The Washington Post
Little Miss Internet Phenomenon: How kid-book art went viral
What began as an innocent tickle a half-century ago is now providing the art for infectiously darker laughter.
The chipper kiddie-lit characters from the popular Mr. Men and Little Miss franchises have hit a fresh wave of virality this summer, thanks to being co-opted for a cheekily bleaker meme that is skipping across platforms, brands and politics. Where the official series has someone like “Little Miss Jealous,” the meme delivers someone like “Little Miss At My [Expletive] Breaking Point.”
Some social media creators and observers call it comedy for our times.
Giorgio Angelini, the filmmaker who tracked the arc of the Pepe the Frog comic meme in the documentary “Feels Good Man,” sees a similar initial dynamic at play with the Little Miss meme: “She’s no longer just grumpy. She’s reeling from anxiety and depression because the world is warming, democracies are crumbling and those in power seem to be more Mr. Greedy than Mr. Actionably Concerned.”
British author and illustrator Roger Hargreaves launched his Mr. Men series in 1971 after, according to the book series website, eldest son Adam, 8, asked, “What does a tickle look like?” The resulting creation, “Mr. Tickle,” was first in a cast of simple brightly colored Mr. Men characters that the site says sold a million copies within three years.
The warmhearted books — in which readers see how a title character’s personality trait affects their life — spawned comics, songs and BBC adaptations through the decade. Hargreaves then began publishing his spinoff Little Miss books, building a growing stable of characters who “identify with a multigenerational audience through self-expression, colour, simplicity and humour,” says the website. Adam Hargreaves has overseen the series since his father’s 1988 death, more recently adding characters such as “Mr. Calm,” as well as celebrity inspiration like “Little Miss Spice Girls.”
Fast-forward to last month, when one Instagram account alone — “Littlemissnotesapp” — topped 2 million followers by posting the Hargreaves’ charac
ters beneath such captions as, “Little Miss Lexapro,” “Mr. Vape Cloud” and “Little Miss Aggressive Drunk.” The account gives credit to the user “Juulpuppy,” who last spring began posting such art updates as “Little Miss Weed Psychosis.”
In April, “A lot of the memes I was making were pretty dark and I wanted to make a relatable meme that didn’t take itself too seriously,” says Juulpuppy via email, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of concern for her privacy. Books for young readers have inspired some of her previous such “remix” posts, including “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.”
“Visual comedy takes advantage of unexpected pairings and I love to lean into that with all the memes I make,” continues Juulpuppy, who says she is a 21-yearold Brooklyn woman. “This trend is so infectious because the pairings are so ridiculous and relate to so many people. Any caption can be applied to a Little Miss image, so no one has to feel like the odd one out from this trend.”
“We get to see cute imaginary versions of ourselves and laugh together at the messy nature of our flawed personalities, which I think is very genuine and sweet.”
Nicole Gagliardi, a 22-year-old San Francisco-based student who is linked to the “Littlemissnote-sapp” account, says by email, “I think people resonate with this meme for the same reason they like knowing their personality type or zodiac sign: They like seeing something that they can identify with, and there’s something for everyone.” Gagliardi also credits Tiktok user @starbucksslayqueen for some of her account’s content.
The “Little Miss” hashtag has more than 170 million views on Tiktok, with some creators setting their posts to the Pharrell Williams song “Cash In Cash Out.”
When the meme recently spiked again, Max Knoblauch’s wife told him it reminded her of something he had done.
Sure enough, Knoblauch — a writer, illustrator and comedian based in Queens — had paired the Hargreaves’ characters with contemporary-toned captions in 2014, for an article on Mashable created with editor Annie Colbert.
“The word from the top then was that galleries do really well,” Knoblauch recalls, so he drew “Mr. Men Children’s Books Reimagined for Millennials,” featuring such characters as “Mr. Student Loan Debt” and “Little Miss Underemployed.”
Knoblauch says his article was born of a comedic psyche of the era: “We would acknowledge things like student debt and these bigger problems, but we would acknowledge it in a way that it exists and it’s unsolvable. I think now comedy reflects [the view]: ‘ Maybe there’s a solution and we just won’t do it.’ ”
Knoblauch, himself a millennial, says he enjoys the current memes, which he sees as bleaker, more absurdist and more nihilistic. “The ones that I made were so: ‘ Wow, this is peak 2014 here’ — there were just bad things happening but they could be fun. Now, well, they’re bad and they’re not getting better.”
Still, he views the Hargreaves’ characters as forever memefriendly, “It’s a blob with a smile and it was so positive.”
“The Hargreaves original books were created to explain very specific traits that were referential enough for many children to access,” says Jamie Cohen, a CUNY Queens College assistant professor who specializes in media studies and digital culture. “Like memes, the Hargreaves books are reductionist and shareable.”
The appeal of the meme, he says, is that it allows people online to share a hyper-specific personal description. “I think it’s neat that people are using it to introduce really specific traits like neuroses, trauma or divergent characteristics — something that I think is good as it helps people hear new vocabulary and unknown characteristics in both funny and serious ways.”
Cohen likens the Little Miss parodies to such recent viral trends as the American Doll meme — in which nostalgia linked to childhood is paired with current comic sensibility.
Although what sparked the recent rise of the Hargreaves meme is uncertain, the Twitter account “dreamgirltat” helped popularize the trend when she shared a character captioned “Little Miss Smokes Too Much Weed” on April 17. The tweet received more than 36,000 likes.
That image earlier appeared on the Tumblr account of “Notyourgaybestie,” which is linked to New Jersey food-service worker Mike Di Carlo. He tells The Post via email that the recent Twitter trend “shocked” him: “I absolutely loved how it completely took over every platform. Nothing but absolute love and admiration for the Hargreaves/little Miss characters.”
Naturally, businesses are riding the trend. Such organizations as Linkedin, M&M’S and the Philadelphia 76ers have seized on the meme, as well as PBS, “The Kelly Clarkson Show” and the account for the production “Les Misérables.”
“I do think the corporate trajectory of this meme takes away from its initial pureness,” Juulpuppy says. “I’ve seen so many ads using the format, and many companies and organizations that have caused so much harm to humanity try to jump in on the trend. It has definitely dulled my enthusiasm on the whole trend.”
Juulpuppy says, “It’s a doubleedged sword, creating something that can be shaped to fit any identity.”
“Any caption can be applied to a Little Miss image, so no one has to feel like the odd one out from this trend.” “Juulpuppy,” an Instagram user linked to the start of the recent trend