Lexicon Valley

How Does a Celebrity Become a “Spirit Animal”?

Hannibal Buress, noted Internet spirit animal.

Photo by Mark Davis/Getty Images for YouTube

I’m starting to suspect that the engine of the Internet runs not on outrage or FOMO but animal souls. Twitter and Tumblr in particular swarm with spirit animals, the disembodied essences once associated with shamanism and Native Americans, now linked to youngish people who want to manage their images ever more precisely. The new breed of spirit animal is an identity marker, a person or thing with which someone wishes to claim kinship. It can be a peanut butter sandwich. Or a farting hart. During a random midmorning hour this week, the following celebrities were claimed on Twitter as spirit animals: Taylor Swift, Johnny Weir, Dolly Parton, Kerry Washington, Laverne Cox, Sad Drake, and Dwight Schrute. Before them, Seth Cohen provided ghostly guidance to a generation of sensitive Jewish men. Mayor Bill de Blasio did it for PETA. Spirit animals have even leapt offline (like spirit ticks!): Women at Cosmo’s “Fun Fearless Life” conference were asked to write their celebrity Patronus shapes on their nametags. (Joanna Coles told fans hers was Tilda Swinton, but in fact, she confessed to reporter Noreen Malone, it’s actually John Oliver.)

To address the cultural appropriation issue up front: Most of those who announce their spirit animals online give zero translucent fewmets about actual spirit animals! (That’s why a Toast piece in which Joan Didion GIFs torment offenders via sensory deprivation and baptismal ram’s blood is so funny.) Still, modern life is sort of like a perpetual vision quest, an ongoing journey of self-discovery, self-expression, and other processes that begin with self-. Back in the day, maybe real vision questers figured out who they were and then went forth to do their part in society. Now our identities need endless renewing and adjusting from tweets that explain exactly who we resemble and what we like and what infuriates us and on and on and on.

Spirit animals are answers that oscillate between two questions: “Who am I?” and “Who do I want to be?” We like them because, unlike “role models” or “kindred souls,” they place those questions in an ironic frame. You might spirit-animal someone who impresses you, though admiration is only part of the equation; you could also pick a grumpy cat or fat possum. (Self-deprecating charm is the Internet’s spirit animal.) And when it comes to famous people, it is a truth cosmologically acknowledged that some are more spirit animal-able than others.

From what I can tell (through admittedly unscientific means), the most popular celebrity spirit animals are widely understood to be Jennifer Lawrence, Emma Stone, Mindy Kaling, and Kanye. Samuel L. Jackson may have been the first (in 2006); Peggy Olson the second. Hannibal Buress comes in for it a lot, too: He recently tweeted that “Stop calling me your fucking spirit animal” was the title of a think piece on his back burner. But what qualities predispose a famous person to spirit animality? Why do we cast some entertainers as mystical vaporous creatures and leave others to plod the earth?

One obvious factor is name recognition. Beyoncé is a go-to spirit animal because, well, Beyoncé is an immovable object wreathed in unstoppable forces and omni-distributed throughout the world. The same goes (I’d argue) for Angelina Jolie, Matthew McConaughey, and Rihanna—all megawatt titans who have been held up as spirit animals, likely because their fame makes them reflexive choices for any cultural post.

Another consideration is distinctiveness. Gwyneth Paltrow strikes me as too rigid and inert to be an appealing spirit animal; Ryan Gosling too hunky in a Crest-whitening-strips kind of way. But both stars have a very particular brand; if you fall within its parameters, you know it. Voilà, spirit animaled.

Those basic determinants aside, the spirit animal question gets trickier. On one hand, MVP zoo phantoms Jennifer Lawrence and Mindy Kaling are not just iconic, they’re relatable. They win our hearts through haplessness and awkwardness—though not enough to make them come off badly—and so embody the fantasy that our flaws render us likeable rather than irritating or weak. That may also be why nerdy Seth Cohen, not the more mainstream Adam Brody, ended up achieving totem status. And why the incorrigible yet delightful stars of Broad City are so frequently SA’ed that one imagines them appearing wherever weed be smoked.

