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Gen Z: Blurring the Lines Between Memes and Reality

The recent #GentleMinions trend and the meme stocks phenomenon that started in 2021 both show that Gen Z’s online presence is having a far-reaching real-world impact.

Credit: @bleepbloopblopnutella/Instagram

Two recent developments show that Gen Z can rightfully be called the “Meme Generation,” with memes starting to spill over into reality and having some massive real-world consequences. Firstly, the ongoing #GentleMinions meme gave Minions: Rise of Gru the biggest 4th of July opening weekend of all time. And secondly, the meme stock frenzy of early 2021, sparked by the “apes” on r/WallStreetBets, literally caused one of the biggest hedge funds on Wall Street, Melvin Capital, to crash and burn.

Before we go any further, let’s delve a little deeper into the details of both the #GentleMinions trend and the meme stocks phenomenon. If you haven’t heard by now, since the opening of the latest installment in the Despicable Me franchise, teenagers have flocked to cinemas to watch Minions: Rise of Gru in suits. Videos of these dapperly-dressed Gen Zers have gone viral on TikTok, amassing millions of views under the hashtag #GentleMinions.

The exact reason why these teens have chosen to dress up so smartly to go and see what is ostensibly a kids’ movie remains hazy (although much speculation about this unorthodox craze can be found online). What is clear, however, is that what started out as a post-ironic TikTok meme boosted the new Minions film to a record-breaking $125M+ opening, the biggest ever Independence Day weekend opening in history.

Now we’re going to take a look at meme stocks. Chances are that somewhere between January 2021 and now you’ve heard of r/WallStreetBets, or the GameStop short squeeze. Without going into too much detail, let’s just say that this trend was all about amateur investors, many of them older Gen Zers, buying tons of stocks in companies that had become memefied. The most prominent meme stock was, and remains, GameStop.

r/WallStreetBets
Credit: mundissima/Shutterstock

These amateur stock traders, also called retail investors, congregated on a subreddit named r/WallStreetBets, where they spurred each other on to buy more and more meme stocks. A whole new vocabulary took root around this movement. Cash from the Covid stimulus payments, which many investors used to buy stocks, were referred to as “stimmys.’ The members of r/WallStreetBets called themselves “apes” and urged each other to go all in on GameStop with phrases such as, “I like the stock, and “To the moon!,” an allusion to their belief in the stock’s inevitable upward trajectory.

In turn, these sayings were turned into memes, thereby establishing a cycle of memery (is that even a word?) that created even more momentum for GameStop and meme stocks in general. Eventually, the meme-fueled power of the (mostly) Gen Z retail investors toppled one of the giant investment firms on Wall Street, Melvin Capital, that had foolishly bet against GameStop.

What these two events – the #GentleMinions trend and the meme stocks phenomenon – illustrate, is that Gen Z are blurring the lines between memes and reality, with some rather substantial aftereffects. Could this force now be used for good, by creating more awareness around pressing issues such as climate change, for example? Only time will tell.

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