The most prominent endangered species of the 2010s is the has-been. Once, we released our faded stars into the wild, where they might retreat into new careers and lifestyles, occasionally get into trouble, and possibly clamor to re-enter the pen of celebrity. They did their thing, we did ours, and when we remembered them it was with an “Oh yeah!” or a “Where are they now?” But the current nostalgia craze has imperiled the has-beens’ numbers. Some are given reboots or fresh roles. Others shed their obsolescence via social media or through dishy interviews in the saturated but never-satisfied content maw that is the internet, reclaiming some agency from the cruel randomness of fame. But stars have no control over one online medium that keeps a few of their faces in front of ours constantly, changing our relationship to them gradually but exceptionally: the GIF.
I used to hold no opinions about Shaquille O’Neal, other than that being 7 feet 1 inch will make anyone, no matter how extraordinarily athletic, look at least a little gawky. But I freely confess to loving the former NBA star now, if only on account of the famous Vine in which he has a delightful wiggle-off with a dancing cat. (It’s quite possible that I’ve experienced more moments of pure joy from this brief video than I ever have IRL.) The same goes for Brendan Fraser, whose hilariously dorky and unguarded clap at an award show is how I picture him today. Just a few years ago, I routinely visualized Meryl Streep rolling her eyes under Miranda Priestly’s white, whoopy bangs, her dramatic disdain as aspirational as a Nancy Meyers kitchen. Now, my mind’s eye has frozen Streep in a completely different light, her unbridled enthusiasm for Patricia Arquette’s equal-pay speech at the 2015 Oscars—captured by her outstretched finger—infecting every issue du jour on my Twitter timeline.
Sometimes, a celeb can become such a superlative GIF star that your relationship to them is utterly transformed. That’s what I’ve recently discovered about how I view Tyra Banks, an admirably savvy media mogul whose mentor-next-door persona on the exploitative America’s Next Top Model I’ve always found grating and unconvincing. When I checked in on the current 24th season of the reality competition on VH1 after a six-year hiatus from the series, Banks—or at least her reality persona—was just as I’d remembered her: by turns disarmingly goofy and fatally self-serious. In a recent episode, she made one contestant cry by accusing the young woman of being on the show for exposure, rather than to be “molded” by the Top Model team—as if there were any correlation between the show’s winners and their fashion-world successes thereafter.
But Banks’ natural hamminess and decadeslong career in front of the camera (propped, of course, by her expert knowledge of what’s visually interesting) make her a standout on Giphy.com, the foremost GIF search engine. We tend to use GIFs that we connect to, stripping those images of their contexts so they can illustrate something about ours. The result is a bite-size piece of the qualities or situations we most like about a celeb. Banks’ love of physical camp also dovetails with the kind of hyperbolic speech and visuals that have become a part of the digital dialect. In Banks’ case, GIFs remove her objectionable qualities while emphasizing her silliness and relatability. Even her pomposity gains an ironized likability. Few celebs have enjoyed such a flattering afterglow.
Through America’s Next Top Model, Banks has introduced smizing, the booty tooch, and resting on pretty to the pop cultural lexicon, but the show will probably be remembered most for a Season 4 freakout by its head judge during one fateful elimination ceremony. “I was rooting for you! We were all rooting for you!” Banks screamed at a contestant named Tiffany Richardson, who didn’t appear as invested in the competition as the former model thought she should have been. The moment is so iconic—with Banks acknowledging in the moment that she has “never in my life yelled at a girl like this”—that she addressed it in an interview last year, 12 years after the episode first aired. Banks says that she regrets the outburst and that it came from a place of exhaustion and sincerity, and there’s no reason to doubt those assertions. But the explosion has also entered TV lore because it’s so revealing: Banks howled at a stranger for not taking her televised modeling contest, whose winners were by then already dismissed by the fashion industry, seriously enough.
Distance can pull off all kinds of magic. In the case of that scene—since GIFed and memed into internet immortality—Banks’ snitty bombast has been softened and its meaning diluted. Among friends, especially of the millennial generation, it’s likely just another pop cultural touchstone that unites people through shared reference points. In the social media context of hard-wired exaggeration, Banks’ anger blends into a background where expressions of emotion start at an 11. And so the scene of Banks lecturing Richardson to “take responsibility for yourself” is no longer an instance of a powerful celebrity humiliating a nobody for entertainment. It’s just a funny punchline, as so many images of hyperemotionality are today on the internet.
The crystallization of Banks hollering, “We were rooting for you!”—and the repetition of that image on GIF repositories across innumerable sites—has arguably extended her fame. But it’s not exactly fair to her either. The freezing of certain celebs into a set number of poses—sometimes in their most embarrassing moments—might endear them to us further, but if those images are the only ways we see them now, the process also denies them three-dimensionality. It also feels not quite just that these professional entertainers are robbed of royalties when their faces, bodies, and/or aspects of their performances continue to provide so much amusement. (Never mind the entire thorny notion of who, exactly, is responsible for a GIF.)
And in an entertainment era defined by the decline of the movie star, it’s worth asking about the role of GIFs and memes in making us no longer “miss” celebrities. Stars used to accrue cachet through their absences, and to an extent that’s still true. Jennifer Lawrence isn’t on Twitter, and neither is George Clooney—and perhaps their star wattage is amplified for it. But at the same time, celebrities are not only constantly available through streaming services, YouTube interviews, and social media, but practically inescapable. Celebs clog up our Facebook memes, Twitter timelines, and texting keyboards. Fame ain’t what it used to be. Caught between necessary inaccessibility and winsome ubiquity, stars will need to rethink what it means to never not be seen.