The Cost Of Sharing Sexist Memes

Breakdown Britney is more problematic than you think.

The Cost Of Sharing Sexist Memes

by Esha Nozari |
Published on

What do ancient Athens and your Instagram feed have in common? The theory of the wandering womb, of course!

As a major player in the history of ideas, Plato was a forerunner in the interpretation of ‘female’ as ‘hysterical’. He was the proponent of zingers like ‘thewomb' when remaining unfruitful long beyond its proper time, gets discontented and angry, and wandering in every direction through the body, drives them to extremity, causing all varieties of disease’. And, as a result, kicked off the lucrative business of attributing unfavourable behaviour to women’s anatomy and biology.

More sorcery than science, such theories persist. Plato’s wordy pronouncement was, to all intents and purposes, the Ancient Greek equivalent of someone saying ‘is it that time of the month babe?’ when you’re legitimately annoyed about something they’ve done wrong.

Between the festive ritual demolishing of Toblerones and being irritated by my parents, I found the time over Christmas to take this daunting history of female hysteria for a spin:

It details how the history of the patriarchal West has zero chill. Erratic ‘female behaviour’ has long been attributed to ‘peculiar’ and ‘mysterious’ movements of our wombs. Indeed, these ideas still persist in the 4,000 or so years that have followed Plato - hysteria is still ‘the women’s disease’.

Thankfully, what has changed is the once officially sanctioned cures: removal of the ovaries, clitoris, uterus or, even induced orgasm. But anyone with an interest in giving a shit about stuff has probably considered how hysteria’s troubled past as a clinical diagnosis still haunts modern mental health terminology. It’s even reported that the term ‘hysteria’ wasn’t officially dropped by the American Psychiatric Association until the 1950s.

Which brings me to Instagram. As I scrolled through my feed, belly full on the couch at Christmas, I realised that many of the lolz memes we share actually express the legacy of an association between hysteria and having a womb. The more I looked, the more I saw viral images that spoke to this outdated, inaccurate and archaic way of thinking. I’m not talking about manosphere propaganda. No, I’m talking about innocuous everyday memes.

At first glance many of these memes seem harmless. They feature pop culture regulars like Snow White or meltdown Britney. Just a bit of fun right? Wrong, if you actually look at them, many of these images are explicitly feeding the idea that only women behave erratically and portray hyper-emotional reactions as being specifically feminine. They also trivialise serious mental health problems.

Have you ever realised how many of the memes you share evoke ghastly 19th century caricatures of mental illness and femininity? I’m going to go with no. Ok, look: I love memes as much as the next person, probably way more, in fact. Cut me and I bleed characters from Arthur. But, once I started noticing how many of the most infamous memes of our time convey Victorian notions of female hysteria, suggesting that this thinking is still very much embedded in our society, I couldn’t stop seeing it.

I’d like to introduce the following exhibits in this court of public opinion:


I think we’ll all agree that memes have unrivalled authority in today’s very visual discourse. So, it would be nice if they weren’t Trojan horses forstigmatizing, sexist and inaccurate notions about the links between being a woman and having a mental health problem.

The implication in pretty much every meme above is that ‘woman = crazy’. We might think it’s funny when we share them but, in reality, we’re not only belittling serious mental health conditions, we’re allowing ourselves to be stereotyped in the very way that women have fought hard for centuries to escape. You’re probably not thinking that when you have a crappy day and send a meme which says something like ‘If Britney can make it through 2007, you can get through today’ meme to a friend. But once you unpick it, it’s hard to deny isn’t it. That meme doesn’t do you justice and it certainly doesn’t do Britney any justice.

Memes are not to be underestimated. They are a cultural staple because they are not only scorchingly lol, but also incredibly neat and compact little packets of information. Memes distill complex social mores and cultural events, worthy of entire novels, into a single and highly shareable image. Their lightning speed distribution rates then enable the ideas they embody to be exposed to colossal audiences. Today we communicate in memes. How often do you send a gif instead of writing, in your own words, what you’re thinking and feeling?

The virality of a meme can be taken as read to signify that it struck a chord with the people who shared it.

So perhaps most unnerving of all are the ostensibly humorous hashtags used to share and tag these images. Type in the likes of #crazybitches, #crazybitchesbelike, #psychogirlfriend or even #girlfriendsbelike to Insta’s search bar and you’ll find a databank of images that recall misogynistic anachronisms at your fingertips.

The cultural history of madness is female and, while a fair few things have changed in the last few millenia, these memes are testament to a culture which still consistently and unflinchingly labels women as ‘crazy’ by virtue of their sex.

The thing about memes is that while they provide banter ammunition, they don’t encourage conversation. You send or post the meme, you laugh or write ‘so me’ underneath, the end. We shouldn’t be unthinking and uncritical in our sharing of memes. Sure, the internet has dissipated our concentration spans to the point of no return and many of us probably wouldn’t realise, until it was too late, that we probably shouldn’t have packaged up our own mother’s murder as a first person clickbait piece, but it doesn’t have to be like this. Memes are metaphors, shallow summaries and indicators of wider narratives. When we share them, we share the condensed version of the story narrative without questioning it.

Why does that matter? Let me put it like this: what if a meme suggesting that every single girlfriend was emotionally unstable, searingly jealous and plagued by uncontrollable impulsive behavior becomes the next Grumpy Cat?


Reducing mental illness to gendered, shareable shame is damaging for anyone who’s suffering from a mental health problem or in the process of seeking help. Suffering in silence wins out over being ridiculed. Spreading stigma and shame only discourages people from discussing their problems openly.

Sophie, 27, agrees. ‘I have managed to control the content I see quite well over the last few years. I've deleted quite a few social media accounts to avoid exactly this kind of thing.’ How does seeing a meme which explcitly links women and mental illness make her feel? ‘For my mental health it’s useful [to avoid them]. [They] can send me into a spiral of self doubt so I just try to avoid [them].’

Grace, 23, is also concerned about the memes filling her feed. ‘The virality of them only reflects, depressingly, what lots of people find funny. I think we have to rely on proper education of younger generations so the trivialisation of mental illness and the lingering rhetoric of female hysteria becomes redundant because they know how unfuckingfunny and dangerous it is.’

Communicating with a little more care isn’t as boring as it sounds. The internet also allows for collaborative discussions around mental health. More people than ever are talking about mental health, and that can only be a good thing. It’s more socially acceptable than ever to say you suffer from a mental illness and the shattering of stigmas that comes with that means more of us than ever are openly seeking life-changing treatment.

Social media should help not hinder the way in which we speak about mental health. Sharing images that suggest female hysteria is still alive and well, or normalise practically prehistoric assumptions that all women are illogical, emotionally weak and anatomically incapable of normal behaviour not only confuses understandings of what mental illness actually is, they’re also sexist as fuck.

Women are many things: strong, compassionate, individual and wistful - but we are not hysterical.

Although, then again...I guess you could say...

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Follow Esha on Instagram @sharkbutts

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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