Abstract: Teenage Stepdad is the social media pseudonym for a meme creator who makes satirical use of retro and nostalgic imagery to communicate anti-capitalist political messaging through his Instagram account. This piece explores how Teenage Stepdad uses the aesthetics of culture jamming to give his memes affective power, as well as how he navigates the tensions of using a commercial social media platform to share anti-capitalist and anti-consumerist memes. Particular attention is paid to the recent promotion of a new web series featuring Teenage Stepdad, “Seize the Memes,” and the ways in which the collaborative nature of Instagram can both promote and distract from the account’s explicit political calls to action.
Introduction: Let’s Make Some Fucking Art!
On April 20th, 2021, as social media coordinators for snack food companies, pizzerias, and tobacco paraphernalia shops around the world used Instagram to post cheeky nods to the unofficial holiday dedicated to all things cannabis, a meme creator, Nathan Sims, shared a special announcement. Through his account Teenage Stepdad (@teenagestepdad), Sims shared a post from Means TV (@means_tv), which describes itself as a “worker-owned, anti-capitalist streaming service,” to his Instagram Story. The promotional video resembles a flawed VHS recording, and features the man behind Teenage Stepdad promoting his digital art education web series “Seize the Memes,” which “encourages you to reject any and all art instruction,” while smoking from a bong.1 Sims’ parodic allusions to “420,” or marijuana use culture, the reference to VHS tracking artifacts, and the promotion’s resemblance to a 1990s infomercials all signal this creator’s proximity to certain online meme cultures. What exactly constitutes a “meme culture” is difficult to define, given how memes can, as Julia DeCook explains, reflect certain social norms “depending on which community they are presented in.”2 Indeed, as C. W. Anderson and Matthias Revers observe, “meme culture has taken a life of its own,” characterized by its own “meta-discourses” such as the encyclopedic website KnowYourMeme and even its own stock exchange, NASDANQ.3 In this case, a preoccupation with the past is key to the aesthetic of this particular meme culture, similar to those that coalesce around the eclectic microgenre of electronic music known as vaporwave.4 In his use of these playful and retro aesthetics in his work, Teenage Stepdad participates in his own structuring of the “the symbolic economy of meme production” through his fusion of these memetic trends with a satirical commentary on the passive and profit-driven nature of digital content consumption (as he quips in the promotion for “Seize the Memes,” “You have a computer in your pocket…it can be a tool of creation [rather than consumption], even if all you make is dumb, weird, stupid bullshit”)5.
Sims is a self-described “balding middle-age man” who uses retro elements from American mass media artifacts (book covers, old television commercials, Weekly World News covers, and more) as memetic templates to communicate ambivalent feelings about the future and promote progressive political views.6 Such aesthetic practices reflect the ethos of the culture jamming movement, a primarily media-based practice that emerged in the 1990s in which cultural symbols are “appropriated, reworked, and disseminated…in order to contest meanings and challenge dominant forms of power.”7 Beginning as an irreverent meme account in 2016 with scattered political messaging, following the United States presidential election that same year, Teenage Stepdad’s Instagram presence began to focus much more heavily on resisting what scholars like Mark Fisher have observed as the dystopian realities of life under late capitalism (anti-capitalism) and, relatedly, criticizing what Sarah Banet-Weiser notes as the increasing “ubiquity of advertising, marketing, and branding in everyday life” (anti-consumerism).8 During the Black Lives Matter protests that spread across the United States and the world in summer 2020 as a response to police brutality, posts were often created in direct response to current events and even included political calls to action, such as donating to bail funds for protestors.
Teenage Stepdad’s seemingly niche content has gained a substantial audience: as of March 2022, his account has amassed over 300,000 followers. Despite this large following, Teenage Stepdad has largely eschewed behaviors that would be characterized as typical for social media influencers, which Crystal Abidin defines as those who “accumulate a following… through textual and visual narrations of their personal, everyday lives, upon which advertorials for products and services are premised.”9 Teenage Stepdad chose a decidedly different tactic for his Instagram presence, leaving his identity almost entirely out of his content and largely eschewing partnerships with brands, with a handful of exceptions, up until the 2020 launch of the Seize the Memes series. As his audience has grown (the account gained over 35,000 followers during the tumultuous summer of 202010), Teenage Stepdad has begun to take advantage of more of Instagram’s features as well as partnerships with other accounts to promote his work, raising critical questions about how meme culture, progressive politics, and the commercial nature of social media platforms interact with one another, such as: How is Teenage Stepdad’s political messaging shaped by its employment of culture jamming aesthetics and its memetic nature? In what ways does his use of retro aesthetics shape his content’s affective potential? And in what ways does the commercial nature of his home platform, Instagram, potentially compromise Teenage Stepdad’s anti-capitalist and anti-consumerist mission?
