By Fenwick McKelvey
About and origin
Vote Liberal! No one else can defeat the Conservative enemy. Stills from Thor: Ragnarök is one way to advocate strategic voting. Only the Liberals aren’t the heroes, they are something much worse. The meme refers to the film’s end when Thor realizes he cannot defeat his evil sister Hela, the film’s villain. Only by bringing about ragnarök — the destruction of Thor’s home Asgard — can Hela be defeated. Hela is labelled as the Conservative Party and the hero, the wounded Thor, is labelled as the NDP. The all-powerful demon Sutur, bringer of ragnarök, is labelled as the Liberal party. The meme casts the voters’ choice in no less dire terms: they have to choose the lesser of two evils. The NDP, heroic as it may be, is less powerful than the Conservatives. Only the Liberals, the meme implies, have the power to defeat the Conservative threat.
You Can’t Defeat Me is a three-panel, object label meme that uses the still from the 2017 Marvel superhero film Thor: Ragnarök. According to Know Your Meme, the meme first appeared on the Marvel Shieldposting Facebook group on 2 July 2018. By 19 July 2018, templates could be found for the meme and being appraised on /r/MemeEconomy.
The three-panels are often used as a joke to compare sports teams, movies and video games. One of the first examples, according to Know Your Meme, was a play on team rankings during the 2018 Men’s Soccer World Cup. As the meme popularized, new interpretations played with the format with 9 8 7 being a play on the schoolyard joke.
Context and circulation
The meme appeared in our sample on The National Meme Board. The Facebook page had been active throughout the campaign, posting at least 132 memes largely promoting the Liberal brand out of TK posts from September 30 to October 28. The group was one of the most active during the election, creating the most pro-Liberal memes found on Facebook.
The National Meme Board posted the meme on 10 October, three days after the only all-leaders English debate. The consensus was no one had won the debate and the results showed in the polls. According to the CBC poll tracker, the Liberal and Conservative campaigns had plateaued around 33% of the vote, and coverage predicted a minority government. Strategic voting and vote splitting would become an important theme in memespace.
By then, posters had also distanced themselves from Trudeau following the Blackface scandal. Meme makers crafted messages to support the party and the platform, but not the leader. So this meme was one of many memes in the group mocking the Conservatives, warning about vote splitting with the NDP, and advocating to vote Liberal, without campaigning for Trudeau.
The meme added the caption, “Say no vote splits, for reference 2018 Ontario election and 2011 election,” which seems to be another reference to the victory of Ontario Premier Doug Ford and the 2011 win of the Conservative Party of Canada. The post’s references are doubtful though as Tom Cardoso writes about the Ontario Election. Vote splitting “may have cost the NDP a few ridings, but the PCs’ majority can’t be chalked up to the left-leaning parties purely splitting the vote.”
The post led to an active discussion with 372 Likes, 215 Comments and 96 Shares. The most liked comment, 133, largely agreed with the vilification of the Scheer campaign, “I’m not a big fan of the Liberals, but even a lollipop coated in dog hair is a better candidate than Scheer.” However, comments did not all follow the meme pro-Liberal message as another popular post asked, “Perhaps the Liberals should question why their platform is so unappealing that the only way they can defeat goofballs like the cons is by scaring everyone else to vote for them.” The comments then became a moment to debate the emotional frame of scariness to motivate voting.
NMBC was not the first to use the meme in Canadian politics. The meme appears to have been used in some political memes, in the case above to mock in-fighting between leftist posters.
Marvel’s take on the twilight of the gods was a hell of a way to add some drama to the campaign. The dramatic function of the meme captures both the tone of the Liberal’s negative campaign buts adds new drama through the film references. As political communication scholar Daniel Schill notes, “the nature of visual symbols allows candidates and other political participants to give life to a policy and demonstrate its importance through pictures.” What better way to dramatize a potential lose than comparing your opponent’s victory to ragnarök itself.
