Freud and “Depression Memes” (TW Depression)

Of all the interesting and complex theories we’ve read so far, for some reason I’ve chosen to hyper-fixate on Freud’s ideas about the id, ego, and super-ego, especially in relation to Instagram’s colloquially labelled “depression memes”. I’m sure comedy like this will be discussed in length during our dark humor unit, but I’d really like to talk about it in relation to Freud. Memes and jokes about death and depression aren’t new—Freud even included a (fairly dank) one in his 1927 “Humor” essay— however, it seems to me that Instagram users have been fronting a revolution of the misery meme of late, positioning mental health at the joke’s core. Memes like the suicidal sunglasses kid, stock photo noose man, and complex mental health memes popularized by users like @scariestbugever, @gothshakira, and @sensualmemes have been flooding the application in the past few months (or years, possibly, the meme timeline is a bit fuzzy). I’ve attached a few examples for reference.

These memes are very self-aware, even to the point of making direct self-references. For instance, many of them cite themselves (or memes in general) as a method of coping with depression— one meme features a picture of the videogame character Mario captioned: “I’m actually completely dead inside, but memes allow me to vent my frustrations through irony so no one knows I’m hopelessly depressed.” Mario is shown smiling and winking next to the wall of bleak text, introducing a clear element of incongruity by pairing a morose admission with a playful image (as many of these memes do). But it’s not really incongruity I’m interested in with these memes. Freud suggests that the super-ego takes charge in times of unmanageable stress or exigency, offering a parental form of censorship or rationality. This often happens through the introduction of humor into a trying situation. He says, “In bringing about the humorous attitude, the super-ego is actually repudiating reality and serving an illusion… It means: ‘Look! Here is the world, which seems so dangerous! It is nothing but a game for children—just worth making a jest about!’” Is this, in essence, what depression memes are doing? It seems to me that by making fun of serious mental health issues, the super-ego is coping with depression through removing depressive thoughts from reality and, in a way, from the self. They make depression seem universal and serious yet at the same time surreal, exaggerated and amusing. Is this healthy? Can meme-ing about one’s own depression help others cope? Could laughing at a depression meme be a Freudian release of the energy one normally uses to suppress feelings of depression? Would this mean that laughing at a depression meme means you’re depressed? Am I asking too many questions?

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