by Brian Feldman
Do you know what Minions are? I’m serious. I keep thinking that I know what Minions are, and then I’ll lose three hours on poorly maintained Facebook pages and Pinterest tags and emerge from my trance sweaty, short of breath, and somehow more baffled than I was before.
It probably doesn’t help that there’s a wide gulf between the Minions that have appeared in two — and soon, three — feature-length motion pictures and how we see Minions on the Internet. The Minions of the Despicable Me canon exist as, well, minions — hapless henchmen for a comically inept villain with a heart of gold (and worrisome body proportions). The Minions as they appear on social media are an altogether different beast.
Let’s start with canonical Minions. They are maybe the platonic ideal of franchise mascot. A better question, for my idiot lizard brain, is what aren’t Minions? They have just the slightest identity to be interpreted as “distinct” or “realized,” but every facet of their design is also so vague that they are nothing. Minions are blank slates of cosmic dust and computer processing power, just like the rest of us.
The Pantone Color Institute, which decides what is and is not a real color, describes Minions thusly:
Just as the sun’s rays enliven us, PANTONE Minion Yellow is a color that heightens awareness and creates clarity, lighting the way to the intelligence, originality and the resourcefulness of an open mind — this is the color of hope, joy and optimism.
Every provable fact about minions reveals thousands of other questions that we do not have the answer to. This trailer for the upcoming Minions movie provides many details, which serve as the seeds from which a myriad of additional questions sprout.
Minions, back in the primordial soup, crawled onto land from the ocean. They have, apparently, not undergone any substantial evolutionary development since then. Their purpose has always been to serve a villainous master. YET! They are very bad at it. This is the comedy: Darwin’s law of natural selection does not apply to Minions; the hapless Minions should have died with the dinosaurs, and yet, they continue to not only survive, but thrive.
All Minions are male (at the very least, they all have male names): Kevin, Stuart, Bob, Carl, Dave, Donny, Jerry, John, Norbert, Paul, Phil, Tim… the list goes on. That said, they care little for traditional markers of masculinity or virility. Though Minions do have butts, it is less clear whether or not they have sexual organs. It would appear that they do not, yet even so, much like Adam and Eve, they choose to cover their shame with flora. (I did not attempt to contact Minions creator Pierre Coffin to find out if Minions can or do fuck.) In the upcoming film, a Minion flirts with two similarly-shaped yellow fire hydrants, leading me to hypothesize that, yes, Minions do fuck. How remains unknown.
Given that the upcoming film Minions tracks the same characters through prehistory up until the mid-twentieth century, it is very clear that Minions are immortal. They were here long before us, and they will live on long after we turn to skeleton and ash. The Minions will comb through the wreckage of what were once our cities and culture, “Banana?” they will ask… but bananas will have died out long ago, a distant fragment of memory, floating on a wisp through the aether of time and space.
Minions do not understand the concept of race. They are all the same shade of yellow. It can be argued that they are post-racial, though in actuality, owing to their eons-long existence dating from the earliest days of carbon-based life forms, they are pre-racial.
The Minion language is similarly ambiguous. From the Despicable Me wiki:
They express themselves through actions, not words: their “language” is fairly basic, they speak in a strange jabber combined with various human languages — evident in some (roughly) English words such as “Banana”, “Bapples” (basically “Apple” with “B”), “Potato”, as well as Spanish-sounding words like “para tú” (roughly “for you”) and “la boda” (means “marriage”), French (poulet tikka masala, et pis c’est tout), Russian words such as “да” (Da”), and Korean words such as “Hana(하나), Dul(둘), Sae (From Set [셋]” means One, Two, Three), and many other languages. Hence, their language is incomprehensible to most humans, though they do understand English. It is also possible to isolate elements of Japanese from their speech patterns.
Minions have been engineered to be everything and nothing at once. They are not sexual, but they can develop romantic interest. They are androgynous but have distinctly male names. Their language is a hodge-podge of others. Their bodies have both a slender skinniness and the curves of fatness. They all need corrective eyewear.
So, really, we know frustratingly little about Minions, but do note enough signifiers which trick us into believing they are substantial. They are paper-thin archetypes that we cast our own ideas, aspirations, and worries onto.
What I’m trying to say is: Minions are the perfect meme. As one popular Tumblr post refers to them, Minions are “SCREAMING CORNPOPS WHO ARE TEARING APART SOCIETY THROUGH MIDDLE AGED MOM MEMES.”
