Little Miss Iron Deficiency. Mr. Sexually Confused. Little Miss A Little Too Obsessed With Stranger Things. Mr. Mommy Issues. Little Miss Seasonal Depression. Sound familiar? If not, you’ve missed the Little Miss/Mr. Men meme wave — which probably makes you Little Miss Spends A Healthy Amount Of Time On Social Media.
The latest meme trend: people using cartoon characters popular with Gen-Z and millennials to share personal anecdotes — ranging from lightly self-deprecating (Mr. Uses Big Words Incorrectly) to hilariously overspecific (Little Miss Buys Journals For The Aesthetic But Never Writes In Them) to implications of deeper struggles (Mr. Emotionally Unavailable).
“I find some of these posts to be earnest ways of expressing very hyper-specific trauma or emotion that probably can’t be talked about another way,” said Jamie Cohen, an assistant professor of media studies at CUNY Queens College and self-identifying “Mr. Overwhelmed.”
The memes first started gaining traction on Twitter, Tumblr and Discord around April, and their origin is often credited to @juulpuppy, an Instagram account known for sharing original memes.
But what is it about these memes — repurposed from the Mr. Men and Little Miss brand of children’s books and, more recently, TV show — that made them so popular so quickly? It’s easy to customize, said Cohen. Classified as a “remix meme,” it uses a format that allows anyone with basic editing skills to turn the meme into something self-referential.
No advanced Photoshopping skills are required, said Yasemin Beykont, a doctoral student at Pennsylvania State University who researches new media and meme culture when she isn’t being “Little Miss Procrastinator,” she said. It’s simple to keep the cartoon character and change the text.
Remix memes have always been popular, but they emerged as major players in the digital zeitgeist during the pandemic, Beykont said. During that particularly murky era of unknowns, hall-of-fame screen-time numbers and extreme amounts of indoor time on couches, the format became both a language of self-expression and a coping mechanism to connect with others while sharing vulnerabilities.
“All memes are a form of sense-making [a way for people to deal with their emotions] in one way or another,” Cohen said. “They’re about trying to take a bigger idea that’s a little less comprehensible and make it into something replicable and shareable.”
This is actually what the original Little Miss and Mr. Men stories set out to accomplish. The cutesy, amorphous characters helped kids process larger emotions and more abstract concepts and ideas. The very first Mr. Man — Mr. Tickle — sought to answer the question: “What does a tickle look like?” Subsequent characters embraced charming takes on a variety of traits: Mr. Adventure, Little Miss Brave, Mr. Muddle, Little Miss Curious.
The nostalgia the characters generate, especially for Gen-Z and millennials who grew up during the series’ heyday, evokes memories of a simpler childhood (a common thread in popular remix memes, such as the recent “We need an American Girl doll who ___” trend).
Tapping into this comfort and shared memory, Cohen said, is one reason why people are able to use the meme to reconcile and vocalize their present conditions — some of which are quite sensitive and draw attention to issues that are taboo subjects of conversation in real life.
“This is a sweet way of getting the public to be part of a larger conversation about a hyper-specific neurosis, so to speak, or divergence, that people might want somebody to know in terms of vocabulary.”
When a meme like this goes viral, the digital format becomes so familiar and ubiquitous that we hesitate less in sharing our own feelings and experiences online.
Looking at the larger picture, the fact that people are successfully meme-ing original characters with modern vernacular, context and hyper-specific references, Cohen said, shows two things: the uniqueness of this trend and the power of remix memes to reshape culture — even established stories that have been around for a half-century. “When we’ve reached the point where we’re able to tell a story with a meme, it’s above and beyond our culture,” he added.
How popular memes die
But this influence is a double-edged sword, one wielded by many different online actors and according to a very specific timeline that all trending memes follow, Cohen said.
The meme’s initial explosion was followed by creators shifting to use more inclusive language and dig into niche discussions — many of them centered on mental health. The “Mx.” title was added to disrupt the format’s gender binary, and the labels turned more personal, self-deprecating and expressive of serious topics — an element of meme culture that originates from the early 2010s, Cohen said, and isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
But trending memes always meet a threefold terminus: trolls and radical and/or political remixing; popularity on Instagram, where the app’s format doesn’t allow the meme to grow and develop all that much; and using the popular memes for commercial purposes.
Trolls can and do eventually glom onto whatever meme is popular and wear on people — the longer a meme trends, the more susceptible it is to being used to spread stereotypes and regressive messaging. Users on Instagram have noted that as the trend continues, some of the Little Miss characters have been used to perpetuate dumb blonde jokes and slut-shaming, while some Mr. Men memes have criticized males who fall outside of “traditionally” masculine behavior in dress or expression.
And starting this week, Cohen said, he noticed some of the first political uses of the meme: Little Miss Believes In Traditional Marriage, Little Miss Unvaccinated, Little Miss Two Genders, Little Miss Voted for Trump Twice.
These uses signal a cultural shift with a slippery slope, Cohen said — sometimes ending up in the extremist genre. It has long been a far-right and extremist tactic of co-opting and appropriating existing popular symbols. The swastika, Valknot and ”OK” hand gesture are widespread examples of culturally significant — or simply benign — symbols to have been poached and commandeered by radical groups.
This purpose is twofold, Cohen said: first, to “ride the cultural wave” as a vehicle to share their hateful messaging, and second, to remove its non-hateful meaning from the public consciousness. “Sometimes, not always, they believe that owning a meme or destroying it is a good form of reactionary activism,” he added.
Pepe the Frog, a meme that rose in popularity in the late 2000s and early 2010s, was branded as a hate symbol during the lead-up to the 2016 election. An entire artistic aesthetic called fashwave rebranded early internet nostalgia and Microsoft Paint-chic with white supremacist hate speech — with “art right” surging in popularity in the following years.
“Radicalization occurs, and radicals exist, at the lowest ability to understand anything,” Cohen said. “It’s when you could reduce something down to such simplistic terms that there’s no outside.”
Commercialization is the other way memes start to die. Beykont, who has a background in research and marketing, has observed an uptick in companies’ usage of popular memes in advertisements. And once that happens, she said, users tend to drop them because they take on another meaning. Those getting in on the Little Miss/Mr. Men trend for commercial purposes include the UFC and Disney+ Canada, along with slews of small and online businesses.
“It changes the meaning in a way that people don’t want to use those memes anymore,” she said. “It becomes less authentic.”
Mr. Doesn’t Post Memes says: We are likely at the beginning of the end of this Little Miss Meme trend.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.