Through the employment of culture jamming-style aesthetics and references to retro media products as a means of communicating disillusionment about both the present and future, I argue that Sims’ work participates in a ‘memeification’ of Svetlana Boym’s notion of reflective nostalgia, which, as she describes in her influential book The Future of Nostalgia, takes an ironic and ambivalent approach to one’s individual and cultural memories rather than encouraging the construction of a collective memory. Rather, reflective nostalgia (or as Pertti Grönholm refers to it, and how I will refer to it throughout this essay, ironic nostalgia11) presents “an ethical and creative challenge” to those memories, and “performs a labor of grief both through pondering pain and through play that points to the future.”12 What role does the ironic play in this conception of nostalgia? As Linda Hutcheson describes in her book Irony’s Edge, irony is most often cited as a “mode of intellectual detachment,” that can simultaneously engage our emotions in ways that “mock, attack, and ridicule” as well as “exclude, embarrass, and humiliate”; ultimately, Hutcheson argues that irony possess an “affective charge” that cannot be separated from the politics of its various usages.13 Boym quotes Hutcheson in her own discussion of nostalgia and irony, finding the two to be highly interrelated concepts that can be employed as a sort of identity politics, a means of resistance in “a world where everything has to be translatable into media-friendly sound bites.”14 Indeed, particularly during the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which social media use skyrocketed, Teenage Stepdad’s memetic nostalgia provided an outlet for
Instagram users to vent their anxieties and frustrations around the country’s political, economic, and cultural structures through engagement with his ironic content.
Internet Memes are Ordinary
In the current cultural landscape, it seems difficult, even impossible, for individuals or groups to drive social and political movements without leveraging social media. Examples of movements such as Occupy Wall Street, where protestors could communicate specific actions to supporters, create and spread memes, and structure their own rhetoric in response to mainstream media’s reception of the movement demonstrate how social media has begun to displace established political organizations as the primary driving force of these movements.15 Consequently, organizing around politically progressive movements, or even sharing creative content that could cultivate solidarity with a movement, increasingly requires operation around the functions of commercially-driven social media platforms like Instagram or TikTok. Moreover, in an era of platform capitalism, every interaction between social media users becomes a data point to be commodified and sold to the company’s advertisers, which could pose an ethical conundrum for anti-capitalist activism.16 As Christian Fuchs observes, in an age of digital capitalism, “neoliberalism’s individualisation of labour, the emergence of digital labour, and the blurring of the boundaries between labour and leisure, the private and the public, production and consumption, the office/factory and the home, have created new challenges for…the organisation of the working class.”17 How should activists make use of the tools of digital capitalism to reach a humanist alternative, when faced with pressures such as the rapid consolidation of those tools into a smaller number of hands, and the increasing need to participate in self-professionalization and monetization to secure and maintain an online following?
