How terrorizing a white Australian family became an act of queer defiance.
There are two types of people in this world: People who know that the Babadook — the namesake of the acclaimed 2014 Australian horror film — is a queer icon, and people who will soon find out that the Babadook is a queer icon.
Pop-culture LGBTQ heroes come in all shapes and sizes, but those who join the pantheon of legends are often revolutionary, sometimes tragic figures who inspire the community regardless of their professed sexual orientation.
Judy Garland’s death is apocryphally cited as inspiration for the Stonewall Riots. Bea Arthur and Elizabeth Taylor were allies to the LGBTQ community, as talented as they were selfless. David Bowie and George Michael showed us how to live free before they died. Cher and Dolly Parton endured struggle and hardship, but have never stopped working. Madonna, Kylie Minogue, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Beyoncé, and Carly Rae Jepsen make music that brings joy to their fans.
Like the icons who came before him, the Babadook’s story is one of hardship, endurance, and queer protest — though that might not be immediately apparent. But while its anointment as an icon might be less straightforward, the Babadook’s status as an LGBTQ hero is ultimately no less valid.
Mister Babadook, as the figure is referred to in the movie, is queer in the most empirical sense. Its existence is defiance, and it seeks to break down the borders of acceptability and establishment.
“Haunting a small white family in an Australian suburb is a radical act, and the Babadook did that,” John Paul Brammer, a journalist and queer Babadook enthusiast, told me. “While I must make it clear that I was not the first to acknowledge the Babadook’s burgeoning status as a queer icon, I do count myself among the most vocal supporters of the movement to recognize the Babadook as a radical representation of queerness.”
The Babadook’s rise to queer legend is a remarkable one. It’s appreciation of a horror movie that turned into whisper of a joke that is now a well-established meme. (Several times throughout the day, my spirit yearns to Photoshop the Babadook, jaunty top hat and all, with its finger claws wrapped around a brick, into old pictures of the Stonewall Riots.) But it’s also a fascinating reminder how everything you think is strange and funny on the internet is probably the invention of a bored teenager — and could be co-opted and destroyed at any moment.
But while the Babadook might be a queer hero for the ages, and its ascension as an LGBTQ icon has been almost a year in the making, the fleeting nature of internet-born and bred phenomena suggests that we should appreciate its queer legacy while we still can.
The Babadook’s origin story
In writer-director Jennifer Kent’s movie, the Babadook manifests itself in a baba-book called Mister Babadook. It’s unclear how the book got there, but Amelia, a widow and the movie’s protagonist, reads it to her son Sam anyway. As she reads the book, she realizes that it’s actually terrifying, but it’s too late — she’s conjured up the menacing supernatural figure known as Babadook.
(Spoilers ahead for anyone who hasn’t seen The Babadook.)
Amelia tries to get rid of the book by tearing it up and incinerating it, but the book and the Babadook keep coming back, each time threatening to kill Sam. In the end, the Babadook possesses Amelia and tries to make her kill Sam, but Amelia and Sam ultimately figure out a way to confront and sort of tame the Babadook. The Babadook posts up in Amelia and Sam’s basement, where Amelia feeds it every day.
Critical interpretations of The Babadook theorize that the Babadook is actually a symbol of Amelia’s grief. While Sam watches her, Amelia goes through stages like denial, anger, bargaining, and depression in battling the Babadook, before finally coming to acceptance of the idea that the Babadook, like grief, will never truly go away.
But that interpretation doesn’t at all explain why the Babadook is queer.
One of the earliest, most popular queer readings of The Babadook surfaced in October 2016, when Tumblr user Ianstagram posted a thought complaint: “Whenever someone says the Babadook isn’t openly gay it’s like?? Did you even watch the movie???” He added on December 13, “Carol (2015), unlike The Babadook, was not a gay movie and was about a scary monster bothering a blonde, stressed-out mom.” To date, the post has received over 91,000 likes and reblogs.
A couple of months later, BuzzFeed’s Ryan Broderick posted a somewhat mocking appraisal of Tumblr’s “Babadiscourse” on Twitter. But Ianstagram defended his reading: “A movie about a gay man who just wants to live his life in a small Australian suburb?” he wrote. “It may be ‘just a movie’ to you, but to the LGBT community, the Babadook is a symbol of our journey.”
my new favorite Tumblr meme is insisting that The Babadook is gay pic.twitter.com/Id1PJpkkgX
— Ryan Broderick (@broderick) February 15, 2017
“I mean he created a pop-up book of himself for the drama of it all,” another user wrote, coming to his defense.
As Elspeth Reeve explains in a brilliant piece about Tumblr teens, sites like Tumblr offer a chance for users to express thoughts and jokes, but also allow others to tweak, reblog, improve upon those posts. The internet, and sites like Tumblr especially, Reeve continues, encourage users to be funnier, more clever, more biting, more invested:
Sometimes those one-liners spread across continents, tweaked by thousands of other teens who add their own jokes as they reblog the original. The very best tweaks spread further, reblogged again and again, reappearing periodically in the feed, disconnected from time. Some posts get more than a million notes—imagine a joke whispered in biology class getting a laugh from a city the size of San Francisco.
Ianstagram’s Tumblr post and the replies it inspired are a fascinating cultural relic: It’s fantastic trolling, a post written to get an earnest reaction from people who truly believe in discussing the merits of The Babadook within an entertaining and slightly absurd new context. And it’s not really a surprise that the idea of a queer Babadook was first broached on Tumblr — one of the platforms where the internet is made — and then memed into existence, perhaps even earnest existence.
The Babadook’s rise to internet glory
To truly exist on the internet is to be memed, which is perhaps the best explanation for the Babadook’s queer legacy. After the Babadook’s outing was discovered on Tumblr, people began meme-ing the character’s homosexuality and queerness into reality.
