How Pink Pussyhats and Red MAGA Caps Went Viral
In Washington, D.C., and throughout the world, Women’s March pussyhats and Trump-supporting MAGA caps reflect a new culture of making objects that is deeply entwined with the internet.
It was a gathering of hats this past weekend in Washington, D.C. The evening of the inauguration, busloads of marchers arrived at Union Station—posters in tow, and pink pussyhats on heads—and spilled out into the busy train station, taking pictures and hugging friends. Amidst the hustle and bustle, people wearing bright red Make America Great Again baseball caps and Trump-branded beanies strolled through the station, some on their way to the airport, others looking for dinner after a busy day on the National Mall. The two groups walked past each other, almost ignoring each other’s presence. In the crush of people waiting in line for a Metro card, the hats signaled not just their political allegiance but their purpose for visiting D.C.
Between these two hats, we saw two ends of a spectrum of object production: handmade, often hand-knitted hats, and mass-produced baseball caps. Thanks to smartphones on the ground and drone footage from above, both of these hats have gone viral, defining the new visual language of their respective movements. These objects couldn’t seem more different, and yet, when we dig into how both are made, and how people work with them, they reflect new ways that people make objects that’s deeply entwined with the internet, enabling physical objects themselves to go viral in much the way that a digital one does.
In 2005, an artist named Jonah Peretti (now CEO and Founder of Buzzfeed) coined the concept of “contagious media,” which we might recognize today as viral media or meme culture, like dancing babies and cat videos. According to an exhibition at the New Museum, he noted that contagious media practitioners aim to “make something that people want to share with their friends. If you do that successfully, you can reach a large audience through word of mouth. This creates new opportunities for art distribution and activism.” One of his most famous contagious media projects was the Nike Project, where he tried to order a shoe online, customized with the word “Sweatshop” on it. The deadpan email exchanges he had with Nike garnered some 2 million views.
In 2005, it was Peretti’s emails and media about the shoe that took off on the internet. Had he done the project today, perhaps the shoe itself would be the object of virality, a contagious object, so to speak. Think about the endless signs during the Women’s March, the incredible art, the clever turns of phrase. So many protest signs, with witty words and catchy art work and collages, are not just objects for the streets. The novelty of each sign was not just an act of creativity but also a viral strategy. Indeed, as often as people carried signs, they also carried smartphones, and they quickly snapped pictures of signs they enjoyed and uploaded those to social media. The most popular signs were shared and reshared countless times, like digital viral content
The symbiosis with the internet was a two-way exchange: many signs drew from trends that had already been present online. Wading through the crowd, I felt as if I was seeing a Tumblr feed coming to life. Wading through Tumblr (and other social media sites) I felt as if I was seeing all the world’s Marches converging online. This became clear as I snapped photos of signs with obvious internet language (“TFW get you impeached. Sad!”) or even direct references to memes, like the “Nope Nope Nope” octopus and “Honey Badger Don’t Give a Fuck”. Hashtags on signs, a practice I’ve written about, are the most obvious extension of digital culture into the physical. Some people, when I asked them about their signs, said they’d found funny artwork online and printed the images out from the internet. Some printed them directly and others added their own personal flourishes.
This is not a coincidence. The Amplifier Foundation, working with the Women’s March, made beautiful posters available to attendees for downloading and printing, as did numerous artists who posted their work online. Many people gathered ahead of time to hold sign making parties, as organizers made sure to highlight artists’ participation and encouraged hashtags like #WhyIMarch and #WomensMarch for social media sharing. This sort of visibility, unified around searchable, indexable hashtags, matters in a global protest movement, as online photos of signs help join different cities’ marches, augmenting overhead photos of scale to show the wide variety of individual causes and issues that people care about, from gender equality, to LGB and trans rights, to racial justice and immigration reform. The march has been criticized for having no clear demand; in many ways, that’s because attendees’ demands were too numerous to count.
Back to hats. The pussyhat is an example par excellence of a contagious object: a physical object that people share online, and that gets distributed widely by both online and physical methods. The Pussyhat Project’s origins lie with producers Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman, who led the team that put the project together shortly after the election and distributed a few patterns online. Knitting patterns are like a form of open source code for physical objects, shared through the internet to provide instructions for making the distinctive pussyhat pattern. While the digital object, i.e., the pattern, spreads through social networks, the physical object manifests in homes and knitting circles. Knitters sourced their yarn from local suppliers and online, and, in true open source fashion, copied the pattern stitch for stitch, built on it, remixed it, augmented it, and tried other variations and colors.
Part of the beauty of the project was in connecting makers with marchers, so makers could ship or hand off their hats to people attending a March; this connected participants’ stories across the country, allowing for a wider variety of people to contribute. Makers were encouraged to share their stories, and recipients were encouraged to take pictures and share them back from the March. In this way, each hat was highly individualized, and as anyone who attended the march could clearly see, there was no one pussyhat: each person who made the hat imbued it with their own skills, talents and personality.