Raymond Williams found in his influential essay “Culture is Ordinary,” in a criticism of the Marxist tendency to approach culture in “certain prescribed ways” in order to achieve a socialist system, that “a culture is common meanings, the product of a whole people, and offered individual meanings, the product of a man’s whole committed personal and social experience...they are made by living, made and remade, in ways we cannot know in advance.”18 In a reflection on Williams’ essay, Banet-Weiser finds that the production of popular culture in our advanced capitalist system can no longer be separated by the ways that we make our lives: rather, in our current economic system, “individual resistance within consumer culture is defined and exercised within the parameters of that culture.”19 Banet-Weiser observes the blurring of these boundaries occurring primarily through the process of self-branding, which is in many ways promoted and shaped by the Instagram platform, where users act as producers and consumers of one another’s life narratives. In such an environment, what are the consequences of Williams’ admonition that “if we extend our culture we shall change it,” when the extension of culture is so often mediated through digital platforms?20
Enter the meme, which in so many ways serves to define and shape the culture of life online. While memes have been defined and discussed by scholars in a number of ways since the publication of Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene that brought the term into the cultural zeitgeist, this essay relies on DeCook’s appropriately simplistic definition of the cultural phenomenon as it occurs online: “Memes are publicly and colloquially understood to be humorous images, videos, text, etc. that are copied and spread throughout the virtual sphere from person to person or community to community.”21 Moreover, in terms of their potential for political activism, Huntington explains how, like culture jamming itself, “much of memes’ appeal is their intertextual nature by which they take images from dominant media structures, juxtaposing and remixing them to create new layers of meaning.”22 Given this mutability, Internet memes offer nearly unlimited potential for personal as well as political self-expression.
A distinguishing characteristic of a Teenage Stepdad “meme” is that Sims designs these works himself, rather than modifications of existing meme templates that make up the bulk of the content posted by other meme-centric accounts. Indeed, Sims refers to his work as both “art” and “memes” interchangeably, demonstrating how he straddles the line between creating content that could be considered both a form of contemporary art and the “anonymous, fast, and often crude” form of vernacular expression that characterizes the Internet meme.23 Nevertheless, Sims takes advantage of Instagram’s proclivity toward easily digestible and spreadable image-based content to promote his anti-capitalist and anti-consumerist message. Moreover, his work makes use of the rebellious language of culture jamming to challenge the functions and tendencies of the platform (for example, in a recent post where he points out the platform’s apparent tendency to remove posts that use the phrase “white people”24), thereby reflecting Huntington’s theorization of the Internet meme as “neatly packaged visual arguments” that can play a key role in online political activism.25 Such a challenge to the continued advancement and exploitation of capitalism is made “ordinary” by Teenage Stepdad through his use of the meme, a means of communication that is quickly becoming one of the most impactful forms of everyday online vernacular. What follows is an analysis of Teenage Stepdad’s work, and the ways in which he portrays anxieties about the future, and navigates the tensions of doing so on a social media platform that seeks to capitalize on the narratives of our everyday lives, by leveraging the affective power of ironic nostalgia through culture jamming-style memes.
Culture Jamming: Potentials and Limitations
Teenage Stepdad’s content is reminiscent of the culture jamming art movement in its play with retro media elements like advertisements for children’s toys and reappropriations of tabloid news covers. Culture jamming is defined as “a range of tactics used to critique, subvert, and otherwise ‘jam’ the workings of consumer culture.”26 Through the use of mass media-based strategies like the advertising parodies in Adbusters magazine, or performance-based strategies like those employed by the experimental music collective Negativland, who are credited with coining the expression in the early 1980s, the ultimate goal of culture jamming is to “interrupt the flow of mainstream, market driven communications—scrambling the signal, injecting the unexpected, jarring audiences, provoking critical thinking, inviting play and public participation.”27 For Jennifer Sandlin and Jennifer L. Milam, culture jamming serves an expressly political purpose, in that it creates what they refer to as a political poetics: “when politics become poetic, and is presented or enacted through...a fun, exciting, collective experience of culture, it can seem more open and inviting, less predictable, than other forms of political protest.”28
For others, culture jamming has its limitations: as Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter argue, while popular culture tends to teach us that having fun is the “ultimate subversive act,” in reality, subversion comes from working, organizing, and campaigning: after all, “having fun isn’t subversive, and it doesn’t undermine any system.”29 For Patrícia Dias and José Luís Garcia, “in order to be subversive,” culture jamming-style political content “must have a goal beyond the appropriation of images,” given that “images may be able to carry over some of the dominant meanings embedded in them.”30 Through his work, Teenage Stepdad uses the aesthetics of culture jamming in an attempt to bridge this gap between political protest and the seemingly mindless act of scrolling one’s Instagram feed. His Instagram account and the activities surrounding it, particularly during the promotion of his “Seize the Memes” web series, therefore serve as a case study in how political activism has pervaded American social media and thereby the wider cultural landscape in the wake of the election of Donald Trump in 2016. At the same time, given Teenage Stepdad’s level of success (represented by his large following), his leveraging of social media to communicate anti-establishment viewpoints can present complicated ramifications, such as how to navigate the advertiser-driven nature of the Instagram platform, particularly when Sims has stated that he does not “give a shit” about monetization.31
