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“Florida Man,” explained

A third-generation Floridian reflects on the state’s unofficial, unwanted mascot.

Kristen Arnett is a queer fiction and essay writer and is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel Mostly Dead Things. She was raised and lives in Florida.

There’s a game people like to play online. In fact, there’s an entire website dedicated to it. It’s called the “Florida Man Birthday Challenge” and the premise is simple enough: You type your birthday into the site’s search bar — month, date — along with the words “FLORIDA MAN.” Whatever headline pops up becomes your official intro into the Florida Man historical record. When I type my own birthday on the site (December 16th, Sagittarius Sun), I discover that a naked Florida man once stole a pickup truck from a car dealership. That’s right. Simply walked into the dealership, fully nude, and then climbed inside a 2021 model Ram pickup and promptly drove off.

Florida Man stories include the kind of incidents that involve tossing a live alligator at a fast food employee (admittedly more exciting than someone hurling, say, a cat), stealing $30,000 worth of turtles, and attempting to “eat someone’s face” after ingesting bath salts. These crimes are odd and incomprehensible; the kind of behavior that someone might associate with a badly behaved toddler whose brain has yet to fully develop. The hit doc Tiger King fit into this particular trope; early pandemic led to people’s obsession with the weird Florida vibes that the Netflix special focused on. Murder? Tigers? Shirtless, pierced and tatted, oiled-up men? A name like Joe Exotic? For viewers, it checked every satisfying box. After all, Florida Man headlines often involve wild animals — we’re a state chock full of hazardous ones; gators and sharks and snakes and a large variety of poisonous insects — and the stories about our zoology almost always also include sex, nudity, drugs, and the misuse of motor vehicles.

It’s understandable people outside the state equate Florida with outlandishness. All of the things that make us interesting — our overpowering heat and rampant humidity, our hurricanes (and the people who decide to shoot guns into them), the subtropical flora and fauna that’s both beautiful and deadly, our beaches and lakes and springs and unlimited tourist traps — lead to the most exciting news coverage. I mean, sure, we have the same issues as every other state. There are drug problems and homelessness and an uncaring state government that takes money away from education and its citizens in order to fund itself. The usual fare, right? It’s just that Florida’s weirder.

This slurry of Florida Man content on the internet and in public perception is also due in part to the Sunshine Law, a prime example of freedom of information legislation: Arrest records and mugshots are readily available online for the general public to gawk and point at. If you’ve committed a crime in the Sunshine State, that information becomes accessible to everyone, everywhere, immediately. In the age of the internet, when nothing posted is ever truly private or removable, Florida criminal activities sit at the forefront of shameful behaviors that can never truly be wiped clean.

Not every story involves a serious crime (though plenty of them do), but the majority of them center on the fact that someone, somewhere in Florida, has done something dumb, bizarre, or absurd that has probably gotten them arrested. While the terminology can make it feel as though a single individual could be perpetrating all of these crimes, Florida Man is not some kind of lone super antihero. Florida Man is larger than that; an archetype, a movement — a sea of Florida bodies, all capable of the weirdest shit you could ever dream up.

And then there’s the real kicker: Taken at face value, the meme asserts that for Florida residents, there’s the possibility that at any given moment, you’re in danger of becoming the next Florida Man. What the “birthday challenge” — and the term Florida Man itself — promotes is the fact that people who live in Florida are all likely dangerously stupid and certifiably insane.

As a third-generation Floridian and someone who writes about my home state for a living, I often find myself flummoxed when it comes to navigating my feelings regarding Florida Man. After all, I’d be lying if I said I’d never once laughed at a headline. The cop who claimed that fast food workers put dirt on his food when it was really just seasoning? Comedic genius! But there is a difference between chuckling at a concept and acknowledging what has somehow become a stand-in for bad feelings and uncertainty about Florida as a whole.

Florida Man has become the state’s own boogeyman. People outside of the bubble actively fear and loathe us because of what our government has decided to promote and endorse, despite the fact that our state is heavily gerrymandered and voting has become an exercise in futility. If you live here, you’re at fault, regardless of your feelings and your actions. In the eyes of outsiders, it feels as though we’re all Florida Man.

This sentiment becomes wildly apparent whenever I travel. On a recent trip to Chicago for a friend’s wedding, a stranger approached a group of us at a neighborhood bar in order to make small talk. On finding out I’m from Florida, they expressed their regret at the fact I have to live there. “I hope you get out soon,” they said, voice dripping with sympathy.

I understood that they weren’t trying to disparage me. They’re concerned with our politics, like most people who give a damn about those who are disenfranchised. They’re not wrong about the difficulty that’s attached to living in a red state. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to remain living in a place that is systematically stripping away my rights. I don’t begrudge people outside of Florida these opinions — I know what the news looks like, and it’s discouraging to see how reckless our elected officials are when it comes to empathy and care. But the galaxy brain connection between our state’s government and its people sometimes finds weird alignment through rampant internet usage and bad faith reasoning. Gator thrown at a fast food worker, they think. Naked man stealing a truck, they think. Maybe they deserve it, they think.

In the grand scheme of America’s problems, it’s easy for outsiders to point at us and say that we’re what’s wrong with this country. I think the harder lesson is that Florida is no different from anywhere else; the headlines just turn our hardships into a joke to make things more palatable.

When I consider Florida Man and its position in the larger social construct of the world, I begin to wonder about my responsibilities to this place and to the narrative itself. It’s true that I am inseparable from it. The umbilical cord of my Floridian existence has long fed and fueled me, dictating the kind of writer that I’ve inevitably become; someone focused on the messiness of the body, the outlier, the bizarre, a person who craves questions and mystery. Florida refuses to be pinned down. It is that very refusal — a resistance to being known, to being stable — that continues to enthrall and delight those who speak about it. There’s something magnetic about this place.

Maybe I don’t want to reclaim Florida Man. Perhaps I just want to reimagine it. Transform it, turn it into the thing that Florida could someday become and often is. Understand it, finally, as a place that refuses to be categorized. To show care to myself and to the people who live here and our continued questioning and unknowing. In that way, I embrace the roiling sea of Florida Men as my community; as a collective that I can contribute to in a helpful way. We can’t and won’t disregard the fact that we’re going to stay strange and continue to be completely, authentically ourselves; we also can’t forget the wonderful alongside the troubles. We can claim our state proudly, even to sympathetic strangers. We can stay, and live, and thrive. Wacky headlines don’t describe me personally any more than they describe anyone else in Florida. Strange things happen every day, everywhere.

Florida Man is in everybody. Even you, voyeur of headlines and the internet. Welcome. We’re glad you’re here. Let’s get weird.

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