This week, we're sharing an episode of another WBUR podcast, Endless Thread. The show is in the middle of a series all about internet memes, and they recently featured the woman at the center of the popular "Woman Yelling at a Cat" meme, Taylor Armstrong from the original cast of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. The story behind the image featured in this meme is surprising and painful, so please take care when listening.
Humor is a key ingredient of any unit of culture that morphs and spreads over time. But humor isn’t always there at the beginning. For “Real Housewife” Taylor Armstrong, the meme that made her even more famous on the internet has bitter roots: physical domestic abuse exposed on television.
In this episode, we hear the little-known origin story of the "Woman Yelling at a Cat" meme — straight from the Woman herself — that might make you think twice about ever using the meme again. We also explore why a loss of context is crucial for the spread of memes, but often problematic.
- Resources for physical and emotional abuse
- Resources for suicide prevention
- The first photo of Taylor Armstrong next to Smudge, the cat
- TIME article on Smudge
- Taylor Armstrong's memoir, "Hiding from Reality"
- Taylor Armstrong on "The Wendy Williams Show"
- The "Malibu Beach Party from Hell" episode of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills
- Russell Armstrong's death
This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.
CONTENT WARNING: This episode mentions suicide, and emotional and physical abuse. We've linked some resources in the show notes if you or someone you know is looking for support.
Amory Sivertson: Hi, can you hear me OK?
Julia: Yeah, I can hear ya.
Amory: Do you recognize this voice, Ben?
Ben: isn't it "Real Housewives?" Isn't it a real housewife?
Amory: unless it's the Real Housewife Sivertson edition? Because that's my sister.
Ben: Oh man. You really pulled a fast one on me.
Amory: Well, I called her up because a few years ago, Julia made a meme. This was one of the multi paneled ones featuring a father and son, and I'll let her describe it.
Julia: The dad is like a gray haired guy in a black T-shirt with the sleeves cut off. He's got a bunch of tattoos and a huge handlebar mustache. He's sitting at a desk chair yelling. And then the next panel is the son in a ball cap yelling back, and like pointing, and then the dad yells more. And then the son throws a chair and then the dad continues to yell, pointing. So it's a back and forth argument.
Ben: Love this meme, great meme. Good job, Julia.
Amory: That's the template, I'm glad you can picture it. So Julia, inspired by a low stakes kitchen-implement related argument she's had with her husband, she captained the meme like so.
Julia: So the dad yells, “You can't use the microplane for cheese,” the son says, “yes, I can.” The dad yells, “It is for citrus zest and spices only.” The son throws the chair. “Cheese is literally one of the examples on the blade cover.” The dad says, “then please wash it right after you use it.”
Ben: OK, so first of all, I definitely use my microplane for cheese, like, come on.
Amory: You're not alone. You're not alone. So Julia in this case, was the dad in the meme, the handlebar mustache guy, and her husband was the son who in this scenario used the microplane to grate cheese.
Ben: You mean the one who's correct?
Amory: Well, correct or not, there were some results from this meme that Julia made.
Julia: I've got to say, me posting this did lead to him not using the microplane for cheese.
Ben: Congratulations, Julia, you've used a meme to browbeat your husband into doing the wrong thing.
Amory: A small marital victory with a meme to thank. But anyway, this is from a show called "American Chopper." It was a reality show on Discovery and then TLC — doesn’t exist anymore. It followed a family-run custom motorcycle manufacturing company, and this scene is from an episode in 2008 featuring the father and son who run the company – Paul Teutul, senior and junior --
Ben: Yep, Mr. Handlebar Mustache and the boy.
Amory: Exactly. And in this scene, Paul Senior is confronting Paul Jr. about how he’s like late and lazy. And things get heated. Paul Jr. throws a chair...
Amory: So that's what's actually going on in the scene that got memed, but Julia had never seen "American Chopper." She just saw this meme template and thought, oh yeah, I got something for this.
Julia: It was a good representation of how we communicate about things that we disagree about, I think. And one of his friends, his comment on it was, “this is so romantic.” And I thought, yeah, that was the intention.
Ben: I mean, hey, if you think the meme version of “Whatever, Dad!” is romantic, then I agree. This does get at the heart of something, though… which is that we see ourselves and our own relationships in these caricature-ish meme templates. Memes are so powerful because they get at reality in this way. And they really - they hit us in the feels. And when we do, it’s kind of impossible to resist joining in on the fun, often without really thinking too deeply about who the real people--who are becoming our avatars--in these memes and what the original real scenario was.
