Note: This is a transcription of the presentation given on February 1, 2019 at Stanford University on the Mental Health and Social Media Panel/Discussion.
My name is Cori Amato Hartwig, also known as @manicpixiememequeen on Instagram. I make memes about lighthearted topics like mental illness, the patriarchy, capitalism, relationship issues, and the increasingly complicated navigation of modern society. I started the account in March of 2017. At the time, I was a junior at San Francisco State, and I had just been through a yearlong rollercoaster ride of trial-and-error psychiatric treatment in an attempt to find a medication that worked for me, and the month before starting the account, my uncle attempted suicide. Sitting in my bed sporting my new trademarked Mental Breakdown Haircut, I created a new Instagram profile called @manicpixiememequeen, partially out of boredom and partially out of my desperation to channel my personal turmoil into something that felt productive.
Originally, the account was anonymous and existed more as a “finsta” rather than a cohesive meme account, but as the account became popular and went viral, I took ownership of the account and I personally came into the character of @manicpixiememequeen as a public persona. Over time, I wove a narrative around my own mental health issues and personal life through creating memes, and I shared my content with an audience who shockingly, understood my narrative in their own personal ways.
Currently, I have over 97,000 followers on Instagram, which is absolutely wild. Clearly, I’m not the only person in the world struggling with mental health issues or having some difficulty navigating our weird and absurd world. While my brain loves to tell me that no one else really understands and then I perceive isolation, the evidence against this is in the numbers—my audience, the engagement on the posts, the hundreds of messages I receive from people across the globe telling me that they relate so much to my page and they’re grateful for the content I make.
@manicpixiememequeen subverts the mainstream Instagram narrative. On our personal Instagram accounts, we curate the perfect pictures with perfect captions, highlight our most impressive achievements, share our most FOMO-inducing adventures on our stories, post pictures with the right filter at the right angle at the right moment. We present very tactfully constructed versions of ourselves; these illusions are just as hyperbolic as the persona of @manicpixiememequeen. It’s just swung the other way. Instead of presenting myself as perfect, happy, and successful, I present myself as a chronically neurotic, anxious, and unhappy character. In turn, people relate to the point that they feel comfortable enough to openly discuss aspects of society or their life that aren't so perfect or picturesque, and they have the opportunity to connect with others on my page who are going through similar issues.
Ironically, social media was intended to connect us and then it brought about this pervading sense of isolation, toxic comparison, and competition. But as I’ve seen with my experiences running @manicpixiememequeen, there’s plenty of opportunity to use social media for authentic community and connection. I can actually witness it in the comment sections on my posts—people relating to each other and reaching out, asking questions about mental health management that they may not have had the opportunity or the confidence to ask if the post didn’t make them understood or safe enough to do so.
Last September, I was interviewed for NYLON Magazine about the benefits of mental illness memes and the effects of social media on mental health. The journalist asked me multiple times if I thought mental illness memes were actually detrimental, and I consistently wrote back saying no. If anything, using humor as a vehicle is helping generate some conversation and awareness. Then I made the comment that what actually is detrimental is silence and stigma surrounding mental illness and the widespread lack of access to comprehensive and affordable mental healthcare. Unsurprisingly, that comment was not included in the published interview.
Overall, social media can and does have effects on mental health. However, we have to consider the ways in which we’re using social media, interacting with others, and understanding the messages that we’re being presented with. As we grow increasingly digital, media literacy needs to be prioritized as something we teach people, especially young people during their formative years. We need to make sure that everyone understands that the images and content you see online is no accident. It did not come from a vacuum. Digital media is constructed, purposeful, and generally trying to sell you something that you don’t need. Most of us were thrown into the digital age without a roadmap for understanding or even the concept of media literacy, and I think if we were given more tools to understand at an earlier age, we’d see less of those negative effects that Baby Boomers love to read about, ironically, on websites constructing their own content and media.