While the participatory nature of Instagram allows Teenage Stepdad to play with new forms of culture jamming (as evidenced by his recent experimentation with posting short videos and animations to his grid), and his followers to instantly provide their feedback, the platform could also present limitations to culture jamming’s ultimate objective as a playful tool for anti-capitalist social movements. Teenage Stepdad has designed his work around describing the dangers of capitalism, the growing power of technology companies, and the dreariness of a future where the current economic, political and social norms are allowed to persist. This could be a challenging task in a society where, as Banet-Weiser observes, it can often seem like there are no longer any areas of American culture where capitalism has not infiltrated. Meme creators like Teenage Stepdad must navigate the implications of sharing anti-consumerist and anti-capitalist messages through a social media platform that demands the commodification of their activities.32 Indeed, as Tama Leaver and colleagues observe, it becomes difficult, even impossible, to avoid the commodification of one’s online presence when navigating the “cultural logics” of Instagram, which has begun to rely more on an advertising-based model in response to the growing presence of influencers on the platform. Such a shift changed the dynamics of the platform, resulting in a “difficulty in balancing commerce with communication.”33 Teenage Stepdad has employed several strategies to navigate these tensions, though the continual pressure to conform to the norms of the platform are also made evident in his recent work.
Seizing the Memes of Production?
In their study of the anti-bullying, LGBT youth-centric YouTube campaign “It Gets Better,” and the thousands of resulting videos uploaded by users duplicating the campaign’s format, Noam Gal and colleagues focus on the Internet meme as a “performative act” that contributes to processes of norm formation. In choosing to either “echo or defy” a meme format, individuals can choose to either act in compliance or subversion of that particular format. Most importantly, “choosing to post a particular meme version in a particular digital arena co-constructs individuals and collectives” involved in that digital space.34 Similarly, the aesthetic choices made by Teenage Stepdad over the course of the account’s life similarly reveal a push-and-pull between a deviation from platform-based norms (for example, by avoiding using his likeness in his content, or by using memes to criticize Instagram’s practices) and the need to conform to the algorithmically-driven logics of the platform, wherein even amateur creators must develop an ethos of self-professionalization and audience commodification in order to maintain visibility, a particular concern for full-time creators like Sims.35
Leaver et al. describe a number of cultures and communities on Instagram, some of which do not necessarily conform to the norms that are reinforced by influencers’ behaviors on the platform: a meme format pioneered by teenage users involves accounts where the same picture of a person or object is posted daily (for example, the account @samepicofdannydevitoeveryday). Of these different cultures, Teenage Stepdad’s work fits most comfortably in the category of the satirical social awareness account, which “may engage with Instagram’s norms more critically” to spread a political message.36 Prior to the American presidential election in November 2016, posts by Teenage Stepdad that focused on the interactions between politics, economics and the future were few and far between, though pessimism about the future had already been consistent theme throughout his work. After 2016, however, the political messaging around Teenage Stepdad’s work became increasingly blatant. Easily shareable graphics containing messages like “Motherfuck the Police,” encouraging followers to donate to bail funds, and promoting the destruction of Confederate monuments cropped up on Teenage Stepdad’s account during the height of civil unrest in the summer of 2020. Indeed, Instagram as a platform offers significant potential for political impact that Sims is leveraging: trends like the “I Voted” sticker selfies “reflect Instagram’s recognition of the use of popular social media for participating within political contexts.”37
However, a focus on activity around Teenage Stepdad’s account after this tumultuous summer demonstrates that his content has begun to shift away from these explicit political calls to action, and instead has begun to focus more heavily on promotion of the “Seize the Memes” web series. The show, “set in alternate reality 90s public access” is made in partnership with Means TV, a streaming service offering subscriptions on a sliding scale, and it features Sims humorously teaching the show’s viewers how to design their own memes, along with highlighting the work of other meme creators.38 The collaborative nature of the series and the promotional efforts around its release has resulted in greater exposure for Sims, including an interview with the entertainment news outlet Vulture.39 At the same time, this new focus exposes a potential limitation of memes as political discourse when their creator must balance between their value as entertainment and as drivers of awareness and activism.
