“Privilege Denying Dude” and the Fight for the Right to Snark

Diana Lopez starts a Web meme in which the joke, for once, is on the white guy. Plus, the Internet's best social justice smart asses.

By Channing Kennedy Nov 23, 2010

Update @ 3:00p ET: We’ve updated the images in this article to comply with a terms-of-use claim by the original photographer (mentioned in this article), who’s expressed concern about the impact on his model. As Diana Lopez says on her personal blog, "The photographer was kind enough to contact Memegenerator and have them replace Jan’s [the model] image with this new one while keeping all the captions." And yes, this new model appears to be feminist dreamboat Ryan Gosling.

You’ve probably heard the story; in the early days of the Internet, many of its architects and champions fully expected it to become the world’s first truly equal society. The old publishing order that kept most people silenced would be left behind, anonymity would be a great leveler, and everyone’s point of view would get heard on all topics and judged without prejudice, on merits. Right?

Today, we see that this didn’t pan out. Economic factors still dictate who has how much time to spend on the Internet, doing what, with whom and at what bitrate. And anonymity hasn’t put everyone on equal footing; it has made it easier for already crowded-out identities, i.e. those that aren’t straight, white, and male, to continue getting overlooked.

These realities are perhaps most starkly clear in the humorous bulletin boards and microblogs that draw the Web’s largest audiences. Sites like the massive anonymized bulletin board 4chan and the image-captioning Web utility Memegenerator are popular examples of an online community that’s open to everyone in theory, that’s admirably participatory in many ways, and that’s accomplished some amazing things. 4chan says it draws more than 10 million users globally a month. And in all seriousness, no thinking person should dismiss the community systems that invented LOLcats.

Dig deeper, though, and such sites are bursting with Southparkian "ironic" bigotry, rape humor, and other jokes that are easier to laugh at when you aren’t the butt of them. The humor isn’t entirely without precedent; in many ways, it’s the same targeted offensiveness of now-embraced comedians like Richard Pryor and George Carlin–saying the nastiest thing you can think of, so you can feel relieved that it isn’t true and prove it has no foothold in you. Old-standby jokes–"there are no black people on the Internet [so say whatever you want about them]"–exaggerate real inconsistencies in the medium itself. However, when looking at a hundred black-people-eating-fried-chicken photos on the same page, one wonders if those noble intentions haven’t gotten lost along the path to funny.

Which brings us to last week’s hottest and most hated new image meme, Privilege Denying Dude, and his creator, 20-year-old SoCal Web developer and vegan feminist Diana Lopez.

For the uninitiated, think of a meme (rhymes with gene) as a running joke that cross-pollinates and mutates as it circulates the Web; memes are those things that "go viral" in popular culture. And millions of microbloggers are trying to produce next week’s most retold cyber-gag. 

Lopez’s Privilege Denying Dude follows the aesthetic signifiers of the long-popular Advice Dog-style image memes–a photo cutout (in this case, of an iconic hip young white dude) and colorful background, with the joke’s setup at the top and punchline at the bottom. What made PDD, as he’s abbreviated, stand out is that he directly, and strikingly, parodied the frat-boy culture that fuels much Internet comedy in the first place–privileged, incurious, and ready to educate you about what your problem is.

In short, PDD is hilarious. And it hit a nerve.

"I was only trying to create something enjoyable," says Lopez. "I began realizing I hijacked something when I got my first rude messages. Eventually, I felt like blasting a ‘Whoops, sorry for molding your outlet for rape, ‘retard,’ child molestation, and (men’s) masturbation jokes into something useful, guys.’ That’s a grand frustration, isn’t it?"

"The Internet has carried over the ‘neutral’ we’ve always seen, meaning that if it’s online, it better appeal to straight white men before and above anyone else. A lot of us hate it. We find humor in other memes, but sometimes we see a misogynist or homophobic joke in the bunch… and we just scroll on past it. It’s disappointing how used to that we are."

Within a week of releasing her image template into the wild, Lopez saw PDD get featured on Jezebel and Tiger Beatdown. Traffic skyrocketed on the Tumblr blog she’d set up to showcase the best submissions, and feedback poured in; people were thrilled and grateful to see a meme of their own. Over 1,500 PDDs were made by folks around the world. 

