Meme On Fire

Danielle Bregoli’s trajectory as a meme is really the tale of a troubled young woman, and how easy it is to forget the person behind a viral story

I retweeted the “cash me ousside” meme last week, but I wish I hadn’t. In the YouTube video that has since gone viral, 13-year-old Danielle Peskowitz Bregoli joined her mother on an episode of Dr. Phil, where the two hashed out their turbulent relationship and the teen’s “out of control” behavior. When Dr. Phil made a comment about Bregoli’s “accent,” the conversation turned.

“You have an accent of some sort?” he asked her.

“From the streets,” she giggled. The studio audience giggled with — or at — her.

“All these hoes laughing like it’s so funny,” she said, turning to them. All eyes on her, she taunted, “Catch me outside, how about that?” Almost instantly, the internet translated her words into “cash me ousside, howbow dah?” And thus a viral meme, emerging from the nearly indecipherable language of a troubled young girl, was born.

Let’s Light This Meme On Fire

I retweeted the clip because it was hilarious. Or, at least, it was ridiculous. Here was a teenager calling a roomful of suburban moms “hoes,” challenging them to fight in the parking lot. Here was your awkward uncle Dr. Phil, staring at her with an expressionless face, pretending to try to figure her out while actually encouraging her. Hundreds of thousands of other viewers seemed to feel the same way, and as a result, the internet did what it does best: It made a meme. We tweeted how “shook” we were, turning “howbow dah?” into clever 140-character jokes on Twitter, adding another layer to an already viral story. And the more Bregoli grew — the original video has amassed more than 30 million views — the less control she had over her own narrative. She was no longer an angry and misunderstood kid, but a piece of content for us to manipulate for our own entertainment, taking away what little power she had to begin with. And in a strange, screwed-up mentality, we justified this by saying that she deserved it. You wanted the attention? Well, here it is.

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Like many before her, Bregoli took the next step in her ascent to internet fame: She capitalized on it. She made her second appearance on the show, entering the studio to an empty audience. “Where’s everybody? There’s no hoes,” she said with a laugh. Sitting across from Dr. Phil, she said, “I made you just like how Oprah made you. You were nothing before I came on this show.”

At 13, Bregoli already understands the power of her virality and how to leverage it. With more than 4 million Instagram followers, she is making music videos and selling merch emblazoned with her now-famous catchphrase. Here’s the problem with this cycle: For a brief moment, we permit ourselves to believe that Bregoli is in control. Believing that she has some agency in the story makes us feel better when we inevitably use this as fuel to roast her. It’s only when we read about her getting banned from an airline after a fight with a passenger that we remember why Bregoli was on Dr. Phil in the first place: the violent threats, the running away from home, the stolen cars and credit cards she bragged about on-air. It’s important to remember (we never do) this is a young girl with serious problems.

Oh, Wait, This Is An Actual Dumpster Fire

Meme culture can be particularly troublesome not just because of our failure to give credit to the actual creators; the “cash me ousside” moment further highlights the entitlement we feel when it comes to simultaneously celebrating and mocking a person. Part of what makes memes so appealing is that they make us rub our hands together in the this thing is so good yet also so bad kind of way. The thing is, not all memes are equal, but we nevertheless apply this sticker to each one. There is a big difference between a teenage girl who is clearly troubled and a cute boy from Target who just happened to be photographed.

To people online, though, there is no distinction — a viral meme is just a viral meme. They all become lumped together, making it easy to give ourselves permission to ignore the context and dehumanize their subjects. It’s only when we take a step back and realize after the fact, Hey, this person shouldn’t be famous for XYZ messed-up reasons! that it’s too late. We saw it when we realized Ken Bone, the friendly looking guy in the red sweater, isn’t the internet hero we made him out to be. We saw it when Candace Payne — a.k.a. Chewbacca Mom — decided to serenade us with a rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World” following the fatal shooting of five policemen at a protest against police violence in her home state of Texas. We get mad when they monetize their fame. But you can’t help make someone famous and then say, “You don’t deserve it!” Sure, Bregoli poured the gasoline for us, but we didn’t hesitate to light the match.

The Slow Burnout

With her meme already past its peak, Danielle Bregoli will continue to profit off the fame we helped her build until she cannot. We’ll meme-ify another teen in a week or so, and while “cash me ousside” will eventually fizzle out, it won’t ever disappear completely — a long-term consequence of online stardom. Young digital natives like Bregoli, Alex from Target, and Damn Daniel are keenly aware of the footprint they leave on the internet in the moment, but how this will personally impact them years into the future will play out in drastically different ways. The Alexes from Target and Damn Daniels of the internet will still get into college and get hired for jobs — their brief virality will be remembered as silly and juvenile when they’re Googled later as adults. It's the Danielle Bregolis who will continue to be judged by the internet long after their meme dies, whether it’s deserved or not.

Bregoli is right. Oprah did make Dr. Phil and Bregoli helped him score ratings. But ultimately, we made Bregoli — just like every internet sensation — and to pretend that she’s just another Damn Daniel or Alex from Target is irresponsible. The scary part? We just don’t seem to care about the difference.

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