For example, since the announcement of the “Seize the Memes” series, the man behind Teenage Stepdad has become a far more prominent figure on the page. Compared to the prototypical idea of the successful content creator on Instagram, the man behind Teenage Stepdad had remained largely anonymous prior to the release of “Seize the Memes”: in 2020, only a few posts featured his likeness, demonstrating a resistance usage of a platform that ushered in the art of the selfie.40 The creator’s increasing use of his face in a satirical fashion for his own content indicates a willingness on Teenage Stepdad’s part to participate in what Phillips calls the “reverse snowball” of meme creation and spreading and its impact on the identity of those whose likenesses are used in the memes: “it loses context as it spreads rather than gains it. Therefore, real people are very easily reduced to ‘grotesque caricatures.’”41 At the same time, by literally turning himself into a meme, Teenage Stepdad’s creator incorporates his own identity into the account’s “brand,” and perhaps inadvertently participates in the presentation of the self that defines Instagram as a platform and drives much of its sponsored content.42 While Teenage Stepdad leverages his physical appearance in order to fit the parodic retro aesthetic that characterizes the account (in “Seize the Memes,” Sims sports a Tom Selleck-esque moustache and an FBI sweater that could only have been purchased from a tourist trap gift shop), such content could serve to distract from the account’s political context.
Aesthetics, Affect and the Power of Nostalgia
Images from retro media products, and the affective power of the nostalgia inherent to these products, are central to the aesthetic of a Teenage Stepdad meme. While nostalgia is traditionally associated with an affect of longing or desire, for Boym, “reflective nostalgia…can be ironic and humorous. It reveals that longing and critical thinking are not opposed to one another, as affective memories do not absolve one from compassion, judgment or critical reflection.”43 Theorizing the account’s employment of culture jamming aesthetics through the lens of Boym’s reflective nostalgia helps to unpack how Sims’ content, rather than leading us uncritically into a desire for an ideal past, instead serves as a “meditation on the possibilities of dealing with [the past’s disappointments” by refashioning old dreams in new settings.”44 For instance, while nearly all of Teenage Stepdad’s grid posts (referring to posts that appear on the account’s main page) are static images, editing tactics are used to make the image feel like a
tactile object. For example, the appearance of wear and tear along the edges of these images make the graphics appear like the cover of a well-worn book, indicating a level of familiarity and intimacy with the media object that might elicit this feeling of longing in the viewer. At the same time, the cynical and often crude style of humor used in Teenage Stepdad’s work, which distances these objects from their original meaning, ultimately serves to suspend this sense of longing toward the object and lends to these images the sense of irony that characterizes Boym’s notion of reflective nostalgia.
One typical post from Teenage Stepdad, an edit of a 1990s advertisement for a monster truck toy from March 2021, demonstrates the effectiveness of these allusions: claws tear through the corner of the advertisement, while the text practically screams “Stay Angry Forever.” Smaller text in the corner of the image humorously expresses a self-referential nod to the sense of hopelessness that can often accompany social and political activism: “I guess I’ll just continue to express this shit in a square image with text on top because I don’t know what else to do.” However, several of the users who commented on this post focused less on the frustrations of overthrowing a capitalist system and more on the nostalgic aspect of the advertisement, stemming from having seen the ad or even owning the toy truck as children.45 Indeed, users will frequently respond to Teenage Stepdad’s posts with their knowledge of the media or consumer products that appeared in the original advertisements.