Amory: Fortunately for Julia, this quote-unquote real, reality TV scenario on American Chopper had relatively low stakes, and it’s even thought to have been staged or planned to some extent. BUT, imposing our own story on a scenario without knowing the actual backstory can get tricky.
Sarah Laiola: You know the one that's popular now that's like the woman screaming at the cat?
Ben: That’s meme chorus member Sarah Laiola, assistant professor of digital culture and design at Coastal Carolina University.
Sarah: I think she's like blonde and she's at dinner and she's, it's always it's a two panel one where she's yelling and then there's always a cat on the other side that's like, “Errr.”
Amory: For the first time in the history of this meme series, this was a meme that I was actually more familiar with than Ben, who sorta fancies himself the meme lord of the ET team.
Amory: I think I can picture the woman you're talking about. I don't remember the cat. Is the woman, does she, like, have her mouth open and she's pointing.
Sarah: Yeah. And there's a girl like a friend behind her, like either holding her.
Amory: Yes. Holding her back.
Sarah: Yeah. Yeah I have. Yeah.
Sarah: I'm sure that you see that. Yeah.
Ben: This meme — that I definitely HAVE seen — is very ridiculous. Absurd, even. A woman on one side, screaming and pointing. And she’s of course pointing a picture of a white cat, totally unrelated to the woman, sitting at a table. With a plate of salad in front of him? Making a kind of derpy cat face. Like, “Errrrrmmmmm, I did NOT order salad...”
Amory: And so, when the two pictures were put side-by-side in a Tweet in May of 2019, the internet went to town. One person put a little Santa hat on the cat and captioned it, “Merry Christmas,” while the woman yells, “IT’S NOVEMBER!” Another version has the woman screaming “Target!” and the cat responds, “Tar-JAY.” And so on and so on.
Ben: And the cat is named Smudge, and the picture of the cat giving salad some attitude was first posted on Tumblr by his human, who says he really does like sitting at the dinner table and he really doesn’t like vegetables… or vegetals, in the parlance of the internet.
Amory: But who is the woman in the meme? And what is she yelling about? Look more closely at the picture, and you’ll see that she has tears in her eyes. Her face is red with rage or pain… or both. The friend behind her is gripping her just under her outstretched arm. She’s holding the crying woman. Or maybe, holding her back. But from whom? And why is she crying?
Ben: Thousands upon thousands of versions of this meme have been made by people who likely didn’t know the answers to any of these questions. And even more people have seen — and had a good laugh at — those thousands of memes without knowing either.
Amory: But we do know, now. And the answers will make you never look at the meme the same way again.
Sarah: And so she was trying to, like, stand up for herself. And it's become this like — no, I know — another dark, perhaps origin story of that meme.
Ben and Amory: Whoaaaaa.
Ben: I’m Ben Brock Johnson.
Amory: I’m Amory Sivertson, and this is Endless Thread.
Ben: We’re coming to you from WBUR, Boston’s NPR station. And we’re taking a closer look at memes that have been seen, shared, and remixed countless times… before they’ve been fully understood.
Taylor Armstrong: When the meme first came out, it just was called women yelling at Cat.
Amory: We typically don’t go looking for the backstory of a meme before putting our own spin on it, right? But for the one we now know as “Woman Yelling at a Cat,” maybe we all should have. Because in the very moment that’s been freeze-framed and meme-ified... this woman was going through one of the darkest experiences of her life.
Taylor: I was trying to explain in a very dramatic way that this could get me killed.
Taylor: You know what, um, this is interesting. Let me just shut my phone completely off, because Robyn from Bravo, coincidentally right in that exact moment, just sent me a text message and it just pinged onto my computer…
Amory: It’s not every day Ben and I get to talk to a reality TV star.
Ben: so my my wife watches and I watch with her sometimes.
Taylor: That's always everyone's excuse.
Ben: Aaaaaaand it’s not every day we get CALLED OUT by a reality TV star. A reality star who says, at first, she wasn’t trying to be one.
Taylor: Well, in the beginning, I I didn't even go out for the show and a lot of my friends around Beverly Hills had gone out for it and my name came up, I guess, in a few different circles, and--
Amory: And that name?
Taylor: It may look like I have it all, but I want more.
