In conclusion, my friends, fill your minds with those things that are good and that deserve praise: things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and honourable.
––––— Philippians 4:8
On 19 May 2016, Texas mother Candace Payne filmed a Facebook Live video of herself, sitting in her car, gleefully modelling a Star Wars Chewbacca mask she’d just bought. The video was captioned ‘It’s the simple joys in life…’ The pre-recorded Wookiee growls from the mask mingle with Payne’s helpless laughter and her interjections, ‘That’s not me making that noise – it’s the mask!’ and ‘I am such a happy Chewbacca!’
Payne’s video was disarmingly funny; I watched it on 21 May, and shared it with the caption ‘THIS IS SO HILARIOUS I LOVE HER’. Payne’s ‘simple joys’ took social media by storm; and when sharing the video, many users commented that it was ‘so pure’, or even ‘too pure for this world’.
We live in a foul world that incentivises the exploitation of the many and the indulgence of the few. A world that condemns people to endless, dehumanising work and invasive unfreedom, even (and especially) in what is sold to us as pleasure.
And what’s the opposite of foul? Pure.
You might have seen pure stuff on social media: stories of people spontaneously helping others, innocently misreading social situations, or being playful for no reason. Dogs are way too pure – especially when they do ‘human’ things, like ‘paying’ for treats using leaves. Interspecies friendships are pure. Cheering on your ex is pure. Being delighted by babies in Pope costumes is pure. Children’s emotions, beliefs and gestures are pure. Using your acting skills to grant a dying boy’s wish is pure. Gentle, creative, non-competitive activities are pure.
Old people are pure, especially when they care for their grandkids, awkwardly navigate modern technology or, conversely, are enthusiasts of contemporary culture. Dads are pure, whether they’re having meltdowns over the softness of alpacas, being overwhelmed by newborn kittens, or leaving uncool comments on their kids’ Instagram pics. Puns are the purest joke, possibly because taking joy in simple wordplay is so strongly associated with dads.
BREAKING NEWS: All these cows are kissing this dog pic.twitter.com/sVyy3kxvRR
— Chris Evangelista (@cevangelista413) May 21, 2018
These moments appeal to universal human values, and have been shared in many different media under many different names. The colloquial sense of ‘priceless’, meaning ‘delightful’, first appeared in 1907; the term ‘warm fuzzies’ dates from 1981.
But we can trace the internet-specific use of ‘pure’ to an Onion article from January 2014: ‘Beautiful Cinnamon Roll Too Good For This World, Too Pure’. Praising the pastry for its transcendent perfection, the story concludes: ‘As of press time, the cinnamon roll had been purchased along with a medium cup of coffee.’
Tumblr users began to juxtapose a screenshot of the article with images of fan-favourite film and TV characters. From there, phrases including ‘too good, too pure’ and ‘too pure for this world’ spread through fan culture. Fans use them as hashtags and captions describing moments when celebrities – often, youthful male heartthrobs – behave guilelessly, express joy or show care for their families and friends, colleagues and fans.
In 2012, social psychologists Jesse Graham and Jonathan Haidt proposed that in pluralist societies, people navigate social challenges using combinations of five ‘moral foundations’: care (and its opposite, harm); fairness (cheating); loyalty (betrayal); authority (subversion); and purity (degradation). In this framework, popularised in Haidt’s 2012 book The Righteous Mind, purity is akin to sanctity and governs virtues including temperance, chastity, piety and cleanliness. Degradation, its opposite, is detected and repelled by the emotion of disgust.
The idea that the opposite of purity is degradation echoes Mary Douglas’s landmark anthropological study, Purity and Danger (1966), which traces cultural taboos against dirt and pollution. Such taboos metaphorically police social boundaries: for instance, to describe certain groups or behaviours as ‘filthy’. Douglas’s work, in turn, influenced psychoanalytic philosopher Julia Kristeva’s concept of the abject, which she explored in Powers of Horror (1980).
For Kristeva, the abject is a category of things we recoil from – such as corpses, dismemberment and bodily excretions – because they transgress our mental ideals of what should be part of our identities. Mainstream culture also treats as abject anything that transgresses social consensus or undermines the dominant system – such as immigrants, feminists, and minority religions and sexualities.
But pure things shared online don’t always uphold the morality of the Self by rejecting the Other. It’s often the exact opposite: the Self and Other coming together in unexpected ways. As the anonymous author of one clickbait listicle muses: ‘It takes some time and patience to find something so pure and authentic. When we do find it, it’s usually in a place we wouldn’t expect it to be.’
Perhaps the pure operates as a genuine circuit breaker: a welcome moment of surprised relief.
Perhaps the pure operates as a genuine circuit breaker: a welcome moment of surprised relief. Dads are pure because men are foul. Old people’s texts are pure because young people’s experiences of text messaging are foul. Everyday heroes are pure because celebrities and admired leaders turn out to be foul.
