On May 28, a 3-year-old boy climbed into the enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo that held Harambe, a 17-year-old, 450-pound Western lowland gorilla. Fearing for the boy’s life, the zookeepers shot and killed Harambe, sparking international outrage.
Two months later, Harambe’s death is a meme. He has become a posthumous celebrity, but unlike other celebrities, people think it’s ok to make fun of his death.
Harambe’s death is an outlet for a brand of internet humour that usually feels taboo. The internet has a dark sense of humour. Making jokes about murder is the best expression of that. But it’s not acceptable when it’s about a human death. It feels ok to make fun of Harambe, though, because he’s not a human being.
One Twitter user nailed it when he noted: “The popularity of Harambe jokes proves that people want to laugh about murder but feel bad about it. Ape murder is the perfect compromise.”
Making fun of the death of human celebrities, in contrast, is a major no-no. For one thing, social media exists, and their family members and friends are almost certainly there. We can relate to those people because they are human and we, too, may know what it’s like to lose a loved one.
Harambe, though, is a gorilla. We can’t really relate to him, and don’t really need to. He doesn’t have a little sister on Twitter who would be devastated by jokes about his death.
Harambe’s meme-ification can also be blamed on the context behind his fame. Unlike Cecil the Lion, who was killed by a big-game hunter, Harambe wasn’t famous before his death.
Instead, Harambe became well-known
because the news and social media cycle blew his death way out of proportion. The usual internet outrage cycle is swift. News spreads, people get mad, think-pieces clog your Facebook feed, and the whole thing is forgotten as soon as there’s something else to get mad about. But Harambe’s death was different. The circumstances surrounding it were not so black-and-white, and everyone had an opinion.
Half a million people signed a Change.org petition that sought prosecution for the parents of the child involved in Harambe’s death. Slate argued that Harambe was dangerous, and The Atlantic asked why we need zoos at all. Famed zoo fan Newt Gingrich called the event “tragic, but unavoidable.” Piers Morgan blamed the zoo. Even Jane Goodall weighed in with a nuanced argument that Harambe was trying to protect the child, but still needed to be killed.
Just as Harambe’s death received outsized attention, the memes have turned the gorilla into a mythical creature.
When the zoo let’s kids fly
Into the ape confine
When the sniper takes aim and the parents get blamed
— harambe bantu (@atbobb) June 23, 2016
The gorilla became a martyr: A church that happened to share his name was flooded with attention on Facebook.
Harambe became a stand-in for “serious news” as a subject.
For some people, the death of one critically endangered gorilla is serious business. For others, the seriousness of the question itself was absurd, especially when compared to the safety of a human child. The attention given to the whole situation was completely out of proportion. It’s sad that a gorilla died, but we can still laugh about it.
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