Memes and the American West

A meme, as we know it, is a funny image, idea, or video that circulates widely on the internet as a joke that anyone with the right sense of humor can get in on. The Merriam-Webster dictionary online defines a meme as “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture,” with other dictionaries giving similar statements. I have observed that while memes may just be little jokes to laugh at, they often carry political meaning and weight. With this definition, the American West sounds much like a meme itself.

The idea and style of the American West, curated by Frederick Jackson Turner, has spread from person to person through education and media. The West as an idea, rather than a place or movement is, of course a matter of opinion, but I will share my own thoughts. In January of 2017, an image was spread of a dog wearing a cowboy hat with the caption “what in tarnation.” Although this phrase may not explicitly be a part of any vernacular, it has become largely synonymous with the Southern and Western United States and is used to express surprise. The meme was shared on various forms of social media and in referencing it today, most people around my own age still get the joke. The dog’s choice of fashion provides a visual representation of what we have come to associate cowboys with wearing. But what did cowboys actually wear? Did they wear cowboy hats at all? I personally do not know and it would take searches through reputable sources to find out. What I do know is that dogs in hats with very un-dog like narration is funny to me and much of the internet.

Perhaps an education system that teaches something other than tough white men in cowboys hats parading around and declaring bewilderment could have enlightened me on such subjects. As we seek to understand the West, we must deconstruct our own notions of what that West is. Memes perpetuate the myth of the West just as dime novels and John Wayne movies did in the past. The West could be a dog in a cowboy hat forever if we let it be, but hopefully further study against the dominate narrative can change that.   Much like authors changing or defining the idea of the West after Turner, memes may also help redefine the idea and style of the West.