganda. I hope you are ready for LOL authoritarianism.
Annalee Newitz is the author of the book, Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction. Follow her on Twitter.