Anything can be a meme. It’s almost harder to question what can’t be turned into one.
The history of internet memes can be traced back to 1976, when evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins blended the Greek word mimeme — which means “something imitated” — with the English word gene.
Dawkins wanted a short word to summarize the spread of an idea, catchphrase or even a new method of doing something — a “cultural gene.” He could not have anticipated that in creating this word, he would set the stage for LOLcats and Rickrolling.
Now, a meme is characterized as an image with overlaying text (or sometimes a caption, say on Twitter or Instagram) that goes viral. It can convey emotion, opinions or information. Honestly, it’s not entirely that far off from what Dawkins was talking about.
At the most basic level, memes are jokes. In a beautiful, more intellectual way, scholar Elizabeth Cantalamessa describes them as “a way of orienting oneself in the world,” adding that “memes can frame problems or experiences in a way that allows us to share our experiences, including difficult or traumatic experiences.”
Today, the output of memes is even used as a measure of a TV show’s success. For example, Quibi, a mobile-centric streaming platform that launched on April 6, does not allow screenshots. That policy, which eliminates the chance for any memes to be made about its original content, has been pointed to by some as a red flag for the future of the young platform.
While the sources of memes vary, a major proponent in churning out some of the most-used memes on the internet is reality TV. In The Know has researched the history behind five mega-popular reality TV memes, and how TV moments influenced pop culture in a way nobody could ever have anticipated.
1. Tiffany ‘New York’ Pollard sulks on her bed – ‘Flavor of Love’ (2006)
This meme comes from the first season of “Flavor of Love,” which aired in 2006 on VH1. The show’s premise was for 20 women to compete for the chance to date Flavor Flav, a rapper and member of the hip-hop group Public Enemy.
Though Tiffany “New York” Pollard (all of the girls were assigned nicknames at the beginning of the show) ended up being the runner-up of the season, she’s arguably more well-known to a generation who had been too young to watch “Flavor of Love” as the face of several viral memes and GIFs.
The scene that turned her into an internet sensation nearly a decade after it aired shows Pollard sitting on her bed and wearing sunglasses to avoid the other women and prove to Flav that she was a “solid woman in the house.”
The moment is quick — watch from 10:31 to 10:43.
Pollard told BuzzFeed that this scene encapsulated how hard of an adjustment being on a reality TV show was for her.
“I just remember being so alone, so pissed off; I wanted to get away from those girls,” Pollard said. “I was really having a rough time in that moment and I think me sitting there was actually me just trying to center myself, centering myself through this bad energy I was dealing with.”
According to Know Your Meme, on May 7, 2015, Twitter user MikeShotya posted the screenshot of Pollard “centering herself” (from a now-suspended account) and captioned it: “When everyone you chilling with ordered food but you broke so you gotta act like you not hungry.”
On May 13, user Eyeemoji (also currently suspended from Twitter) posted the same screenshot and captioned it with: “When your friends force you to go somewhere you didn’t want to so you purposely drown the room in negative energy.” The rest is history.
Pollard continues to thrive in the reality TV realm, and recently joined the cast of the celebrity edition of MTV’s “Ex on the Beach.”
2. Taylor Armstrong screams at a dinner party – ‘Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’ (2011)
This is actually a mash-up that was generated by one easily amused Twitter user. On the left is a screenshot from a season 2 episode of “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” which aired in 2011. Taylor Armstrong (the woman pointing) was in the middle of a wine-fueled fight with Dee Dee (off-screen, recipient of the pointing) at their friend Brandi’s party. Kyle Richards holds Armstrong back as Armstrong tearfully screams and jabs her finger at Dee Dee.
Even without knowing the full context of the fight, the scene is worth watching.
Armstrong is fully aware of the meme. “During the screaming scene, I was truly terrified for my life and my safety. When I look back now, that life seems like someone else’s” she told O Magazine. “I never imagined of all my TV moments, that would be the one to become a ‘meme’ sensation.”