Actually, wait. Let me revise that. Minions are bigger than memes. I don’t have a word for it. Are they the übermeme? The word “meme” means many things to many people (for instance, it is often incorrectly used as a synonym for, like, the fifty-sixth definition of “macro”), but in general, a meme is intrinsically bonded to a certain, often very granular emotion. Socially Awkward Penguin is tied to social awkwardness, Sweet Brown’s “Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That” is linked to being too busy, the facepalm is about being very disappointed, cereal guy is about being in the middle of eating but also wanting to add your two cents, the song “Friday” is about trying your best and failing but still having fun, etc. Even certain franchise characters espouse a specific view (Sonic the Hedgehog: nineties edgy raditude, Shadow the Hedgehog: shitty early aughts raditude). The new Pixar movie, Inside Out, takes this “one character-one emotion” structure to its logical conclusion.
But Minions are not tied to any central emotion. They occupy an odd middle ground as a specific piece of intellectual property unbound from a specific feeling or worldview. Minions are sarcastic, honest, smarmy, snarky, playful, mean, and downright sour depending on the need.
They love their family…
They are accepting…
They know about social decorum…
They are mad at young people…
They are confident…
…and they love social sharing!!!!!!!!
Minions have a purpose — serving villainy — but no specific emotional drive to go along with it. I guess that their whole… gestalt… is faux-brutal honesty; the sort of call-it-like-I-see-it posturing that thrives on social media. This makes Minions uniquely exploitable on the memescape. Their central core of mischief applies to many of the feelings that people like to vent through memes: anger, joke-y threats, the idea that whoever’s posting is smarter than everyone else around them. Minions can be paired with many of the same phrases that appear on graphic tees at Target.
In fact, I’ve spent the last two weeks trying to find the right analogy, and I think that’s it. Minions are the Target graphic tees of the internet.
Wait, no, wait I just got it. I figured out their appeal. Minions are basically emoji. They’re yellow, they run the emotional spectrum, they function as a malleable shorthand for almost indescribable feelings. Like, do you know what the nail art emoji means? It means a million different things. So does the prayer hands emoji. (This is an emerging area of academic study.) Okay, so… Minions are emoji with arms, legs, and goggles.
And that would explain the bizarre phenomenon of Minions as visual templates. Do you want to see a Minion version of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory” or the Green Bay Packers? Well, guess what: They exist. As tattoos.
A photo posted by Michele Convertini (@varisvari) on Apr 29, 2015 at 2:26am PDT
A photo posted by williamsyme92 (@williamsyme92) on May 21, 2015 at 9:14am PDT
#tattoobymark at #dinosaurstudiotattoo of #minions #greenbay #packers. #miniontattoo #despicableme #despicablemetattoo #greenbaypackers #greenbaypackerstattoo #greenbaypackersminions #despicableme2 #despicableme3 #cheesehead #cheeseheadtattoo #cheeseheadminion #green #yellow #waukegan #waukeganillinois #weirdwaukegan #explorewaukegan #keepwaukeganweird #lakecountyil #greatlakesnavybase #greatlakesnavalstation #football #sports #footballtattoo @cupycakesweetshop
A photo posted by Dinosaur Studio Tattoo (@dinosaurstudiotattoo) on Apr 23, 2015 at 7:12pm PDT
One of the billions of questions about Minion memes is: why is there a Minion on this???? What does the Minion add? “I like this thing, but with only one eye, and ovoid, and… speaks in gibberish.” Minions stand for nothing. They crawled out of the sea millions of years ago to serve villainy and were reformed by three cute girls in a matter of days. Yet their simple visual style (literally a yellow oval) makes it very easy to riff on the form, and so they pervade. A search for “minion hat” on Etsy returns nearly three hundred crocheted hats. You can make Minion cupcakes pretty easily. Or, I dunno, smoke from a Minion bowl.
If we view Minions as a template onto which we project ourselves, then sharing a picture of something Minionized is not only saying “I like this,” it’s like saying “This is an extension of who I am…. If the idiot Minions can be Green Bay Packer, then I can be a Green Bay Packer.”
So what have we learned from all this? Nothing? Probably nothing. In closing, here is a cake shaped like a baby, and the cake-baby is wearing a Minion hat.