Such interactions with Teenage Stepdad’s content indicate that the allusions to the materiality of the nostalgic brands, the refashioning of old media in new contexts, could distract from the supposed purpose of the content. At the same time, Sandlin and Milam find that it is precisely this appeal to a sense of nostalgia that fulfills one of the purposes of culture jamming. In taking a pedagogical approach to culture jamming, they find it can become a site of learning through its engagement with “the whole person”–both the body and the emotions of the learner. In this case, the body refers more so to a sense of “inter-embodiment” that users experience as they interact with one another through social media platforms, which engage users “visually, spatially” and “through imagination.”46 Teenage Stepdad’s brand of ironic nostalgia evoked through his use of culture jamming-style aesthetics, which lead to recognition of the media products he appropriates in his work, “thus helps to establish a strong relationality–or consciousness of being ‘with’ others.”47 Indeed, highly interactive social media platforms like Instagram offer the perfect opportunity to achieve this relationality, and offer built-in tools like the ability to comment and share for the “creation of a political community through a different kind of political engagement.”48
As these earlier examples have demonstrated, Teenage Stepdad’s ironic allusions to certain retro brands are also used to communicate pessimistic feelings about the future by leveraging their affective power. In a post from March 2021 (Figure 4), Teenage Stepdad edited a cover of the now out of print Omni, a science and science fiction magazine published by Penthouse owner Bob Guccione and his partner Kathy Keeton, which featured works by the likes of writers like William Gibson and Orson Scott Card. In an interview with the magazine’s new editor Claire Evans in The Verge for the magazine’s 2013 revival, Evans discusses how the stories and essays published in the original Omni reflected a more contemplative, perhaps even utopian view of the future: “I think Omni was very skewed towards this idea of convenience, leisure, enhanced ability, enhanced freedom, and sexuality.”49 By choosing a cover from Omni magazines to express a defeatist attitude about the future, Teenage Stepdad creates a parodic contrast to the expansive notion of the future that the magazine promoted during its original run. Though it still utilizes the nostalgic power of the brand (many users in the comments excitedly pointed out their knowledge of the reference to Omni), it does so in a tongue-in-cheek way that is recognized by his followers, and therefore serves as an example of both the effectiveness of memes in expressing political rhetoric and the re-creation of culture afforded by culture jamming.
Branding a Meme Account
Observations around Teenage Stepdad’s account show how he both leverages and resists the cultural logics of the Instagram platform in order to promote his work, particularly surrounding the release of the “Seize the Memes” web series. For example, by selling merchandise like t-shirts and art prints based on the account’s content (which he refers to as “propaganda”), Teenage Stepdad flirts with a trend that Banet-Weiser observes in a social-media driven “brand culture,” where a cultural producer’s incorporation into brand culture “is not about capital encroaching on authentic culture but rather is a process of transforming and shifting cultural labor into capitalist business practices.”50 Banet-Weiser’s observations reflect Heath and Potter’s critique of anti-consumerist practices by countercultural activists such as culture jammers: “individualistic sartorial and stylistic rebellion” merely feeds into consumerist society, creating “a whole new set of goods for these new ‘rebel consumers’ to compete for. The struggle for status is replaced by the quest for cool.”51 While Teenage Stepdad intentionally resists overt forms of commodification of his “brand” (such as monetization, or posting sponsored content), some of his activities around the platform demonstrate these limitations to engaging in culture jamming-style activities.
For instance, Teenage Stepdad used a number of Instagram’s affordances (defined by Nancy Baym as capabilities enabled by certain configurations of technologies; in other words, how technologies can be used as well as the way the technologies themselves encourage some kinds of uses over others) to promote the “Seize the Memes” series.52 For example, Sims made use of the “swipe up” feature on his Stories to allow his followers to click through to the official post about “Seize the Memes” on the Means TV Instagram account. Though Teenage Stepdad’s account is not verified (meaning that Instagram has not confirmed the identity of the account’s owner, and granted the coveted blue checkmark that will then appear next to the account’s name) the swipe up function as of 2020 was limited only to certain kinds of accounts, such as “celebrities, news outlets, and influencers” who are using Instagram to promote items or share information, meaning that the use of the function can point to one’s level of cultural and social capital on the platform.53 Since the April 20th announcement of the series, Teenage Stepdad has more frequently utilized the feature to promote both his own work and the work of similar meme accounts on the platform. Following the announcement about his web series, Teenage Stepdad also made more frequent use of the “question and answer” sticker filter on his Stories which allows users to write questions which he can then respond to, another tactic typically used to get more engagement from followers.