Crucially, the pure is redemptive and liberating. Neoliberal capitalism treats us as rugged, atomised individuals ascending a hierarchy; but the pure brings supposed antagonists or asymmetrical social agents together in moments of egalitarian camaraderie and joy. It subverts normative capitalist values of toughness, self-interest, instrumentality and competitiveness, and escapes the binary prisons of Self and Other, by exposing everyday moments of softness and care, cooperation and capability, play and intrinsic pleasure.
our cats had a fight and my parents are trying to make them resolve it lol pic.twitter.com/O7IHihmPo1
— allie oetken (@allieoets) June 26, 2016
A neighbour slips a note under a pianist’s door; but instead of a noise complaint, it’s a request. A little girl skateboarder is intimidated by the older teenage boys at her local skate park; then one of them kindly helps her learn to balance and steer. A high-school principal comments on two students’ paint-splattered jeans, so they buy him a matching pair… which he wears.
‘Pure’ is sometimes used interchangeably with ‘wholesome’, as in wholesome memes. A subreddit devoted to sharing instances of this phenomenon defines a wholesome meme as one ‘that promotes health or well-being of body, mind, and/or soul … a meme that is pure of heart, devoid of corruption or malice, modest, stable, virtuous, and all-around sweet and compassionate…’
Common to many wholesome memes is an ethic of ‘support, positivity, compassion, understanding, love, affection, and genuine friendship’. Wholesome memes are post-ironic, in that they self-reflexively deploy the familiar architecture of memes, but actively subvert snark and mockery in favour of sincerity and empathy.
Wholesome memes…actively subvert snark and mockery in favour of sincerity and empathy.
The cartoons of musician and illustrator Ben Montero epitomise wholesomeness. They encapsulate a certain aesthetic of everyday struggle and comfort: his cute animal characters admit vulnerability, resist social pressures, and relish small joys or small moments of closeness to others. Montero’s aesthetic pushes back against a culture dominated by loneliness, cynicism, and posturing over cultural capital.
But Montero’s work is deliberately, even fetishistically wholesome. The pure is different, because it doesn’t engage with the corrosive terms of The Discourse. While wholesomeness is a feelgood antidote to online culture, performed to a likeminded audience, pureness is innocent and uncultivated, and its objects are unaware of being dubbed ‘pure’. Perhaps we characterise the pure as innocence because the objects of pure memes don’t ‘know’ they’re not ‘supposed’ to treat Others with care, tenderness and respect. Their untutored goodness gives us hope.
People respond to the pure in pure ways. Comments on pure social-media posts range from the delighted (‘This warmed my heart. I’m content now’) and bewildered (‘WHY IS THIS SO CUTE IM CONFUSED’) to the surprised (‘I didn’t realise until the end that I was smiling while watching this’) or overcome (‘This made me happpppyyy!’).
We share the pure with pure intentions: to make others as happy as the meme made us. But as one of the earliest Tumblr users to blog the cinnamon roll meme noted, the roll was ‘too pure to be a meme’. The logic of ‘virality’ is what degrades the pure; so perhaps for something to be truly pure, it can never achieve widespread popularity. Intense media scrutiny often creates a Milkshake Duck: a pure moment that becomes crushingly disappointing when it’s revealed to involve prejudice, capitalistic venality, or perhaps the worst sin of all in an artless genre – premeditation.
Within days, Candace Payne’s Chewbacca mask video was well on its way to becoming the most-watched Facebook Live video ever. Kohl’s – where she bought the mask – was only the first organisation to shower her with freebies and perks. She appeared on James Corden’s Late Late Show repeating her ‘signature’ lines, toured Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Facebook’s headquarters, and met with Hasbro, the makers of the mask, who also created a Star Wars figurine of Chewbacca with Payne’s head. By mid-2016, Payne had made nearly half a million dollars – and that’s when she stopped being pure.
A fan’s pure pleasure had become a profitable media spectacle.
In 2017 she wrote a book with the unpleasantly ironic title: Laugh It Up!: Embrace Freedom and Experience Defiant Joy. What was she defying? Multiple corporations had leveraged Payne for their own purposes. A fan’s pure pleasure had become a profitable media spectacle.
At least Payne’s emotions had at one point been authentic. I can already see myself beginning to distrust pure moments, not letting myself feel good about them in case they turn out to be milkshake ducks, or fakes concocted by advertisers. It annoys me that we express the pure within proprietary social networks. It frustrates me that online content farms aggregate the pure into listicles.
It is exhausting to dwell in a grim purgatory where even our emotional responses are weaponised by the forces of capital. No matter where you find your joy, your community, your sense of authentic good, it will inevitably be exploited. ‘Too pure for this world’ can be a warning label.
But perhaps the inevitable ephemerality of the pure is poignant to contemplate. Like that cinnamon roll, it’s eventually going to be consumed and shat out; corruption comes to all things. Nonetheless, while we’re alive, still striving to be good, the pure challenges us to be surprised, subversive and spontaneous – human qualities the culture industries only seek to strip from us.