The MAGA hat, on the other hand, might seem like the complete opposite: assembled in Southern California and distributed on the Trump web site for $25, it appears to be a prototypical example of mass production. But hats and other MAGA merch sold in D.C. didn’t always come from directly from the official campaign: they came from places like China, Vietnam, and Honduras. Indeed, a quick search on Taobao reveals a number of such merch, each sold by individual suppliers, sometimes with additional flourishes and touches. En masse, they lack the personal touch of the handknitted pink hats, but what they have in common is multiplicity. There was also no one MAGA hat, but an endless array of variations on sale, some official and many more from multiple manufacturers and distributors.
Nor does the MAGA hat end there. At the March, a number of people wore bright red baseball caps amidst the pink pussyhats. Looking closely, they contained remixes of the phrases, like “NO H8 in Our State,” a reference to North Carolina’s Proposition HB2; “WTF America?”; and “Make America Mexico Again”, a satirical project by activist and artist Jeronimo Saldaña, who created a number of remixes with the help of crowdfunding site Go Fund Me. I even met one woman with a red cap that said “Unity, Clarity and Agility”, and she said she owned the cap long before 2016, but it still suited the March’s themes of resistance. Many of these hats rely on custom printing services, which operate in similar ways to the original Nike Project: people can go online, throw together a quick phrase the same way they might throw together a quick video cut or tweet, and pretty soon have their own hats and t-shirts for whatever slogan, color and design they like. There seem to be as many Nasty Woman hats as there are Deplorables ones available online.
— Jessica Valenti (@JessicaValenti) January 22, 2017
What enables contagious objects is a number of new technologies, and the internet is central to each step of the production cycle. Combined, they compress the timeframe between idea and distribution to the physical world significantly, doing for hat production what advanced editing tools have done for the once laborious task of editing and sharing photos and videos. First, there’s the online distribution of the template. For pussyhats, that’s the pattern itself, and for variations on the MAGA hat, custom template sites make remixing a baseball cap pattern a fairly straightforward process. Second, there’s the physical distribution of the object. This includes the raw materials, like yarn, which has to be sourced, and the completed object, which has to be shipped. Tighter, more efficient shipping networks and services like Shyp and Amazon Locker make this easier and more straightforward. Third, there’s the platform for sales or transfer. That might be Etsy, Amazon or even Taobao, and in the case of the Pussyhat Project, the Pussyhat site itself facilitated connections between makers and recipients.
— Alexis H (@smilingturtle2) January 21, 2017
Finally, there’s the smartphone and social networks, which gives the physical object its viral power. Think of the many photos of Trump wearing the hat and selfies of his supporters, and think of the countless pink hat profile pictures now populating our social media feeds. Mobile phones bring a physical object back into the digital world, and they turn a protest whose name was ostensibly the Women’s March in Washington and helped make it a globally relevant and interconnected march across dozens of cities. The result is that, today, no physical object stays still for long; indeed, it behaves more like a digital object, subject to remix and rapid distribution. This malleability is reflective of long emerging cultures of production—whether through open source knitting or better access to cap producers—, and we saw that all converge at scale during the weekend of the inauguration and the march.
Why do we bring art to protests? As Hyperallergic editor Hrag Vartanian noted, “the New York protest had more handmade signs than I’ve ever seen in any protest ever.” Tech theorist Zeynep Tufekci made a similar observation in North Carolina. As a highly decentralized and distributed art project, the pussyhats joined a chorus of signs, selfies and costumes that lined the streets of cities and towns around the world. Artist-activists I’ve spoken to often talk about the power of the arts to change minds, to draw attention to important issues, to help people signal and explore complex emotions, to unite people, to heal, to find joy in the midst of pain. All of these reasons, and many more, were evident on the streets. Sometimes, art and marches merely give us a feel-good experience and the illusion of effectiveness, helping us sideline the less privileged amongst us while those we oppose ignore us completely. At its best, however, art is a vehicle for powerful change, a conduit to action that gives activists a media context in which to do their work and the emotional energy to keep going when difficulties seem insurmountable. One thing is clear: the sheer scale and creativity of the Women’s March will be referenced for months and years in future advocacy campaigns, and the broad range of creativity will have played a key role in that.
Whether it’s the pussyhat, a #NastyWomen t-shirt, a MAGA cap, or remix of the same, there is another reality to acknowledge. All of these political memes, so critical to the new language of political identity and expression emerging this year, can point to the words of Donald Trump as their source of inspiration and reaction. As technology writer Kara Swisher has called him, he is a “tweet savant,” a man whose words and actions, even when not intended for social media (e.g., “grab them by the pussy”) take hold of the internet and our broader culture in unforgettable ways. And in that regard, Trump is our chief source of meme inspiration, creating the language around which we frame our own memes, and to which we cannot help but react. Without his words, there would be no MAGA hat, and there might also be no pussyhat. At this stage in the Women’s March and related movements, the most powerful art is often that of reaction and reclamation, and we have the means now, through patterns online and shipping on the road, to get these ideas and objects out to people at impressive scales. Soon, I hope, there will also be contagious objects of radical re-envisioning.