Before even setting up its argument to vote strategically, the meme sets up the dire stakes of the election. The climate emergency looms over the election like Hela at the bridge to Asgard. The meme might be considered “political imagery related to the environment,” as Patrick McCurdy describes, that does not feature the environment. Much like energy industry ads that “advertis[e] the oil sands without the oil sands,”the climate emergency is offscreen. Instead, the focus is on the dire threat of a Conservative win.
While memes could be direct, the Liberals didn’t necessary state that voting Conservative could bring about the end times, they came close enough.
Justin Trudeau’s campaign tweeted, “Vote like your planet depends on it” with a short message above the image reminding followers in Internet-speak, “Because it does.” As the only party that failed to present a climate action strategy, the meme captures the anxieties around a possible Conservative win. A Conservative victory would be bad for the planet like Hela would be bad for Asgard.
Overcast skies and Hela’s black crown dramatize a Conservative win very differently than other memes about the climate and a Conservative victory. Another meme used a scene from Charlie Scheen’s hit show Two and a Half Men to dramatize the election. The joke is the Conservative’s missing climate action plan, but the tone is lighter: The crisis is presented as less terrible, just a kid waiting in the rain to be picked up.
In the Thor meme, the end is near. The meme’s dark humour dramatizes the election in much the same way Thor’s director Taika Waititi used the Marvel franchise to inject the affective legacies of colonialism into a superhero franchise. While the latest Thor movie had a sense of humour as well, it offers the film’s more mature commentaries on Asgard as an empire built on a bloody history of colonialism.
What is striking then is the meme’s ability to be funny, dark and urgent at once, allowing the meme’s enthymematic argument to keep this mix of emotions in play as it lays out an argument to vote strategically. It is an emotional argument using the drama of the movie as a metonym for the unstated consequences of a Conservative victory. More so, the drama carries the argument away from oppositional readings where Sutur might be a worse evil that Hela.
The meme is the latest re-mediation of the perennial strategic voting issue. Strategic voting has been a mainstay of internet politics in Canada. During the 2008 federal election, groups emerged online to help people coordinate strategic voting, or vote swapping. A voter in a swing riding could plead to vote Liberal in exchange for another voter to cast a ballot for the Green party. With the per-vote subsidy still in effect, these strategic votes could help a party’s bottom line if not its seat count. Leadnow, a good example of a digital-first advocacy group, professionalized vote swapping in later elections by identifying swing ridings and working at a local level to elect anyone but Conservatives.
Strategic voting has been made meme before, or at least close to it. In contrast to Leadnow’s professionalism, the comedic political third-party Shit Harper Did drew upon memes and the success of satirical websites like the Onion to campaign against Harper. Started as a joke, the website at first just provided random facts about Harper’s poor record. As it developed, the group funnelled visitors hoping to laugh at Harper’s record for strategic voting in the 2011 and 2015 elections, a part of the youthful movement that brought Trudeau to power in the first place.
This meme then demonstrates a bit of a contradiction in political communication. The style has to be innovative because the issue is so enduring. Strategic voting has come in many forms and memes are neither the first nor the last time the threat of vote splitting will help Liberal governments. Thor and the Battle of Asgard offers nothing more than a new way for the most recent Liberal campaign to scare progressive voters.
Voters seemed to have listened to the calls to vote Liberal in the face of the Conservative threat, at least during these early days of analysis. “Thirty-five per cent of respondents to the Leger poll said their decision about which party to support took into account the chance that their vote might prevent another party’s candidate from being victorious,” the CBC reported after the election. The comfortable Liberal minority might have been a lot closer were it not for the work of partisans raising the implied threat of a Conservative victory.
The only instance of the “You can’t defeat me” meme found in the election, the meme shows how visual arguments can hold together, even dramatic, an ultimately grim sentiment about elections in Canada. The stakes are not policy, but emotional, good and bad. Heroes do not succeed. Ideals and determination cannot win elections. Only a horrible red monster can. A terrible choice that voters must make and one that partisans can be committed to even if they admit to being one of the bad guys.