How a Hurricane Harvey Photo Turned Into a Controversial Meme

The discourse is pervasive and corrosive and exhausting.

David Phillip/AP

The images from reporters on the scene of Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath are certainly evocative. A person viewing photographs of the devastation left behind in Harvey’s wake might experience sympathy, sadness, a desire to help survivors, or even a sense of existential dread at how fragile our lives are.

But one man, conservative blogger Matt Walsh, dared to cast empathy aside when he laid eyes on a photograph of a police officer carrying a mother and her child to safety in knee-deep flood waters. Instead, blogger Matt Walsh took the picture as an opportunity to teach the people of Twitter a little lesson about traditional gender roles.

Many people on Twitter agreed with Walsh, retweeting his statement more than 10,000 times. However, the tweet earned him a lot of backlash as well, mostly from individuals who didn’t buy into Walsh’s ill-timed statement.

An actual gender studies professor, Christina Wolbrecht, even stepped in to school anyone who might be picking up what Walsh was putting down — progress, he was putting down progress — on the universally negative impact of conforming to gender stereotypes.

In her thread, Wolbrecht breaks down the gender gap in care-based industries, like nursing and childcare, and how that perception gap is damaging both to the industries themselves and the men and women in today’s workforce who feel confined to certain fields based on their gender identity.

According to Wolbrecht’s analysis, women compose the majority of the workforce in fields that deal with providing care because women traditionally fill caretaker roles in their personal lives, free of charge. Thus, the commercialization of care-taking becomes a primarily female industry, and the work that goes into caretaking is undervalued because so many women perform it for free.

Because of this system, men tend to resist taking on jobs as care providers due to an aversion to appearing feminine, and because they do not want to accept a pay cut, Wolbrecht posits. That leaves men jobless and women underpaid.

But not all of the responses to this tweet were as nuanced or rooted in evidence. Critiques of Walsh’s initial tweet morphed into, you guessed it, a meme. People selected famous examples of intertwined trios or duos and touted them as examples of “how it ought to be, despite what your gender studies professor says.”

Will Walsh learn a lesson from all of this backlash? Most likely, the answer is no. Even the gender studies professor, Wolbrecht, acknowledged Walsh as a “provocateur” in a later tweet and stated that her intention was not to reach him. “This is for everyone else,” she said.