Amory: But Taylor’s also the original — and only — woman yelling at a cat.
Ben: Except, of course, she wasn’t yelling at a cat. She was yelling at a cast member of the show, "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills."
Amory: That’s Taylor, yelling “You have no idea what she’s done to me. No you don’t.” And this is the scene the screen cap was taken from — the screen cap that became... Woman Yelling at a Cat. But in order to understand what the hell is going on here, we have to go back several episodes. Really, we have to understand a little more about the show itself. And Ben, since you watch it--
Ben: My wife watches it!
Amory: Oh yes I’m sorry, since your wife watches the show and you’ve kept her company for an episode or two — why don’t you do the honors…
Ben: Ok. So "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" debuted on Bravo in 2010, and it followed six wealthy socialites as they just lived their lives. Running errands, traveling, planning parties, attending parties. You know, kiiiinda like what we do all day, Amory, right? Except, maybe like with fewer parties. And much nicer clothes. And bigger houses and nicer cars. And free-flowing wine and that Southern California sunshine.
Amory: At the beginning, this is exactly what Taylor thought the show was going to be.
Ben: But of course if a reality TV show is any good, at least by standard definitions, it’s not just fun stuff. Let alone reality. Production crews manufacture drama in how the video is edited. But they’re also behind the scenes manufacturing meetups between characters. Developing whole storylines before filming even starts. They’re adding booze to tense situations. They’re dialing everything up. Even if you know this...you forget it, which is part of the magic, and part of the problem for the reality TV viewer and the reality TV subject.
Taylor: And in the end, we had a divorce in season one divorce in season two divorce and season three. And only five of us were married to begin with. So that kind of tells you where the odds lie on keeping things under wraps.
Ben: And Taylor, in particular, had a big something she was trying to keep under wraps, from the other women on the show and its millions of viewers.
Taylor: it was a definitely a different experience for me than it was for some of the girls who had a big support system at home, like Kyle and Lisa.
Taylor: They had an awesome support system in their family home to go home to after the stress of filming some really trying moments on the show. But for me, it was like chaos on the show and chaos at home.
Taylor: The physical abuse started when I was pregnant with my daughter. That was the first time he choked me.
Taylor: So that particular day, I was getting ready to go to a charity event and my stepsons were visiting and I had made them I ordered them a pizza and we were going to he was just going to come home. We were going to leave right away. So I was kind of rushing around and he came into our bedroom and he just grabbed me and had me by the throat and pushed me up against the wall. And he said, "If you ever feed my children a pizza without a vegetable again, I'll kill you."
Amory: Taylor is talking about her former husband, Russell Armstrong. She says he was emotionally abusive from their very first date, when he accused her of having a relationship with the waiter at the restaurant — just based on the friendly way she’d greeted him when they got there.
Taylor: He was so insanely jealous, and those things came out very early on in our relationship.
Amory: Crying on a first date.
Taylor: Right? I know, I should have walked away. It's ridiculous.
Ben: Hard to fathom in retrospect, maybe. But Taylor says Russell’s jealousy felt flattering sometimes. Other times, it was an exhausting barrage of verbal attacks as Russell spiraled out of control.
Taylor: Sometimes it was hours of me having to listen to him yell and scream and call me every name in the book before he would get physical with me. And I remember one time I finally said to him, "Will you just hit me so we can get this over with?" I carry the emotional scars far more than the physical ones.
Amory: While it was happening, though, the physical scars were actually the easier ones for Taylor to conceal from her Real Housewives cast-mates.
Taylor: Abusers are really good at hiding the types of abuse that they inflict. For instance, one of my former husband's favorite things to do was banging my head against the car, and he would grab me by one side of my hair and then bang my head against the window. If I were sitting in the passenger seat or if we were outside of the car, he might grab my one side of my hair and then hit my head against the outside of the car.
Ben: Taylor was able to hide the bumps and bruises from these incidents under her hair. Others, she couldn’t hide. Like on Super Bowl Sunday, 2011, Russell and Taylor were in Texas for the game, and when they went back to their hotel room that night, Russell accused Taylor of cheating on him. He hit her across the face, hard.
Taylor: It just popped my jaw out and I was laying over the toilet with just saliva running out of my mouth. And I couldn't I couldn't get any help or anything. So finally, I just had to maneuver my jaw enough to get it back in place. And it still pops out now.