In December of 2016, a few months after Ianstagram’s queer Babadook discovery, an Instagram user posted a picture of a Netflix menu that featured The Babadook in its LGBT movies section — though there’s a solid chance this is simply an amazing Photoshop. (We’ve reached out to Netflix to see if this ever truly happened, but haven’t heard back yet).
Brammer professed his admiration for queer Babadook in February (around the same time Broderick noticed the meme taking shape):
good morning the Babadook is openly gay
— JuanPa (@jpbrammer) February 16, 2017
But the meme really started breaking out this spring. On May 9, Instagram user Mikey Pop posted this spoof of RuPaul’s Drag Race featuring the Babadook (which spawned a few imitation jokes, and which Mic later picked up in a roundup post):
And with the beginning of Pride Month, queer Babadook appreciation hit a fever pitch. This tweet, sent into the wild on June 3, has amassed over 28,000 retweets and 65,000 favorites:
happy pride month from queer icon the babadook pic.twitter.com/f2JxwQbRDd
— jacob (@jacobbullards) June 3, 2017
A few days later, my colleague Carlos Maza tried to analyze the deeper meaning of the Babadook, illustrating the meme’s evolution from a trollish observation on Tumblr to a semi-legitimate queer interpretation of the character:
BABADOOK: I’m a terrifying monster that destroys families that try to suppress me.
GAY PEOPLE: Oh my god, SAME. Drinks later?
— Carlos Maza (@gaywonk) June 7, 2017
The Babadook’s burgeoning queer legacy isn’t difficult to understand if you know the way the internet functions: Something funny — often created by teens — surfaces on sites like Tumblr or Reddit and 4chan weeks, months, and sometimes years before finding its way to Instagram or Twitter; eventually it finds its way to Facebook and whichever platform your parents use, and by extension into the larger cultural consciousness. (A caveat: At any moment, a popular YouTube celebrity or Instagram “humor” account will probably steal it and ride it until death.)
A prominent example of this internet food chain at work is the practically extinct word “derp.” Derp hit its peak in 2013, when journalists seemed to think they’d discovered a new hip word, culminating in a convoluted post about how “derp” was actually an expression of “Bayesian probability” and a way to say “the constant, repetitive reiteration of strong priors.” But as anyone who spent time on the internet’s various meme-oriented forums and platforms would tell you, the term was circulating on sites like 4chan and Reddit years before as a way to make fun of disability without actually using the words.
The process isn’t always linear or one-way, either. For instance, Harambe, the gorilla that was shot and killed in 2016 after a child fell into his enclosure at the Cincinnati zoo, began with real-life earnest outrage, and eventually ended up as the immortal “dicks out for Harambe” meme.
“Harambe became a referendum on and a satire of social media outrage culture, his name a stand-in for everything wrong with the way social media reacts to news,” Select All’s Brian Feldman explained.
The Babadook’s queer legacy and our infatuation with it borrows on all these ideas: the desire to go with and improve upon the joke, the increasing earnestness around that joke, and the resulting amplification of the absurdity of a homosexual Babadook living a life of queer defiance by terrorizing a white, Australian family.
But although it’s couched in absurdity, the idea of a queer Babadook is also perhaps a way to satirize bigger, real-life ongoing conversations and cultural preoccupations.
Brammer, who admires the Babadook’s radically queer act of terrorizing a white family and living rent-free in their basement for eternity, tweeted out this observation about the Babadook and representation in April:
openly gay and with an affinity for hats and drama, the Babadook was the first time I saw myself represented in a film
— JuanPa (@jpbrammer) April 19, 2017
Brammer made clear to me his earnest love for the Babadook, but it’s worth noting that his musing about representation came a few weeks after the release of Ghost in the Shell, a movie that became a flashpoint and sparked national cultural conversation about representation after it featured Scarlett Johansson playing a traditionally Japanese character. Representation is one of the biggest cultural conversations happening right now, and inserting the Babadook into such a conversation simultaneously undercuts the tone of that conversation and highlights the necessity for it.
The Babadook’s queerness could be both a satirical take on cinema’s ongoing failure of representation and a sardonic response to the media and social media’s “hot take” economy. Further, it could also function as an acerbic joke about the nature of “gay icons,” and how quickly and arbitrarily some gay icons (see: Nick Jonas) are anointed.
How to kill a Babadook
As I type this, the Babadook’s queer legacy is already dying. As a homosexual connected to the LGBTQ matrix, I can feel its life force waning. Like a lot of things out in this online world, queer Babadook is a click or two away from being loved by millions. For the Babadook, this tipping point came at the hands of YouTube celebrity Tyler Oakley, who declared to his 5.76 million followers that he is totally the gay Babadook:
In explaining Harambe’s lasting appeal, Feldman mentions how its existence depends on “corporate accounts” not being able to appropriate the meme; its edginess becomes its survival. “In other words, it’s a meme that will never be co-opted by internet-literate corporate Twitter accounts or deployed by some hapless news anchor hoping for a viral moment,” Feldman writes.
Oakley’s Twitter account has more followers than Wendy’s, Target, and Nordstrom combined, making his tweet a possible death knell for the Tumblr-born phenomenon’s countercultural moment. And true to form, some fair-weather Babadook fans are already declaring the Babadook over.
we’ve hit the point in the Babadook meme when it’s being turned into content, AKA the point where a meme dies
— Kevin O’Keeffe (@kevinpokeeffe) June 7, 2017
Less than a year after his creation, queer Babadook’s future as a cultural phenomenon is already in question; it might not be able to withstand its viral moment, and become a victim of its own success. Though, if there’s anything that the queer Babadook has shown us, it’s that it’s always possible to persevere through adversity — even if it means living in the basement for a while.
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