Raging bushfires in Australia. The acquittal of a president who abused the highest office in the land. Tensions heightened to a near breaking point between the United States and Iran after Trump’s targeted kill of their most powerful general. This year has been more dystopian than it has been hopeful. And with a pandemic that’s infected over 180,000 globally, many are wondering where we went wrong with 2020. But through it all, memes have provided a source of humor and a means of working through the doom and gloom of this moment.
The admin of the historicallywomens.c0m Instagram page didn’t set out to quell the anxieties of uncertain times when she created the account. Since 2017, she’s posted memes submitted from the community that poke fun at, critically examine and celebrate the experiences of historically women’s college (HWC) students. That vision hasn’t changed. But now, she’s also found herself coordinating a support network for HWC students whose schools have closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Over 100 public and private colleges and universities have announced precautionary measures, such as weeks-long suspensions, transitions to online learning and, in some cases, closures for the remainder of the spring semester. Millions of vulnerable students have been left scrambling to find housing, rides to airports, affordable storage units and emergency funds. For the page’s admin—who has chosen not to reveal her identity—memes weren’t enough. “Once I started receiving meme submissions surrounding responses to COVID-19, I knew I needed to do something besides post ‘funny content,’” she shared.
Since the day news broke of Smith College’s closure, she has used the Instagram story feature to post requests from students for aid and from others offering their resources. “The actual support and aid were swiftly and generously provided by alumni, current students, and even members of the class of 2024 who couldn’t idly sit back and watch members of their community fail to stay afloat,” she elaborated. But this isn’t the first time she’s used her platform for public good.
A student sent her screenshots of an email from Barnard Deputy Dean of the College Natalie Friedman, who threatened disciplinary action against Barnard student Zhifan Yang ’20 for potentially breaking self-quarantine. Barnard administrators enforced mandatory self-quarantine for students who had returned from mainland China after Jan. 19. When Yang left her room briefly to use the restroom, she missed one of two daily food deliveries allowed to students in quarantine. This was reported to Friedman.
The page admin posted the email screenshots in February. In the post, she implores students to press Barnard administrators to rethink their decision. “I certainly do not consider my page a news source, and I would be horrified if anyone regarded it as such, but there are some issues that need to be talked about and put out in the open,” she shared.
A week later, she posted screenshots of an email from Vassar College President Elizabeth Bradley’s email detailing the discovery of Native American human remains on campus. Professor Emerita of Anthropology Lucille Lewis had gathered the remains in Alaska as research materials, before the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was passed. “During this time LISTEN to Indigenous demands and needs. Be there for the people who are deeply and horrifically impacted by this cover up,” she urges in the post.
Through global pandemics, playful infighting between schools and school administrations’ insensitive actions, she hopes most of all to stoke discourse among the historically women’s college community. As disturbing, comical, frightening or outrageous phenomena pop up on these campuses, memes are one of these students’ media of choice to make jokes and express their frustrations. The admin said, “While these can be funny and further highlight the absurdity of a situation, it does prompt [me] to then say, ‘Okay, comedy aside, let’s talk about this.’” She also asks herself if online hypervisibility can be used to enact change. “When the answer to the last question is yes, this is where I tend to step in,” she said.