Ben: Russell wouldn’t let Taylor call for help that night. Other times, Taylor wouldn’t let herself call for help. Mostly out of fear that it would somehow backfire and have a negative impact on her 5-year-old daughter, Kennedy.
Taylor: He would say to me, "go ahead, call the police, I'll go to prison and you will. I won't be working. You'll be destitute. They'll find you an unfit mother. They'll take Kennedy away from you." And then on other days that were good days after something bad would have happened, he would say, "I'm afraid I'm going to kill you one of these days."
Amory: Good days and bad days didn’t matter on the set of "Real Housewives," where none were supposed to be the wiser. But Taylor’s attempts to hide the abuse weren’t working, because the show was supposed to capture her real life. And Russell was her real husband. And despite thinking that the cameras would encourage him to be on his best behavior, he stayed on his real behavior.
Russell: So what’s the latest with your little company?
Taylor: I would love it if you wouldn’t call my company little.
Taylor: We just need to take some time out to have fun together.
Russell I need to get to the office.
Kyle: Does he not like to see you have fun?
Taylor: I just don’t… I don’t know.
Ben: And audiences took notice. Outspoken TV talk show host Wendy Williams had Taylor and one of her cast-mates, Adrienne, on her show during season 1 of "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills." And Wendy kept it as real as it gets.
Wendy: The part I didn’t like, Taylor, about your story is we’re getting to see your husband who is, with all due respect, a disgusting man to you.
Wendy: He’s disgusting, he’s disgusting to you. It’s like abuse without I don’t like the way he treats her.
Adrienne: No, I don’t either.
Taylor: Well I think a lot of it… that’s a hard one for me because we’re really doing a lot of work right now and we’re both taking time to reexamine what we need in our marriage.
Wendy: How did you feel watching that back? Because while you’re in the moment taping the show, you’re not watching what we were watching. You know what I’m saying, Adrienne.
Wendy: How did you feel watching that? You don’t feel remotely abused by--
Taylor: I don’t feel abused. I feel, you know, I deal with people who are abused and I know what that looks like. I feel like we have been disconnected for some time
Amory: Taylor clearly wasn’t ready to confirm publicly what Wendy Williams — and probably many others — suspected. But while filming season two of "Real Housewives," she opened up to a cast-mate, Camille Grammer.
Taylor: She had been going through her divorce with Kelsey…
Amory: Kelsey Grammer, the actor from Frasier.
Taylor: ...and I asked her to meet me for lunch and I wanted to get some insight from her as to what it was like to get in a custody battle and to get divorced with someone who had so much more economical advantages
Ben: And during this off-camera lunch meeting, Taylor told Camille about Russell’s abuse, including the time at the Superbowl when he dislocated her jaw. And she thought she was doing so in confidence.
Amory: Fast-forward to the filming of an episode that ended up being called “Tempest in a Tea Party.” Taylor had been emotionally unravelling over the course of the season, but at a tearful, truth-slinging tea party at Lisa Vanderpump’s house, Camille confronted Taylor in front of the other women about the abuse that seemed to be bubbling up to the surface more and more, and she even questioned the abuse.
Camille: Be careful what you say, because we’re all protecting you.
Taylor: About my marriage?
Camille: About what you told us about your marriage. What you told us about your marriage. We’ve been protecting you. Because we don’t say that he hits you. Because we don’t say that he broke your jaw or that he beat you up. And he hits you. We don’t say it but now we’ve said it, OK? We’re supposed to walk around saying, “Yay, we can’t wait to see Russell!” But we don’t know if it’s true because you come over and you don’t have any signs of physical abuse on your body.
Taylor: That’s really uncool.
Taylor: I don't even think I spoke. I just was in shock because I knew in that moment something was going to change drastically and it could have gone in a lot of different directions. He we could get divorced, he could kill me. Things could get better. I didn't. I didn't I had no idea what the outcome of that moment was going to be like.
Amory: Taylor at least knew that the episode wouldn’t be coming out for months. That gave her some time to make a plan for dealing with the fallout from Russell. But she was terrified for her safety and her daughter’s. And she felt deeply betrayed and exposed.
Taylor: I thought I probably could, in some respect, hide what was actually going on in my real life from the cameras. And I think we all know how that turned out.
Ben: Taylor wasn’t able to hide any of this from the audience or her cast-mates. But things were about to take another big turn.