But while the spirit animal’s embrace of imperfections feels like wish-fulfillment, his or her accessibility also has a dark side. Calling someone your “spirit animal” seems patronizing, as if you were asserting a kind of fond ownership. Worse, it reduces a fully realized person to the most perfect expression or reflection of someone else (you). You are flesh-and-blood; Buress is the flicker on the cave wall. You screw up; he gives your fallibility a lovable shape. Stripping a living human of 1) personhood and 2) corporal substance is not exactly respectful—which may be why, in one interview, Ilana Glazer protested being described as a spirit animal in the same breath that she decried being dismissed as a “woman comic.”

And this raises another concern: Of Twitter and Tumblr’s top spirit animals, a whole lot seem to be nonwhite, or women, or both. Is there something about a minority status—some vulnerability to exoticization or condescension—that makes you uniquely eligible to get SA’ed? Just as the “magical Negro” exists to aid the white protagonist, and the “manic pixie dream girl” the guy hero, an animal guide is a helping figure. During the Super Bowl half-time show, Katy Perry was SA’ed on Twitter less frequently than Missy Elliott, who was SA’ed less frequently than a goofy, backup-dancing shark. What does it say about spirit animals that on the continuum between white headliner and fantastical, amusingly uncoordinated animal accessory, the black rapper lies somewhere in the middle?

I will confess that in this stage in my spirit animal research, I was feeling pretty disenchanted with the whole concept. Strike one was the appropriation of Native American traditions; strike two, the threat of othering and dehumanization; strike three was, well, that the term had become cliché. This essay originally proposed a categorical ban on invocations of mist fauna, with exemptions only for actual vision questers, Philip Pullman characters, and spirit men and women looking for a pet. But it turns out that if you ask people to pick a spirit animal, as opposed to trawling the Web for casual uses of the phrase, you will get heartening, thoughtful replies.

When I emailed my friends and colleagues for SA nominations, most of the icons they chose embodied a mix of attainability and idealism. They stood for traits that the respondents wanted to have, and believed that they did have in their best moments. Names included Olivia Pope (for her strength), Irene Adler (for her self-possession and sexuality), Amy Winehouse (for her sass), and Flula Borg (for his energy and unselfconsciousness). Most people opted for spirit animals that shared their gender, but a fair fraction did not: The “spirit” in spirit animal seemed like an invitation to step outside of the usual categories. One male acquaintance chose Nomi Malone because he found her freeness inspiring; a female acquaintance picked Charlie Watts, the drummer from the Rolling Stones, because he is quiet, unassuming, and ridiculously talented in a world of strutters, self-promoters, and blowhards. One woman explicitly chose RuPaul for his flexibility, his knack at slipping between masculine and feminine persona, black intonation and more standard speech.

A woman I know picked James Spader because the characters he plays represent “a lot of things that fascinate me but that I am not quite—[they are] sassy, feminine (yes), rude, rich, popular, sexual.” At the same time, she explained, Spader himself emanates the vibe of “an intelligent, sensitive loner—more like the actual me.” That duality, a blend of possibility and affirmation, seems central to the idea of a spirit animal.

My qualified defense of spirit animals is this: In the right context, they give us occasion to think about what we like and admire. They aren’t exotic, otherworldly figures but reminders of who we are or could be. Maybe a celebrity spirit animal is essentially just a celebrity fulfilling her basic purpose, which is to reflect and resonate with her fans while also pushing us just a bit farther. Apparently, my celebrity spirit animal is a celebrity spirit animal apologist. You’ll have to take us both with a grain of salt purified by prayer under the beams of the moon.

*Correction, Feb. 20, 2015: A headline on this post originally misspelled the first name of Abbi Jacobson.