In nearly two years of writing for Catster, I have come to know more about Internet cat celebrities than I thought possible. There is no question that Grumpy Cat is at or near the top of any list of the most popular celebrity cats on the Internet. The face that launched a million memes, Grumpy Cat’s perpetual scowl is the perfect vessel for projecting frustrations of every sort. So, what is a meme, anyway?
If you spend any time on the Internet in general or on any social networking site in particular, you’ve probably consumed more memes than you can count. A meme, also known as an image macro, typically consists of a bold central image, accompanied by a blurb of declarative text expressing a simple idea or opinion. If you think of the name “Grumpy Cat,” what comes to mind?
I don’t know about you, but for me, my mind immediately conjures the frowning face, phrases like, “I had fun once / It was awful,” or perhaps just the word “No.” This host of proliferating associations is at the heart of any meme destined to go viral. Some memes piggyback on other sources of cultural capital, yielding an endless cycle of self-referentiality.
The nickname “Grumpy Cat” is a meme itself, and it has become a shorthand for voicing displeasure, sublimating violence, and casting aspersions on people the authors don’t like. Grumpy Cat’s real name, Tardar Sauce, carries no such associations. When I was asked to compile the best Grumpy Cat memes, I faced several challenges.
Doing preparatory research on Grumpy Cat memes — by which I mean several days worth of scouring search engines full of low-resolution images — I was surprised to find how much of Grumpy Cat’s meme potential resides in vitriol, vulgarity, and negativity. People seem to enjoy Grumpy Cat memes because we are entertained by the juxtaposition of ugly thoughts with cute animal photos.
I had to set some guidelines for this set of Grumpy Cat memes. First, no foul language, which unfortunately ruled out several Grumpy Cat memes that made me laugh out loud, and at least one of which unwittingly forced me to spit coffee on a neighbor. Many Grumpy Cat memes seem to draw their humor from fat-shaming or body-shaming. These will not be found here either. Nor will you see Grumpy Cat memes that explicitly endorse physically harming oneself or others.
What can that possibly leave us in terms of selecting the best Grumpy Cat memes? To my mind, the best Grumpy Cat memes are those that can convey the niggling frustrations and banal irritations we associate with everyday life without resorting to cheap laughs. Grumpy Cat memes can amuse, entertain, and cause us to nod approvingly without casually denigrating entire cross-sections of the population.
With these kinds of very basic restrictions, one may easily counter with, “Why do you hate Grumpy Cat?” I don’t hate Grumpy Cat, or even Grumpy Cat memes. Aside from the fact that Grumpy Cat memes seem inspired by hatred, it’s a weird question to ask in the first place. A better question about Grumpy Cat memes is why people vent their rage under the auspices of cat photography.
This Grumpy Cat meme excels because it plays with the declarative “No” linked with the cat’s early memes. At the same time, it invokes the chemical formula of nitric oxide. We may laugh in spite of ourselves when we make the associative leap to laughing gas, better known as nitrous oxide.
For grammarians and others of us annoyed by text speak or conversations carried on entirely in emojis and abbreviations, here is an excellent Grumpy Cat meme. The best Grumpy Cat memes entertain and satisfy us, after all, when they draw on our own lived experiences. The less substantive the complaint, the more we identify with its intended target.
There’s little I find more bothersome than these needless and mindless abbreviations, which have made their way from memes into everyday conversation. Whether they trace their origins to image macros such as Grumpy Cat memes or hashtags on Twitter, textese and chat acronyms are omnipresent. The most successful of these become so ubiquitous that before you know it, your grandmother is saying things like “YOLO.”
A good Grumpy Cat meme can thwart our expectations. Rather than trotting out the latest Internet acronym, it can use word economy and a slightly different linguistic approach to transport us into realms of romantic disenchantment. Tardar Sauce is such a photogenic cat, it also helps when a Grumpy Cat meme uses a fresh and brightly colored photo to express these memes’ trademark misanthropy.
Is existential angst more interesting to you than the perverse delight of schadenfreude? Then we’ve got the Grumpy Cat meme for you. Our next image macro encapsulates the potential of a Grumpy Cat meme when it’s done with a clever touch. More like a Zen koan than your bog-standard meme, this is one that will tempt you to nod in agreement and shake your head at the same time.
Clichés functioned for our pre-Internet ancestors in the same way that Grumpy Cat memes do for us today. Like clichés, Grumpy Cat memes can take established folk wisdom or trite phrases and give them an effective tweak. Take the tired and well-worn citrus-based platitude, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” This is the kind of baseless optimism that Grumpy Cat memes were made to skewer.
Another facet of the successful meme subject is how it is embraced by fan culture. With her distinctive look, Tardar Sauce has not only won legions of fans, but inspired countless instances of fan art. Grumpy Cat memes thrive on variation, so naturally, Grumpy Cat fan art soon became incorporated into vehicles for memes themselves. Unfortunately, being co-opted means erasure for many talented artists who go unacknowledged. This one was originally designed by Erin Hunting.
With piercing blue eyes that seem to leap from the chocolate-colored rings of fur that frame them, Grumpy Cat memes need not be profane or gratuitous to inspire admiration, chuckles, likes, or shares. I admire subtlety and finesse; a gentle touch, if you will. I also admire creativity, effort, and possibility.
This 8-bit Nintendo-era pixel art, for example, requires no words at all to convey the full range of ideas we associate with Grumpy Cat memes. Grumpy Cat memes rotate on an axis of thwarted ambition and deep cynicism. Since her debut in 2012, Grumpy Cat shows no signs of slowing down.
Do you have a favorite Grumpy Cat meme? Have you taken to sites like Meme Generator to design your own? Share your faves, or your own best work, in the comments below!
About the author: Melvin Peña trained as a scholar and teacher of 18th-century British literature before turning his research and writing skills to puppies and kittens. He enjoys making art, hiking, and concert-going, as well as dazzling crowds with operatic karaoke performances. He has a one-year-old female Bluetick Coonhound mix named Idris, and his online life is conveniently encapsulated here.