The backlash came swiftly from privilege-denying dudes and dudettes who suspected that they were being mocked by their own Internet.

"I decided to stay away from places where privilege denying dudes spent time discussing Privilege Denying Dude, for my own mind’s safety," says Lopez. "Some straight white men, on the contrary, did try to do me the favor of validating my work by associating with it, to which I wanted to say, ‘Thanks. (But I got this.)’ Another form of feedback, which was my favorite, was when people asked why PDD saying a certain something was bad, and boom, extensive discussion [followed]. It was great."

Lopez notes the hypocrisy in the reaction from many of the straight white men who felt burned by PDD.  "The result [of a previous feminist pushback against a rape joke] was one of those ‘sorry if you got offended’ mock apologies. That was it. Life went on. What I saw with PDD was straight white men specifically displeased, speaking out about [the joke being on them], and demanding results," Lopez says. "They felt entitled to their space, the Web."

So can the Internet be a tool for positive change, or is the status quo too difficult for these angry white 15 year olds to escape? Lopez thinks it can. 

"I was a privilege denying gal before being exposed to all these wonderful people and thoughts that I would have never heard if not for the Internet," says Lopez. "The Internet could help them see others’ oppression–and I don’t mean oppression from across the country expressed in a blog post. But rather mistreatment close to them they always knew was ‘off,’ but didn’t know was systemic oppression. For example, a family member with a disability having trouble finding work. I hope with all my heart that something clicks for all of them so that we become allies."

On Friday, Tumblr pulled Lopez’ account following a complaint from the owner of the photo her meme employs. Although Lopez had purchased the image from a stock photo site (probably the only time an image meme has been paid for), the photographer was concerned for his model and cited a terms-of-use violation. The photographer also wrote to Lopez to tell her he supported the meme, however, and quickly provided her with a new model.

Time will tell how deep the fissure created by Privilege Denying Dude goes, and Lopez says she’s in no hurry to helm another schedule-destroying project, at least this week. But one thing is clear: social justice advocates are far from humorless. And given a voice and a Tumblr, social justice activists can engage in that most noble of human activities–wasting time and cracking wise.

You can keep up with Diana Lopez, and new PDD developments, at jazzonia.tumblr.com.

Diana Lopez will be the first to tell you that she’s not the only funny person on the Internet. Here’s some people who crack me up.

Standup comic W. Kamau Bell, with his ability to speak frankly and entertainingly on race’s role in our society, is a long-time favorite at ColorLines. Here he is presenting 15 minutes of hilarious Powerpoint at Facing Race 2010; he also got profiled on Feministing this week!

Cartoonist and journalist Susie Cagle does big issues, real people, and the gap between, and does it beautifully. She’s been serializing pages from her ‘zine Nine Gallons, a true-life comic about her experiences with Food Not Bombs in the Tenderloin of San Francisco.

Vag Magazine is a The Office-style Web series that lovingly parodies the foibles of a group of well-meaning young feminists as they launch the titular publication. Broad gags like a character who menstruates freely against the patriarchy, and a rival publication called Cunt, are cut with winceworthily accurate portrayals of our own best intentions as activists.

Cartoonist Gabby Shulz dropped a meta-bomb with this gem of a comic, detailing the cycle that keeps women off the Internet despite men’s, uh, encouragement.

Brokey McPoverty sometimes takes breaks from writing really well, so she has more time to write really well and hilariously. Here she is guessing at the plot of this unfortunately titled "urban fiction novel," and here she is writing catalog copy for the new Steve Harvey line of suits for men. Don’t mess.

Cartoonist Kate Beaton loves history and literature, and, fortunately for the rest of us, boils it down to gag strips. Here’s her taking on Robinson Crusoe from Friday’s perspective.

And Diana Lopez names Sarah Haskins‘ sadly defunct Target: Women video series from Current TV as a favorite. It’s well worth losing an afternoon to Haskins’ hilariously brutal deconstructions of daytime advertising.