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How a drag queen and a woman in a niqab spawned the "future that liberals want" meme

The meme caught on because of the way it framed an everyday scene as being full of dark intent.

An unknown woman and drag queen Gilda Wabbit sit next to one another in a now-viral photo.
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Islamophobia and transphobia are two of the most contentious social issues of the moment, and they’ve combined to spawn one of most viral memes of the year so far.

On Wednesday, a photo taken by a New York City subway rider started spreading online after it was shared on Twitter by the right-wing Pol News Network (“Pol” being a reference to the 4chan forum /pol/ that is frequented by many members of the white nationalist alt-right movement). The photo shows drag queen Gilda Wabbit sitting next to an unknown woman in a niqab, with the text, “This is the future that liberals want.”

Ironically, the photo used in the tweet originally appeared on an Instagram account themed around showcasing diversity on the New York subway; the initial context was celebratory rather than hateful.

But almost immediately, the tweet seemed to backfire — many people simply didn’t see anything wrong with a Muslim woman and a drag queen minding their own business on a train. Common responses generally pointed out that the subjects of the photo weren’t hurting anyone, and that tolerant, respectful, and diverse spaces are the bare minimum of what human beings should want for each other.

Most internet memes form when someone copies an image and alters it in some way before sharing it online. But in this case, it was the absurdity of the text that caught on, because of the way it framed an everyday scene as being full of dark intent.

The phrase “this is the future that liberals want” began spreading on Twitter as people used it to mock the original tweet. Many early iterations of the meme focused on highlighting one or more aspects of the original photo, featuring unlikely or unexpectedly colorful matchups of people or animals or objects, often on mass transit.

But because the heart of the meme is a single sentence instead of a specific image, it’s proved to be surprisingly versatile.

Many versions of the meme have also been serious, straightforward, and political. The liberal political agenda is one of ensuring equal access to opportunity, protecting the underprivileged, and pursuing peaceful, government-provided solutions to a wide range of social issues. Framing that agenda as a question of morals fits right in with the meme’s disapproving outrage.

Even when that self-aware politicking is tinged with irony, it still gets the point across.

This isn’t the first time a conservative-skewing catchphrase has spawned a meme. The most famous instance is perhaps “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams,” a line originally used by 9/11 “truthers” who believed it proved the 9/11 terror attacks were the result of a US government directive. In its initial context, the phrase signaled knowledge of a vast conspiracy. And now, thanks to its perpetual ridicule on the internet, it’s shorthand for “making fun of conspiracy theorists.”

We don’t yet know if “this is the future that liberals want” will have the same kind of staying power, but the way it spread as a response to a moment of bigotry is proof of a universal internet truth: Outrage fuel can’t melt steel memes.

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