Why famous men from Lin-Manuel Miranda to Matthew Morrison become 'meme villains' on TikTok

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·6 min read
Why famous men from Lin-Manuel Miranda to Matthew Morrison become 'meme villains' on TikTok
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matthew morrison lin-manuel miranda and ed sheeran
Matthew Morrison, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Ed Sheeran have all been subject to a similar kind of meme cycle on TikTok. Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP; NBC/Getty Images; Pacific Press/Getty Images
  • Celebrity men like Lin-Manuel Miranda have fallen into a TikTok meme villain cycle.

  • On the surface level, the memes are divorced from genuine criticism and are based in mockery.

  • While the meme villain reputation sticks on TikTok, it's not career-damaging.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

On TikTok in the summer of 2020, it was impossible to scroll through the app's For You Page without having Lin-Manuel Miranda's lip-biting visage thrust upon you. Those now-iconic selfies were splashed all over the platform in what one meme creator called a "Lin-pocalypse."

This moment heralded a new kind of meme cycle on TikTok: the celebrity "meme villain," a personality like Miranda, who is subjected to vitriol and mockery on the app in a way that's almost entirely separate from any actual, severe criticism.

The TikTok meme villain canon includes the "Hamilton" and "In the Heights" creator, but also "Glee" star Matthew Morrison. This month, singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran officially joined that crew.

These meme villains are hated for no reason other than the fact that hating them is a meme.

TikTok meme villains face disproportionate hate and mockery

The memetic response to Miranda, Morrison, and Sheeran on TikTok reaches an overwhelming level of mockery divorced from legitimate controversies or poor behavior. Rather, it's focused purely on how cringey their vibes are.

In Miranda's case, his series of lip-biting selfies were an easy target for TikTokers who began to slip them into unrelated videos. That trend started with Nicholas, a TikTok user formerly known as @mitskifan42 (who appears to have since left the platform). They told Insider in a July 2020 interview that they didn't have any particular hatred for or vendetta against Miranda, but saw that no one had been using his selfies to "rickroll" others on TikTok. ("Rickrolling" is a famous bait-and-switch meme in which you surprise someone with Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up")

A new era of horror was born, as people dredged up old demos that Miranda recorded for "Hamilton" songs to mock his belting vocals or soundtrack other Miranda-related meme trends.

Much of the Morrison hatred has played out in a similar way. As Bustle reported, it began with Carleigh Spence (better known as @teenagescientist on TikTok) posting videos in September 2020 expressing unbridled vitriol towards the "Glee" star and Tony winner.

The Morrison memes ballooned at the end of 2020, in tandem with "Glee" becoming one of TikTok's major trends - Morrison's character Will Schuster was one of the most reviled in the series for being a weird, creepy teacher - and the actor's star turn in a live-TV broadcast adaptation of the "Grinch."

And as for Sheeran? In February, the "Shape of You" singer earnestly asked people to sing along with him on his song "Afterglow," only to get mercilessly clowned by TikTokers who drowned out his singing by blasting notes on their instruments or playing familiar riffs like the opening chords of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

Now, TikTokers are pretending that their red-haired, orange-wearing friends are actually the English singer in a parody of his relatively average appearance.

It became a meme to make fun of these men in ways unrelated to any genuine criticism.

The memes typically follow existing hate or criticism

This kind of meme response on TikTok doesn't come out of a void, as these men are also criticized elsewhere online.

Miranda has faced criticism of his work and politics, particularly in reference to "Hamilton" valorizing the founding fathers while brushing away their slave ownership, as BuzzFeed News reported.

He also drew what he called "valid" criticism for bringing "Hamilton" to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, as The Atlantic reported, and has recently fielded criticisms regarding colorism in the movie adaptation of his musical "In The Heights."

in the heights usnavi
Anthony Ramos as Usnavi in "In The Heights." Macall Polay/Warner Bros.

But as Motherboard's Gita Jackson reported in 2020, once the serious discussions around Miranda slowed down online, the meme-based mockery still remained. In a way, mocking Miranda through memes had become shorthand for critiquing his politics.

Other meme villains like Morrison and Sheeran don't have the same history of public criticism, but they were primed for meme infamy.

In the case of Morrison, online discourse around his "Glee" character had been building online in 2019 and 2020, in reference to Mr. Schuester's lack of other adult friends, weird propensity for performing sexual songs with high school students, and planting weed in a student's locker as blackmail to make him join the glee club. Eventually, dislike for the character crossed over to memetic dislike for Morrison himself.

And as Joel Golby reported for Vice UK in 2018, there's a long tradition of Sheeran hate just because he "looks like your friend's younger brother" and "he plays the music industry like a fun game that he just happens to be exceedingly, effortlessly good at."

TikTok meme villainy has minimal consequences

While memes fade in and out of fashion on TikTok, the memory of figures like Miranda, Morrison, and Sheeran who are mocked online don't disappear so easily.

Sheeran memes, while not yet drawing the same kind of platform-wide or media attention as the phenomena around Morrison or Miranda, are recurring, with the mocking lasting from 2020 into this month.

And while Miranda's selfies are no longer plastered all over the For You Page, creators like @umokayig have built their entire followings on uncanny Miranda impressions.

Still, there don't seem to be any meaningful career consequences of TikTok meme villainy. The adaptation of Miranda's "In The Heights" received rave reviews. Sheeran, still one of the world's biggest pop stars, is about to release a new single. Morrison gave what The Washington Post's Sonia Rao called a "haunting" performance as the Grinch in the 2020 NBC musical broadcast.

But when celebrities are this famous, it's natural for TikTokers to punch up.

To read more stories like this, check out Insider's digital culture coverage here.

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