By making use of these affordances, Teenage Stepdad increases his account’s visibility, which allows him to simultaneously spread his political message wider and help him sell more merchandise (while a handful of the t-shirt designs listed on Teenage Stepdad’s web store promise that 100% of profits will be donated to organizations like Black Lives Matter and The Bail Project, a majority do not). This aligns with Heath and Potter’s observation that “culture jammers like Adbusters are playing the same game of consumer revolt that other countercultural rebels have been playing for years,” like engaging in consumerist activities (such as selling merchandise) to show that you reject mainstream society, while, as they argue, ultimately failing to pose a real challenge to the capitalist system.54 Though selling merchandise is not the sole negator of one’s anti-capitalist or anti-consumerist work, the ways in which Teenage Stepdad makes use of the features of the Instagram platform in order to promote his creative work indicate the delicate balance that must be struck between supporting his livelihood as a full-time artist, and facilitating the spread and growth of a political message.
Indeed, the visual nature of Instagram as a platform seems to command a need for material iterations of one’s favorite memes. By selling shirts through third party companies like Threadless, for example, Teenage Stepdad participates in this booming sector of the Instagram economy. As Leaver et al. describe it, “the digital-only form of Instagram has led to numerous explorations of how to make this content material—and, in turn, how to make this a profitable business venture...a small economy has emerged centered around making things out of content that seemingly only exists as pixels on a screen.”55 At the same time, while merchandise promotion might seem contrary to the anti-capitalist messaging of his account, in an interview with Florida-based zine Break the Chain, Sims discusses the centrality of creating material iterations of his work, like print sheets that can be used to make stickers, to his mission: “I’d like to do more of that, it’s a great way to encourage more active participation with my work from my audience. That’s one of the reasons I built myself a website, so I can experiment with more shit like that.”56 While consumption of products like t-shirts does not necessarily constitute “active participation” with an artists’ work or direct engagement with a political movement, Teenage Stepdad’s creator views the need to navigate the tensions of activities like selling merchandise as necessary for the vitality of his message, and has even used the meme format to respond to criticism that selling merchandise and participating in partnerships with businesses
contradicts his anti-capitalist message (Figure 5). However, not all of his followers appear to share this view.
Instagram “Success” and its Trappings
While Teenage Stepdad claims to limit the proportion of his content that could be defined as “sponsored content” or advertisements (his Patreon page encourages followers to donate to him so that he can “ignore marketers who approach me to run ads every day”57), he has not shied away from such content entirely. Often, due to the nature of Instagram browsing and the formulaic aesthetics of Teenage Stepdad’s memes, this kind of content can easily blend into more typical posts from the account. For example, in January 2021, Teenage Stepdad posted an image of a poster that he designed for a Darren Aronofsky movie titled Some Kind of Heaven. Simply scrolling by the image, it appears to be a satirical take on life in the Villages retirement community in Florida (Figure 6). As Leaver et al. point out, “advertorials that appeal to ‘the Instagram aesthetic,’” in other words, content that is polished, curated, and consistent with the visual style or genre that account has aligned itself with, “are the most naturalized and subtle because it is difficult to discern if the post is sponsored or merely submitting to the clickability of hegemonic Instagram taste.”58 Until viewing the caption, which includes links to the accounts for the production studio, Aronofsky, and the studio Teenage Stepdad worked with to design the image, it is difficult to discern from any of the account’s other posts stylistically. A brief review of the movie from Teenage Stepdad, which includes the praise “I fucking dug it,” lends a notion of authenticity to the post, seeming to indicate that Sims would not have agreed to this partnership if he did not approve of the movie.59 While the nature of the partnership between Teenage Stepdad and the film’s producers is unclear, this kind of promotional content (which still makes up a small percentage of Teenage Stepdad’s grid posts) in terms of memes functioning as entertainment versus as political calls to action, further tips the scales toward the former.
