The drama first kicked off over the weekend, when the wildly popular Facebook page Garlic Bread Memes posted an image macro that many have interpreted as transphobic. (How popular could the page possibly be, you ask? Well, more than a quarter-million people currently subscribe to it.) The meme depicted two pieces of garlic bread with the caption "if I had a slice of garlic bread for every existing gender."
The implication, many readers assumed, is that the page's administrators rejected gender identities beside male and female. And that promptly ignited hundreds of outraged posts in the comments, as well as on Reddit and Instagram, where the meme is similarly well-followed. Critics were aghast that a slice of bread would take such a position.
"I am surprised by the scale of the reaction," said the Garlic Bread Memes' main administrator, who identified himself as an 18-year-old Israeli high-schooler named Boaz. "But (I'm not surprised) about the reaction itself."
Before we get any further into the drama, we should probably take a baby step back and survey what it is that we're actually talking about. Offline, garlic bread is a food - OK, sure. But online it's sort of like that juvenile joke where you append the phrase "in bed" to your fortune cookies. It doesn't stand alone, really - it's an addendum to existing memes, a means of making any prior messages absurd and thus, funny. The absurdity is an end in itself: It's not necessarily an attempt to communicate any broader point or commentary, unless you'd call it a parody of meme culture in general.
In other words, people who follow Garlic Bread Memes - whether on Facebook (265,000 subscribers) , Reddit (11,000) or Instagram (10,500) - find it funny because it makes fun of memes that exist already.
In the case of this latest and very infamous garlic bread meme, the original source was an explicitly transphobic image macro that makes regular appearances in places like 4chan and r/The_Donald, Reddit's dedicated Trump fan club. Usually it reads something along the lines of "if I had a dollar for every gender, I'd have two dollars," or "if I had a book for every gender there was, I'd have have Donald Trump's "Think Like a Champion" and "The Art of the Deal." Boaz says he was specifically inspired by a less-than-tasteful iteration that reads "If I had an atomic bomb for every gender there was" next to a map of the 1945 bomb strikes in Japan.
These memes are intended to perpetuate a discriminatory narrative about trans people, and there are a whole lot of reasons why a trans person or ally who saw them might find that narrative deeply offensive. (If that baffles you, I recommend a quick refresher on what, exactly, gender identity is.) Similarly, a trans person or ally who encountered the garlic bread version - and who was not familiar with exactly what the garlic bread meme traditionally means - would be totally justified in feeling, as one commenter put it, that the creator was "a transphobic (expletive)" whose ignorance "is destroying the very fabric of society."
But remember that garlic bread memes are intended to make absurdities of the originals they depict, which means that Boaz was basically mocking a transphobic meme with his breadier version. At the same time, he expected it to offend "social justice warriors," a derogatory name for people who speak out on progressive issues.
So Boaz was, essentially trolling everyone involved in the online gender debate. He wasn't mocking trans people, Boaz told The Washington Post: He was mocking the extremes of the online conversation that happens around them.
Maybe that's a distinction that doesn't mean much to you. Certainly Boaz is no beacon of LGBT acceptance. He maintains, as far as we can tell, your average high-schooler's understanding of sex and gender (which is to say, not much) and he's pretty critical of "social justice warriors." We're certainly not celebrating his garlic bread meme, which - whatever its original intentions - has been widely interpreted and shared as a nasty criticism of trans people. And we'd also dispute his claim that the nature of sex and gender is a matter of "opinion."
But we will say that, insofar as the meme was originally intended to mock the state of online dialogue, it definitely worked. Just look at any of the more than 2,000 comments that have been left on the macro: People on both sides - particularly the anti-trans side, who seem responsible for virtually all of the comments - are going absolutely berserk. They're calling names; typing in all caps; launching into lengthy diatribes that misquote the scientific literature. Any commenter who questions the gender binary is promptly slapped with a hail of f-bombs and ad-hominems.
Boaz would argue that's exactly the joke: Online outrage culture has blown up so much, he says, that it needed garlic-breading to make evident just how extreme it had grown. Of course, in an ironic turn of events, the garlic bread became an object of outrage itself. All of which leaves us with a vague sense of despair and a desire to never again eat garlic bread again.
© 2016 The Washington Post