In the beginning, there was a fist: five brown fingers, emerging from a yellow argyle sweater sleeve. Though one cannot see the owner of the fist’s face, nor even his upper body, everything you need to know about his emotional state is telegraphed by the strength of those five fingers, tightly clenched in ire, threatening to unleash the sheer animalistic force contained therein. “Animalistic” is a good word to use here, because the fist belongs not to a man, but to an aardvark: namely, Arthur Read, the bookish, eight-year-old protagonist of the beloved children’s book series-turned-TV-show Arthur, created by Marc Brown.
"Can you pass me my charger?"
"What percent you on?" pic.twitter.com/Rlba9y4SdW
— 🤖Megatron🦾 (@ShyneGold) July 28, 2016
Over the course of its 25-year-run on PBS Kids, which the network announced on Wednesday will come to an end next winter, Arthur has amassed a rabidly loyal fan base (and if you want proof of that, may I direct you to the Arthur Wiki, in which, in a 250-word section on Arthur’s formal attire, Arthur is described as having two stained tuxedos, one of which is “light blue and has two buttons on the right side of the jacket and two pockets, one on each side, with the stain near the left pocket”). The show won a deserved reputation for being much smarter than other children’s fare, offering wholesome life lessons with a side of trenchant observations on the daily triumphs and humiliations of pre-adolescence, wreaking high drama from a trip to the dentist to fix a cavity, or a little sister’s CD that she just won’t stop playing (real ones remember “Crazy Bus“). Compared to the candy-colored, high-octane children’s fare on TV these days, Arthur was exceptionally good at capturing childhood, that time in everyone’s lives when all of the little things seemed impossibly big.
But even though the show’s run is coming to an end, Arthur has achieved near-immortality on the internet, thanks to the countless memes that have been inspired by the show. There’s the side-by-side of Arthur with his apparent doppelganger John Legend; Muffy handing Francine a phone, looking alarmed; Arthur’s preternaturally sassy little sister DW in sunglasses and swimmies, staring wistfully through a fence, looking every bit like a jaded drag queen slamming back Tom Collinses and reminiscing about former lovers; and the clip of her sweetly approaching Arthur’s friend Francine before demanding, “Why don’t you go back to your own house and stop bothering us?!?” (Indeed, DW is so preternaturally sassy that when I was growing up, I had more than a few friends whose parents forbade them to watch the show for fear of them imitating her attitude; they’d implemented similar rules for Rugrats, thanks to similarly mouthy toddler Angelica.)
But before all of that, there was the Fist, a screengrab from an exceptionally dark episode in which Arthur punched his sister DW for breaking his model airplane (as a 2016 Verge piece notes, that episode was the only one in the series to be rated Y7, rather than its usual Y, for its comparatively more mature themes of inter-sibling violence and, I suppose, miniature aircraft construction). Like most memes worth their salt, it first emerged in 2016 on Black Twitter in a tweet that said “when people say ‘Harambe was just a gorilla’,” a reference to the uproar over the killing of the Cincinnati Zoo animal in response to a three-year-old climbing into its enclosure.
Harambe was one of the first examples of internet outrage in 2016, but in an ecosystem where anger is both lingua franca and currency, there would be no shortage of instances for Arthur’s Fist to be used. Zach Braff used it in a tweet about his friends yelling at him for texting them too much. LeBron James used it in a 2017 Instagram post, albeit incorrectly; Chrissy Teigen used it the following year, tweeting, in reference to her husband John Legend, “John when you tell him he looks like Arthur.” (She continued to use it to troll him for years, including by tweeting a photo of their daughter Luna with an Arthur stuffed animal with the caption, “Luna and daddy.”) For years, the Fist has served as the ultimate shorthand for internet ire, which has in turn led to Arthur itself being viewed as a fount for the dankest of memes.
It’s always difficult to pinpoint exactly why certain TV shows and movies easily meet the demands of internet virality, while others tend to crash and burn regardless of the popularity of the source material. When it comes to Arthur specifically, some people have tried to chalk up its appeal to Nineties- and early-2000s-kid nostalgia, but that seems to be only part of the puzzle. In an excellent 2020 piece on the enduring power of Arthur memes, Time writer Cady Lang speaks to academic Dr. Bradley Wiggins, who wrote about the Fist in a book on virality and memes. He basically argues that by their very nature, memes become totally divorced from their original context, and that those who tweet the DW sunglasses image along with the caption “me during the pandemic watching my old Instagram stories” may not even know to what they’re originally referring.
“Because it’s been memed for so long, it’s almost become a part of this meme language,” he told Time. “I don’t even think most of the people using Arthur memes even know which episodes the memes come from or have that much of a memory of the show beyond what they’re reminded of on Tumblr and Twitter. When people have singled out those moments and they continue to find them, they find new relevance for current times.”
Lang observes that during the pandemic, she saw an increase of Arthur memes on social media, mostly used by people who were expressing their boredom and frustration at being deprived of the mundane elements of their daily lives. And indeed, during the pandemic, one of the refrains I heard the most often from people was that they missed “the little things”: going out to brunch, sitting next to a good-looking stranger on a bus, getting a haircut. Like Arthur, the pandemic had the effect of making the little things seem impossibly big; the memes have the same effect, raising the stakes of even the smallest moment to high drama.