Amory: More in a minute.
Ben: It’s a picture-perfect evening in Malibu in 2011, and a friend of the housewives is hosting a party at a house overlooking the ocean.
Amory: As is often the case at a "Real Housewives" party, the guests’ cups runneth over. Literally.
Taylor Armstrong arrives with cast-mate Kyle Richards, hoping that Camille — the woman who outed Taylor’s abuse on the show a couple episodes ago — isn't there.
Ben: But… she is. And between the unlimited wine and the limited amount of space at this party, things get testy between Taylor and a friend of Camille’s named D.D.
Amory: Taylor isn’t having it. And the more D.D. talks, the more on edge Taylor becomes.
D.D.: Taylor! That’s not that way to conduct a discussion
Ben: And from there, the party devolves into true chaos.
Amory: Taylor’s suddenly surrounded by women basically yelling "calm down," which of course has the opposite effect. D.D. persists. Several of the women start physically jumping in between the two of them as Taylor shoves a pointed finger closer and closer to D.D., crying out about how Camille’s indiscretion has hurt her.
Taylor: All the words that were coming from me were based in pure fear. I was terrified for my life at that point and not knowing what my future was going to hold. And just this isn't just reality TV fodder. This is my real life. You have no idea the repercussions that I'm going to suffer from this.
Ben: Were you conscious when this was happening that the cameras were there, I mean, like by then you're so far into this experience of being on the show that I imagine part of the process is them trying to make you guys forget about the cameras. Right.
Taylor: That's a good question. I feel like when you are I feel like when I would get so amped up, it wasn't like the cameras were even a I thought it was just I was so upset and so scared and afraid of what this outcome was going to look like, that in those moments, I was just going to express myself regardless. And at that point, the cat was out of the bag. So there was really nothing more. I couldn't make it any worse.
Amory: Kyle Richards wraps an arm around Taylor — comforting at first, but then forceful. And it’s at some point in this moment, that someone watching this episode, somewhere in the world, went…
[SCREENSHOT SOUND EFFECT]
Ben: This episode of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, known as “Malibu Beach Party from Hell,” would get PLENTY of tabloid attention in the days after it aired. It would go down in Real Housewives history. But it wouldn’t go down in internet history until years later. Which we’ll get to.
Amory: But first, to the weeks and months immediately after the episode was filmed. It was a tumultuous time. Taylor told her husband that he’d soon be outed on the show as an abuser. But she did so with her psychiatrist present.
Ben: Russell wrote a letter to the show’s producers and to Camille… threatening to sue if the footage was released. But that was still a little ways away. And in the meantime, Russell gave Taylor glimmers of hope that things would turn around. Including a birthday card saying that he knew he hadn’t been a good husband, but he wanted to be.
Amory: But later that night, on her birthday, in yet another jealous rage, Taylor says Russell punched her in the eye. Her orbital floor, the bone structure under her right eye, was fractured. She had to have reconstructive surgery.
Taylor: Believe it or not, it took me that happening to be able to say I'm in an abusive relationship, like, I can't sugarcoat this anymore. I can't sweep it under the rug. I can't rely on the good times. This is dangerous. And I have to get out of this. And when I went in to get my orbital floor reconstructed, I was in my in my room in recovery and he walked in the door with roses and. I just it makes me cringe to say this, but in that moment, I wanted him to crawl in bed with me and lay there.
Taylor: Because that's the roller coaster of abuse, I mean, I wanted him to come and protect me and make me think everything's going to be OK, and that my family isn't just crumbling around me and in that moment, I thought, wow, this is really what it's like to be in a horribly abusive relationship. The fact that as you're laying here, just coming out of surgery because of what this person did to you, that you would actually want him to stay with you.
Amory: Taylor stepped back from filming "Real Housewives." She filed for divorce. Russell moved out of the house. But the way forward from there wasn’t clear. Especially because, season 2 of the show — including the footage that outed the abuse — would start rolling out in a couple of months. There was also talk that the DA might press charges against Russell for the incident on Taylor’s birthday.
Taylor: My hope was that he would take the opportunity and come out and make a statement and say, "I have anger management problems. I'm getting treatment," you know, become an advocate for other people. And I thought with our platform, that was his best out.
Ben: August 15th, 2011. It was a Monday, and Taylor was supposed to have a meeting with Russell at this office to talk about the divorce — which hadn’t been finalized at this point — and about custody of their daughter. But Russell didn’t show. And no one at his office had seen him that day.
