When a popular online video satirizing girl talk first appeared, observers wondered if the sight of a man in drag making fun of women should give us pause. It was a fair question.
The video, the product of Toronto-based artist Graydon Sheppard, was a spliced-together collection of commonplace inanities, which Mr. Sheppard delivered with some gusto from beneath a wig.
The things it parodied were simple and benign, to the extent that even committing them to print makes them seem goofy:
"Can you read this and see if it makes sense?" "Can you just turn it down a little?" "What's my password?"
So it went, for one minute and 19 seconds.
The video's strength came from its restraint. It didn't overreach, or stray into the realm of caricature.
The Shit Girls Say video went about its spoof with affection for its subject, and its performance captured small moments that were both ridiculous and fond.
But among the millions of giggling viewers were those who asked whether this wasn't a viral video with a fleck of misogyny at its core. Even if not, it struck an uncomfortable chord with a progressive culture that is increasingly acutely aware of the power dynamics between women and men.
These were fair questions. As it turned out, the wider world wasn't prepared to let the topic sit. Leaving cultural criticism to the professional bloviators, other groups simply up and made their own videos.
The imitators took the premise and format of the video, and used them as a template. Soon, there appeared a … Guys Say. Then … Dads Say. And … Jewish Girls Say. And … Black Guys Say. Suburban Moms, Gay Guys, Asian Chicks, Jamaican Parents, New Yorkers, Project Managers – and on and on, one for every self-identified group that counts among its numbers an aspiring comedian with a video camera. Some are great; some distinctly less so. (It should be a given that in any viral meme, whatever its nature, some of its participants are clunkers.)
Then, they started talking to each other: ... White Girls Say To Black Girls (view count: seven million-plus and counting) sparked a flurry of commentary from Twitter to YouTube, to MTV to BET. Performed by Franchesca Ramsey, a black comedian and video blogger (wearing a blond wig in this instance), it adopted the format and acute observation of Mr. Sheppard's original, but replaced the gentility with something a little more pointed.
"Is it, like, bad to do blackface? Is that still, like, a thing?" parrots Ms. Ramsey, in the video, leaning around the edge of a roommate's door.
"You can say the N-word, but I can't? How is that okay?"
This opened up another round.
Ms. Ramsey's video was soon accompanied by the worthwhile … Girls Say to Gay Guys ("So, like, you've never been with a girl?"); … Guys Say to Gay Guys; … White Girls Say to Arabs; … Straight Girls Say to Lesbians. More are no doubt worthwhile, though we're approaching the realm of meta-parodies already.
What started as a piece of comedy became a staging point for a discussion of gender, then a discussion of sex and gender, then a discussion of sex and race and gender, then a discussion of sex and race and gender and how irritating project managers are. Before long, it became an all-purpose tool for dissecting the way group A talks to group B; a Festivus-style airing-of-the-grievances.
The uncanny thing is that, for all that, the spirit of Mr. Sheppard's original piece hasn't been lost in the fray. The tenor of these pieces remains pointed observation, not anger. What has changed is that, as the meme became politicized, the focus of that observation has shifted away from mannerisms, and onto what some observers have pegged as "microaggressions" – the things that people who come from a position of privilege say when confronted with people who aren't.
These tiny aggressions have a way of reinforcing the status quo, but they don't have to be statements of malice; like so many of the statements in the later videos, they manifest a kind of friendly cluelessness. These videos cuttingly send up the ways that people have been trained to espouse political correctness without the slightest grasp on why.
Another hallmark of Mr. Sheppard's original has persisted, perhaps the one that raised the most hackles in the first place: the fact that he was in drag. In many of these videos, actors play across lines of gender, sex and race: guys playing girls; gay guys playing straight guys; black girls playing white girls; and so on. And by their format, many of these observations seem to be made about the producers' own friends. The result is a product that speaks of empathy rather than slagging. Uncomfortable, unsettling empathy, but empathy all the same.
The discussion of race, gender and class in our culture is governed by unspoken rules about who is allowed to say what about whom. Those rules are there for a reason, but it can take a transgression or two to make people pay attention, by the million. Not bad for a one-minute comedy bit.