As Sandlin and Milam observe, one potential weakness of culture jamming is that it could potentially “dictate who people should be and what they should think, rather than allowing for the open ‘talking back’” from its intended audience.60 However, an initial analysis of audience responses to Teenage Stepdad reveals that some of his followers talk back loudly. Observations of Teenage Stepdad’s partnered content and the user engagement around them show how such content could conflict with, but could also be necessary to the promotion of the account’s more explicitly political messaging. For example, while a Teenage Stepdad post from April 2020 promoting Brooklyn coffee brand Black Good elicited mostly positive comments, a number of users expressed critical sentiments like “Wow you finally sold out,” “Unfollowed,” and “Wow I hate capitalism.”61 Similarly, the Netflix show Good Trip uses one of Teenage Stepdad’s memes in a post promoting the show on its official account. Again, it is unclear whether the show sought permission to use the image or whether Sims received any financial remuneration for its use. Nevertheless, one user, assumedly a follower of Teenage Stepdad, commented “well this is disappointing.”62 While further audience-based research would be needed to draw any conclusions, these initial examples suggests that engagement with Teenage Stepdad’s sponsored or partnered content highlights the limitations of culture jamming-style memes in commercial contexts, and also elicits critical feedback from followers that may necessitate a response from the creator in order to retain the account’s political integrity.
Through his work, Teenage Stepdad expresses both a disillusionment with the increasingly corporate nature of the Internet and social media platforms (CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg and Executive Chairman of Amazon Jeff Bezos are frequent subjects of derision in his memes) and a willingness to use the digital tools available to him to promote his messaging, and even to expand the account’s potentials. This is expressed in his interview with Break the Chain, where when he is asked “What are your thoughts on censorship on the internet at the moment?,” Sims responds that “the thing I do have a problem with is the way the algorithms reinforce the white/male/cishet supremacy inherent to the culture of Silicon Valley. I know that the bias inherent to the algorithm has helped my ‘success’...and I would love nothing more than to see it destroyed.” In the meantime, though, “It’s more about using the tools available to us through capitalism to bring about the fall of capitalism.”63 Huntington similarly recognizes the potential for memes to function as rhetoric for social movements. While politically motivated memes “are not the same as a clearly articulated mission statement...they can provide some insight into the hopes of the protestors and movement supporters.”64 Rather than just serving as (often juvenile) humor or distraction, as Huntington reminds us, memes can instead be “neatly packaged visual arguments,” and accordingly, “future criticism of activist rhetoric ought to consider these nontraditional rhetorical artifacts for their impact to conversations about the movement.”65 Indeed, the affective impact of the nostalgic imagery used in a Teenage Stepdad meme, its shareability, and its logical translation to material tools for grassroots activism (such as stickers) ultimately make it a highly effective tool for spreading anti-capitalist messaging, though it may not pose a significant challenge to the system itself.
The creator of the Teenage Stepdad account on Instagram navigates the ramifications of sharing anti-capitalist messaging on a commercially driven social media platform, in part by selectively participating in partnerships with brands and companies, and gearing content and merchandise toward the account’s anti-capitalist and anti-consumerist political message. At the same time, the recent promotion of the “Seize the Memes” web series created by Teenage Stepdad seems to indicate a move away from the explicit political calls to action, indicated by the account’s support of the Black Lives Matter movement during the summer of 2020, toward a more nebulous “capitalism is bad” message that lacks a clear directive.
While Teenage Stepdad has often used the affective potential of memetic nostalgia to promote action-centric rhetoric like contributing to bail funds for political protestors or encouraging his followers to follow lockdown orders during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the throwback web series “Seize the Memes” seems to indicate a shift toward positioning the Teenage Stepdad “brand” as a form of politically aware entertainment within Instagram’s structures and affordances.66 Sims displays a sardonic self-awareness of this conundrum in a promotional post for “Seize the Memes” from June 2021, which features a series of graphics where his likeness is imposed on to various media products, including rapper Silkk the Shocker’s 1998 album Charge It 2 da Game, with the message that Teenage Stepdad has “sold out.” As the caption reads, “Corporate America, let it be known that Teenage Stepdad is #openforbusiness.”67 If, contrary to Heath and Potter’s observations about culture jamming, having fun can be subversive, the work of Teenage Stepdad demonstrates that the seeds of revolution could very well be planted through a smartphone.
Lucy March is a PhD student in the Media and Communication program at Temple University. Her research is concerned with the relationships between capitalism, popular culture, and digital environments. In particular, she is interested in how online platforms shape audience interactions, identity and representation within music subcultures.