Ron Swanson as a Cultural Artifact

Part 1: Deconstruction of a Meme

meme ron 1

What People Think I Do/What I Really Do: Ron Swanson as a cultural artifact

In my blog post titled The Rules of the Game, I explored the concept of a meme as a cultural artifact. The origin of this word can be traced back to Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist. The Selfish Gene (1974, Dawkins) defined a meme as a cultural idea or a set of behaviours. The meme, as defined by Dawkins, has existed alongside human development. Much like a biological gene, memes have the ability to evolve and develop over time. Perhaps the most obvious example of a constantly developing meme is fashion itself. Fashion will change by the day and this rate of development is sped up in a web 2.0 environment.

The internet meme is a sample of internet culture. It will gain popularity and power through communication, or, as Patrick Davinson explains in The Language of Internet Memes, through “online transmission” (p. 122). Participatory culture acts as a catalyst to the internet meme, it creates meaning and context. I have chosen to study the “What People Think I Do/What I Really Do” meme because understanding context will enable the viewer to understand what this meme is communicating. In a series of images explaining the assumptions of particular groups of people, this meme centers on the self-image of an individual’s professional and/or personal life – the “reality of the job”, from their perspective. Participatory media platforms revolve around the concept of self-image; for example, Facebook and Twitter profile creations encourage visual accompaniment with the personal, text-based information provided by the user.

Understanding this particular meme positions the viewer within the community that is being discussed throughout the series of images, this often includes a particular profession (i.e.: scientist, doctor, lawyer, etc.). In the example that I have posted, the community would be fans of the TV show Parks and Recreation. The character on the grid, Ron Swanson, is known to value his privacy more than anything. He’s an all-American libertarian, determined to make his own way in life and to intentionally challenge the rules of others (particularly his government’s rules); therein lies the irony. This character holds a government position within the Parks and Recreation department of a small town called “Pawnee”. The repeated images of an expressionless face cement his desire to maintain a private life, the character on display refuses to let the viewer know “the reality” of his life. What is unique about this Ron Swanson-themed “What People Think I Do/What I Really Do” grid is that the final image features a caption not usually found in this type of meme. Usually, the “What People Think I Do/What I Really Do” meme will end with an image captioned “What I really do” or “What it really is” (when the truth is revealed). Instead, the final caption of Ron simply states “GO AWAY”. This intertextual reference to other memes of the same kind and the subverting of the known and used model for this meme further communicates the character’s personality. This meme works as a cultural artifact of both American entertainment television and meme culture itself.

Part 2: Reconstruction of a Meme 

ron meme 2

The meme that I have created is a repurposing of Ron Swanson’s image. This meme works similarly to the What People Think I Do/What I Really Do Ron Swanson meme in that in order for the viewer to understand how it “works”, they will have to be familiar with the TV show Parks and Recreation. However, where my created meme differs is in its more conventional approach to the internet meme model. Using only one picture of Ron Swanson as the template makes this meme image comparable to much more recognizable characters like “Grumpy Cat” or “Disaster Girl”. Furthermore, there is an element of intertextuality in my created meme example. The three “acceptable” haircuts, as outlined by the accompanying text, originates from a meta-joke in Parks and Recreation (refer to link below). Ron Swanson’s ultra-conservative lifestyle promotes a military-like discipline to maintaining a certain level of “manliness”, as he defines it. The Pyramid of Greatness includes specific instructions on how you are to cut your hair if you wish to be a Swanson.

Swanson Pyramid of Greatness:

The audience in this case is anyone who watches the show Parks and Recreation and/or anyone who is familiar with the reputation of Ron Swanson as a character. Within digital culture the personality of Ron Swason has become just as famous as the show itself. There are websites completely dedicated to his distinct look and opinion (i.e. http://catsthatlooklikeronswanson.tumblr.com/). Furthermore, the audience includes those familiar with the more popular memes found on social media platforms – memes that include one image with the accompanying text (i.e.: usually the character’s floating head and/or body in a consistently used expression). Arguably, this meme does require specialized knowledge beyond that of familiarity with a character from a TV show. Referencing Ron Swanson’s Pyramid of Greatness narrows down the audience to fans of the series who have the opportunity to regularly keep up with Parks and Recreation. Furthermore, a knowledge of what is considered conservative in Western culture is required. Perhaps the “buzz cut” is a term that some other communities would not be familiar with and perhaps they would even find this haircut style to be anything but conventional.

To create this meme, I used memegenerator.com and selected the “create a character” option. It was obvious that Ron Swanson’s personality has been used for internet memes before as the character name “Ron Swanson” was already taken, so I titled my meme “RonSwan”. The photo was a publicity still from NBC. My newly created meme, the RonSwan, fulfills all three of Sean Rintel’s meme properties:

  1. Intertextuality – RonSwan both references other memes and concepts outside the internet meme. It references other memes in that it uses a popular template (one image with accompanying text). Furthermore, RonSwan references other memes that have used the Ron Swanson personality in that it further develops his online persona (the narrative of a fictional government worker). This meme also references concepts specific to small-town politics through Ron Swanson’s fictional city, Pawnee, Indiana (http://www.pawneeindiana.com/). Ron Swanson’s conservative approach extends to every aspect of his life, beyond his government position (i.e.: his haircut(s) of choice).
  2. Indexicality – The RonSwan meme is very versatile. The image of Ron Swanson can be used to comment on a variety of situations. Ron Swanson, through the image and text of RonSwan, is the index of independence and ruggedness.
  3. Templatability – The publicity still of Ron Swanson in this meme is the template. The character can comment with the accompanying text, particularly with cases in relation to political thought and/or discourses on masculinity.

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