Taylor: I just started getting this really weird gut feeling that something had gone wrong. And I went to the residence where he was staying and the gate was closed, but his car was there.
Ben: A neighbor said he hadn’t seen Russell all weekend. The neighbor helped Taylor and a friend pry open Russell’s bathroom window so they could go in and look around.
Taylor: And we started in and then we found him hanging. There were so many emotions going on in that moment, of course, shock and disbelief, fear, you know, just complete and utter sadness to think that anyone, regardless of what they put me through, would make that decision.
Amory: Three weeks after Russell’s death, and just 11 days after his funeral… season 2 of "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" premiered.
Taylor: So one of the most traumatic experiences is that we get the episodes in advance because we blog on Bravo Dotcom and so we have to watch them in advance so that we can tell our side of a story or blog about the events that occur.
Ben: That’s a lot of reliving of trauma.
Taylor: Isn't it, though?
Ben: Taylor tried to move forward in this new, REAL reality… the one where everything was on the table. She published a memoir the following year titled “Hiding from Reality.” She gave talks about domestic abuse around the country. And… she starred in a third season of "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills."
Taylor: I wanted people to see in retrospect, you know, that that didn't define who I was going to be going forward and, I do a lot of public speaking and I visit a lot of shelters. And I think it's important for people to see me out and see that there's life after.
Amory: And there really was for Taylor. She got remarried in 2014 to a man that she says celebrates everything about her. She was moving on, and putting the darkest days of her relationship with Russell — and of "Real Housewives" — behind her.
Ben: But then. Five years later… and a full EIGHT years after the infamous “Malibu Beach Party from Hell” episode of "Real Housewives"… through the weird, mysterious forces of the internet… Taylor found herself in another yelling match. With a cat… named Smudge. Thanks to Twitter user MissingEGirl, who seems to have created this meme.
Taylor: So when did you first see this meme and what was your immediate reaction?
Taylor: I would say confusion and humor, I mean, at that point, it was just laughable, I couldn't figure out why I was yelling at this cat, you know, who the cat was.
Amory: Considering the circumstances that led up to the moment in the meme’d screenshot, you’d think she’d want to detach herself from the image however possible. But instead, she shouted it from the social media mountaintops...
Taylor: So I tweeted something along the lines of "Woman Yelling at Cat is me," and I just found it humorous because I didn't get it and Kyle and I were messaging each other back and forth and she was like, I don't get it. I don't get it either. Where does this cat come from? I thought the cat was maybe on a reality television show or something, but then they just kept coming. I've just seen I feel like thousands of them. It's unbelievable.
Ben: But pretty quickly, it became VERY easy to get, and very easy to caption. And a lot of the captions Taylor saw were surprisingly clever. And timely.
Taylor: There would be a big sporting event and the next day there would be a meme of the cat and myself in the role of the baseball manager and the umpire. And it was just like their creativity was so quick. It was fascinating to me.
Amory: Fascinating... Not devastating, even though the internet is collectively laughing at her pain — albeit, mostly unknowingly. And not re-traumatizing. At least not in the way that watching the advance episodes of "Real Housewives" was for Taylor. And as glad as we were to hear this, we were surprised.
Amory: Wow, well then allow me to just project some of my own shit. Yes, a little bit, because if you know, that picture captures a very real raw moment of human emotion. And then to have it juxtaposed with something humorous and have it get turned into this big Internet joke, especially eight years after the event itself happened, so that it's got this extra layer of like, old wound being uncovered, that is just not the reaction I was expecting to hear. I have to say.
Taylor: Well, maybe at first when I saw it, I thought it maybe it brought up some past memory of that time, but. It isn't like whenever I see it, I don't cringe or feel upset or wish it wasn't out there, I guess a lot of it is just accepting when you put your life on reality TV, not as much life as I put on reality TV, but that it's going to still exist. You know, I am reminded of what that time in my life was like, but not it doesn't hurt me anymore.
Ben: A big part of that, she says, is time. A lot of therapy and healing happened in the eight years between the height of her ex-husband’s abuse and his suicide and the birth of Woman Yelling at Cat. Taylor says she hardly recognizes the woman in the meme.