On the right side is a cat from this 2018 Tumblr post.
People credit a tweet by @MISSINGEGIRL from 2019 as the origin for the mash-up.
But it was a Reddit post that formally made the photos into a meme, making it look like the cat and Armstrong were interacting with each other.
Armstrong appeared on “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” as an “official housewife” for seasons 1 through 3, and then appeared as a “guest” for seasons 4 through 6. After leaving Bravo, she was on VH1’s “Couples Therapy” and a WeTV show called “CELEBrations.”
3. Tyra Banks yells at a contestant – ‘America’s Next Top Model’ (2005)
“America’s Next Top Model” (ANTM) produced some phenomenal Tyra Banks moments — but arguably the most memorable and meme-worthy was her blow-up at a contestant in a 2005 episode.
Both Tiffany Richardson and Rebecca Epley were on the chopping block when, in a dramatic twist, Banks decided to eliminate both models. While Epley sobbed, Richardson turned to the remaining contestants and said, “Cheer up, waterheads. [What are you] lookin’ all sad for?”
Banks called the two back to the runway and let loose on Richardson, who, in Banks’ opinion, was not taking being eliminated seriously enough.
“I have never in my life yelled at a girl like this. When my mother yells like this it’s because she loves me. I was rooting for you, we were all rooting for you! How dare you!”
Banks gave an interview to BuzzFeed in 2017, explaining that she doesn’t recognize herself in the clip. “Oh my god totally, I wouldn’t have done it,” Banks said in response to being asked whether she’d do anything differently in the scene. “Actually, maybe I wouldn’t have aired it.”
“It was such an emotional, visceral moment for me,” Banks continued. “I had so much love for this girl.”
Banks also insisted that she will never recreate the scene for fans, even if they ask.
“America’s Next Top Model” ran from 2003 to 2015 and then got picked up again in 2017. Kevin O’Keefe and Mathew Rodriguez credit ANTM and its over-the-top drama with inspiring the first season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
4. Tiffany ‘New York’ Pollard’s award-worthy reaction – ‘Flavor of Love’ (2006)
Given the amount of GIFs and memes starring Pollard, it would be a disservice and lie to only talk about one.
Also from season 1 of “Flavor of Love,” this meme was spawned by a fight between Pollard and fellow contestant Hottie. Pollard accused Hottie of stealing her jacket because Hottie had once said that she was so competitive she might “cut up someone’s clothes to win.”
As an audience gathers around the girls, Hottie snaps that Pollard is just jealous of her because people tell Hottie she looks like Beyoncé.
The GIF of Pollard’s reaction does not accurately sum up the pandemonium that ensues. Pollard, unaware this scene will be made into a bitmap image that millions of people will use on Twitter, looks to the camera directly and sincerely says, “Beyoncé, sweetie, I’m so sorry.”
5. Kim Kardashian’s ugly crying face – ‘Kourtney and Kim Take New York’ (2012)
How could this list be complete without a Kardashian? Each family member has managed to offer the internet something to meme, and they don’t seem like they’re slowing down anytime soon.
Kim’s ugly crying face became a meme sometime after the infamous second season of “Kourtney and Kim Take New York” aired in 2012. Kim had bravely shown her crying face before on the show, but there was something about the second time around that made people really latch on.
In the scene leading up to the meme, Kim is confessing to Scott and Kourtney that she’s annoyed with her new husband Kris Humphries (!) for saying that he’s going to ship his stuff to her house in L.A. For the whole season of the spin-off series, Kim and Kris had been at odds with each other, despite hosting a $10 million wedding weeks prior.
Scott asks, “You do realize you’re married, right?” setting Kim off to cry long enough for someone to screenshot it and turn one of her lowest life moments into a meme. She and Kris eventually get divorced 72 days after tying the knot.
Since this moment, Kardashian has lived a quiet life under the radar and out of the spotlight. Just kidding.
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