It’s Time To Admit That Minions Are Actually Good
Minions are funny at every single level of their conception.
In the opening to her landmark essay, ‘Notes on Camp’, philosopher and academic Susan Sontag notes that there are things that have been named but have never been described. This is the way that I feel about Minions.
Minions are everywhere, and have been for many years. Every time they threaten to go away, they come back again. In a culture that establishes trends only to abandon them within days, Minions are one of the internet’s most steadfast mythic tales, a core story that we cannot stop telling ourselves.
First, they were characters in a beloved children’s film — an internationally recognised brand, adored the world over. Then, that influence spread to one of the most curious demographics on the planet: the Facebook-posting wine mom.
These women bought enough Minions merch for their children that they began to fall for the little shits too. They genuinely liked the creatures, and so they turned them into digital detritus, chucking them into weirdly sincere memes that they used to talk about alcohol, and work, and their husbands.
NOTICE: THIS ACCOUNT IS NOW A MINION MEME ACCOUNT. I EXPECT MANY MORE FOLLOWERS NOW. pic.twitter.com/oAGjUin44x
— 𝙹𝚞𝚕𝚒𝚊𝚗 (@smalljooj) November 5, 2019
That in turn fed into the next stage of the Minions’ evolution — the deluge of shitposts. A formula had been established — slap some heartwarming observation over a picture of a Minion — and that meant that the formula could be subverted.
Suddenly, Minions were the face of the internet’s most cynical, demented corner. They were being used to advocate for violence, anti-humour, and horror. The creatures had been turned inside out; now they operated not as entities in themselves, but comments on other entities. Cultural ubiquity was being used against itself.
Funny minion meme, Ha Ha (just kidding I hate myself) pic.twitter.com/v02mux8HOu
— Ovec_unofficial (@OvecUnofficial) November 7, 2019
Usually, that’s the end of a meme cycle. After all, there’s not much further to go once you’ve gone meta. But now, somehow, after being hammered into the ground by oversaturation, they have crept back into culture. We’re back to the beginning of the whole cycle; or at least, some mutant version of it.
This time Minions are not just funny little yellow guys; now, they’re oddly desirable remnants of a past we cannot help but feel a deep yearning for.
The endlessly hip Japanese clothing brand Uniqlo is currently selling bespoke $20 Minions shirts. President Donald Trump placed a chocolate on a Minion’s head at the White House’s official Halloween event. A new Minions movie will hit cinemas in 2020; Lego will put out a new line of toys honouring the creatures around the same time. A Tweet pointing out that Minions are used as relics of American imperialism in the box office bomb Mortal Engines went extremely viral.
just wanna be clear: this is an actual shot from Mortal Engines of what remains from the culture of the united states pic.twitter.com/SFb9mrl3Gz
— Brock Wilbur (@brockwilbur) October 30, 2019
Just when Minions seemed to be at their least relevant, they have reared their yellow heads again. They are the spectre that our culture cannot entirely shake — a squeaky-voiced, yellow-faced meme that we cannot let go of.
They also happen to be good as hell.
What We Mean When We Say ‘Minions’
For all their cultural ubiquity, there is painfully little writing about what Minions actually are. When thinkers intersect with the yellow-skinned phenomenon, they can only do so by leaving the things at the level of a meme.
The best writing about the creatures, like Isabelle Hellyer’s excellent article I Lived Off Minions Merch for One Awful Weekend, is distinctly vague. Hellyer’s article opens with her admission that she has never seen a film containing Minions, and does not know any of their names. This is because she is not really dealing with Minions. She is dealing with movie merchandise; with capitalism. Minions are the thing that she cannot pierce.
Sontag was right — being able to contain something with a word does not always mean being able to understand it, especially if that something is a squat yellow box named Kevin.
Not to be a boomer Facebook mom but why did this minions meme make me laugh so hard? pic.twitter.com/nnjlnrkYRW
— 💛Terry💛 (@terry_pisano) November 8, 2019
In fact, much of Sontag’s essay expresses about camp how I feel about the small, yellow accomplices to master-criminal Gru. Like Sontag, I see a love of Minions as a love of artifice; of the unnatural. And like Sontag, I understand Minions as principally aesthetic creatures — the ways that they matter are all tied to the ways that they look.
Of course, Sontag is helpful in understanding Minions because the creatures are themselves camp, and have been since they first appeared in the animated children’s film Despicable Me. But the Minions are not wholly reducible to their camp aspect.
If nothing else, they are too widely accepted to be understood in just that way. Camp is, by its very nature, a counter-cultural mode of aesthetics. Minions are fucking everywhere. They are not a rejection of the norm — they are proof that the norm has the tools to subvert itself, from the inside, while speaking a language understood by everyone.
Which might be why they’re so hard to talk about.
Minions Are Funny Little Yellow People Who Speak In A Weird Voice
Minions are, first and foremost, funny little yellow people who speak in a weird voice. That might sound obvious, but it bears keeping in mind from the get-go. Their brand of humour is simple; unobtrusive.