Amory: And it’s quite possible — likely, even — that most of the people spreading the meme don’t recognize her either. Or if they do recognize Taylor or the show the image is from, the context has been lost to time. This episode of "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" came out ten years ago. A decade later, this probably looks like a moment from any of the many other alcohol-fueled spats on the show. Why not turn this one into a spat with a cat?
Ben: And Taylor can appreciate that on some level. Because this was just one moment out of many for her, too.
Taylor: When I look at the whole experience as a whole and what my life was like during that time, it almost just feels like that exact moment was a blip on the radar of something so much bigger.
Amory: A year after the meme first appeared online, it was named meme of the year by the internet-focused Shorty Awards. And Taylor accepted the award in a video with grace… and a little humor.
Amory: On the other side of the phone is the famed feline, looking like a pretty normal cat — a black rotary phone in front of him this time instead of a salad.
Ben: Taylor proceeds to apologize to a disinterested Smudge, who’s just doing cat things. And the whole thing is a bit, obviously. But it’s also, yet again, a woman having to apologize for something she should absolutely not apologize for. But Taylor says there’s a reason she plays ball with this kind of stuff.
Taylor: My not letting the meme get to me and even at times tweeting out or just saying people are so creative, I do think that it helps other people to see that you can put all of this behind you and have a completely new healthy relationship built on equality and all of the things that we deserve and dream about. They do exist regardless of what our past looks like.
Ben: Taylor clearly wasn’t the first reality star to get meme-ified…
Ben: And she won’t be the last. Reality TV’s brand of absurdity and alcohol infused, engineered drama and detachment from actual reality is exactly what makes its stars easy — and, some would say, willing — targets of mockery.
Amory: But as you’ve heard, Taylor is both a real housewife and a real person. Who was experiencing real terror in the moment that became a meme. And once you know that… what do you do with it? Do you tell everyone you know? Do you take down iterations of the meme that you personally have shared? Or do you continue forward with the new life and context the internet has given this image?
Ben: This is an idea we’ll be revisiting later in the series, and it’s one Taylor herself is still grappling with.
Amory: Is it OK for me to have a laugh at this or should I be? Should I be asking more questions before laughing potentially at someone else's expense or at someone else's pain?
Taylor: I think my meme is a little unusual based on some of the other memes that are out there, because that was such a terrifying moment I had one friend stopped me in a restaurant one day and he said, I feel so bad. I sent you all those names and I had no idea what you were going through in that moment. And I just feel horrible. And, you know, it was really heartfelt. And I of course, just like, don't worry, it doesn't have an effect on me. And of course, you didn't know. And but I think some people who've come to the realization that that was such a traumatic time in my life, they feel a little guilty about laughing about it. But I don't want people to feel guilty about it. But that that was a whole different lifetime for me.
Ben: And as Taylor said, sometimes owning a joke is the best way to ensure it can’t own you.
Ben: if you were to caption your own meme...
Taylor: Oh, my gosh.
Ben: ... And connect it to your like your life, the life that you've lived so far and play any role in the meme that you want, whether it's yourself or the cat.
Taylor: That's how good question. I don't know what I would do if I were having a meme. Maybe would I let the cat yell at me for a change.
Amory: ENDLESS THREAD is a production of WBUR in Boston.
Ben: Want early tickets to events, swag, bonus content, pictures of Amory’s home studio or my home fashion? Join our email list! You’ll find it at wbur.org/endlessthread.
Amory: ALSO. We want to know what YOU think is the most underrated meme. So CALL us! 857-244-0338. Or better yet, record a voice memo and email it to email@example.com. We just might feature your voice memo — and your meme suggestion — on the show!
Ben: Big thanks to our "meme chorus":
Sarah Laiola teaches about digital culture and design at Coastal Carolina University.
Joan Donovan is Research Director at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center.
Gianluca Stringhini studies online security disinformation and hate speech at Boston University.
Amanda Brennan has the extremely cool title of Internet/Meme Librarian.
Please go find their work and benefit from their meme genius.
Amory: Our series and our show is made by producers Nora Saks and Dean Russell. We are co-hosted by us, Amory Sivertson
Ben: And Ben Brock Johnson. This episode was edited by Maureen McMurray.
Amory: Mixing and Sound Design by Paul Vaitkus. Original music in this episode also by Paul Vaitkus.
Ben: Special thanks to, and additional production work from Josh Crane, Frank Hernandez, Kristin Torres, Sofie Kodner, and Rachel Carlson.