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To Whoever Threw That Tear Gas...

Updated: Sep 2, 2022

Claire Martens

A six second viral video from 2014 gifted us an iconic phrase that many know: “whoever threw that paper, your moms a hoe”. In the original video, the line was given by an older teacher playing with one of his students that was throwing papers in the classroom. In 2020 it is still a tagline that we laugh at, or maybe say to our friends when we see someone throw an unusual object. As like any viral comedic tagline, its flexibility allowed it to transcend contextual boundaries; the joke has now been embodied at activist demonstrations. Someone shared a video of a young woman yelling “whoever threw that teargas, your mom’s a hoe” at an officer that threw a canister in her direction. That phrase was not for the benefit of the officer, and it was not a sincere plea to cease the violent anti-protester tactics employed. The joke was for the other demonstrators, and the likeminded people seeing her in the video that are “in on the joke”. The officer most likely did not know what that phrase meant, or where it came from, complicating the claim that this joke could be satirical- this is definitely not inherent political satire to an unknown listener. But to those “in on the joke”, the speaker connected the experience of that original video to the tangible response of a teargas canister. Connecting both the generational signifier from 2014 to the positioned present with mostly youth-based demonstrations satirizes our own belief in what we thought our future would be. The joke is funny because it juxtaposes a benign Vine video with the violent reality of 2020 as well as playfully mocking a serious interaction, attempting to strip the officers of their fear tactics and intimidation. There is a collection of protest signs and chants that pull from these taglines from older viral videos: videos that circulated to all of the demonstrators individually and at different points in time during our adolescence. It reminds the group that “we are us” and “we remember” as we continue to navigate through our proposed and idealized future.

Disillusionment with existing institutions is not a generationally dependent trait nor a new occurrence, yet we see this hopeless sentiment sweeping across Gen Z with stronger momentum than previous life cohorts. Reflecting on this, there are clear tangible events that lined up with this cohort’s psychological and physical development that helped craft this disillusionment. 9/11 is a hazy memory; for me I can remember watching my parents watch the TV as I played on the shaggy green rug next to the purple couch. Talking to peers of mine, their 9/11 memories also center around internalizing the reactions of adults, or just remembering that they went home from preschool early that day. As a 2-and-a-half-year-old I had no idea of the forthcoming Patriotic Act and the ensuing violence we would soon live to accept before it became heavily formative to our cohort’s collective world view. We witnessed the 2008 financial crisis, again internalizing the reactions of our role models of the how their government and economy failed them. Obviously, each life cohort has their horrific traumas, but the digital natives face a new problem of the inundation and visibility of graphic violence as well as the expectation to engage with it. The succinct and shareable format of informal prose or video clips allows humor or satire to be quick and guided with no seconds lost to wait for a live studio audience’s laughter to quiet down.

Although there have been mainstream media pieces on individual Gen Zers as sociopolitical actors, like Emma Gonzalez and Greta Thunberg, majority of research and surveys, done by entities like McKinsey and Co., are to benefit marketers or economists to track how this highly influential consumer group is behaving and how to steer brands toward a Gen Z market. We know that this life cohort is psychologically strained by the inundation of information, and we also know much of their meaning-making and processing manifests in group gallows humor or satire. But specifically, what does Gen Z satire look like, and how does it function? How does our laughter move, reverberate, and act as a beacon of activism? And how does this generation identify itself and perform its idealized world view? Lastly, when does a joke’s lifespan end in the digital, and does it ever live in the “analog”?

The powerlessness of youth alongside the inundation of dreadful, hopeless information creates a fusion of absurdist and pointed satire that contrasts with the existing tradition of political satire coming out of The Colbert Report or The Daily Show. The satire now includes the threading of jokes from our adolescence that are applied to our reality now, juxtaposing our own idealized futures. The modes in which laughter reverberates, moves, and is embodied at present is an example of laughter as both activism and as a mediation between the body and mind. Physically, laughter unites a group or audience with rhythmic pulses of endorphins and is used for audiences to agree on expectations of what ideas or behaviors should be mocked and what should be upheld. The embodiment of memes in the “analog” world to function within activism spaces could be driven by a number of desires. We know why Gen Z jokes, but how the laughter moves is the force that needs to be analyzed specifically in this positioned moment of 2020 BLM demonstrations.

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