You don’t need to understand satire, or even speak a language to get ahold of a Minion. They are what they are. They make fart jokes, and they say the word “banana” funny, and they accidentally set things on fire.
There’s a precedent for that kind of character, of course — Minions did not invent that brand of comedy. Think Scrat, the hideous little squirrel in the Ice Age franchise, or Jack-Jack, the demented baby in the first Incredibles movie. Or even Buster Keaton, in some of his earliest shorts. All are non-verbal forces of pure chaos; disruptors, who bungle into a picture just to upset the straight-laced and delight the likeable.
Only, while Jack-Jack, Keaton and Scrat are ultimately good-hearted creatures who get lost along the way to kindness, Minions are shitheads. In the opening to the Minions movie, we learn that they have spent hundreds of years aligning themselves with culture’s greatest monsters — the T-Rex, Dracula. The only reason that we know Minions didn’t become Nazis is because the film goes out of its way to let us know that they were in hibernation throughout much of the ’40s.
They are the cogs in the machinery of historical evil — the process by which horror enacts itself in the universe. More than that, they are unthinking. Minions do not care about money, power, or ethics. They have a preternatural desire to align themselves with terror. They cannot explain it. They just feel it.
i received a minion meme by mail… pic.twitter.com/zF0SzDVQWc
— huddy (@huddymaybe) November 7, 2019
This is what makes Minions more evil than any of their overlords — particularly Gru, their Steve Carrell-voiced boss. Gru is firmly attention-seeking: his grand, outlandish schemes are designed simply to turn heads. But Minions don’t want anything more than anarchy. They fight, and hurt each other, and are utterly self-obsessed. When they’re nice to people, they’re nice so that they might get something in return.
Which is funny. It’s funnier than the bullshit peddled by most children’s movies — it’s funnier than half the bullshit stand-up comedy dropped on Netflix. Mel Brooks once said that if I fall down a manhole cover, that’s a tragedy. If you do, that’s comedy. Watching Minions onscreen speaks to that joy — to the great pleasure of watching little forces of pure ego hurt things, over and over again.
So, that means whenever you are exhausted by the Minions discourse, you can return to the source text, and there they are: funny little yellow people who speak in a weird voice.
The Internet Sucks
For all the ways that contemporary meme culture uplifts and entertains us, there is something hard-edged and cruel about it. Online jokes usually have a victim — a fool who has gotten carried away with the sound of their own voice and made some social faux pas; a disliked movie or video game. These are not vague trends. They have a pointy end.
Even when these jokes are lighthearted, there’s still a sense in which someone must be singled out. And that’s never a good thing. Ordinary people are not designed to withstand the sheer force of our digital culture, even if that attention is largely positive.
Learning modeling-Minions pic.twitter.com/HUJYb1IAmM
— 上官绯樱 (@jokanhiyou) November 8, 2019
Think about Ken Bone, or the Fiji water girl — these were heroes for a minute, and then forgotten wannabes the next. What an effect that must have on a person. Being briefly but universally loved fucks your life up just as badly as being hated.
Minions exist outside all of this. Minions are not victims of their success. The people who made them are not being ridiculed or mocked. The people who made them are extremely rich. There is no pointy edge in the wave of Minions memes.
Maybe, arguably, the recent wave of ironised Minions memes is a light jab pulled on the Facebook moms. But even then, it’s weirdly neutered. Wine moms can do what they want — they are unstoppable presence on the internet, if only because they are such a narrow-minded one. Wine moms don’t know about 4chan, and they don’t want to know.
So how can they be hurt, when the joke never reaches their earshot?
Minions Are Also Symptoms Of A Global Exhaustion With Digital Culture
We spend a lot of time trying to decode the world, usually without realising it. That is exhausting. Everything moves so fast, and you never know where you stand in relation to anything, and every day requires you to sift through layers of irony and meaning in order to uncover what you’re meant to feel about the most banal of punchlines.
This is called being irony-poisoned, and it sucks. We have outgrown every possible use of subversion. As David Foster Wallace once wrote, irony’s power is only ever in destruction, not construction. And we have spent so long burning everything to the ground.
“The problem is that once the rules of art are debunked, and once the unpleasant realities the irony diagnoses are revealed and diagnosed, then what do we do?” Foster Wallace asked. “Irony’s useful for debunking illusions, but most of the illusion-debunking … has now been done and redone.”
Except, none of that is true in the case of Minions. Because the Minions memes have no victim, they have no destructive power. No-one is being hurt; nothing is being damaged. For all of their evil intent, Minions are making the world better; simpler. Kinder.
Minions were funny when they were characters in an animated children’s film. They were funny when they were the playthings of very sincere wine moms. And they were funny when they were co-opted by the anti-humourists. They work on every level, and none of these levels clashes with another.
This is their great trick: they can be everything but nothing. They can be little dickheads, and symbols of mankind’s love with capitalism, and they can be ironic, and sincere, and everything in-between.
It’s like what Sontag said about camp: Minions are “alive to a double sense in which things can be taken.” Whatever you want to say about a Minion, you do not mark them: there they are, breathlessly untouched.
Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Junkee. He tweets @Joseph_O_Earp.