The online equivalent of an inside joke, memes can help keep us connected with our mates, but what happens when a meme turns mean?
‘Four Lads In Jeans’ know exactly what it’s like to be at the centre of a viral meme, so we caught up with them to hear how the joke turned sour and why they’re now the faces of a sea shanty remix that’s raising cash for CALM.
When Alex, Jamie, Kevin and Connor headed for a pre-lockdown night out in Birmingham back in 2019, little did they know that a photo of them would shoot them to internet fame. You’ve probably seen the countless memes charting their tightly-fitting trousers, but what nobody saw coming was how quickfire quips could turn into trolling and abuse that lasted over a year.
While jokes started off about their jeans, things quickly got personal. The foursome were cyberbullied, pranked and threatened as a result, enduring a pretty hellish few months. From being judged on their intelligence to being accused of racism, lots of assumptions were made about the ‘lads’ because of how they looked and dressed.
A survey showed how toxic stereotypes of men can be, with 46% of men under 35 viewing traditional stereotypes of masculinity such as being ‘always strong’ or ‘a lad’ as detrimental and dangerous. The friendship group are now beginning to open up about how the relentless comments took a toll on their mental wellbeing. Kevin says:
“People look at our photo and see four stereotypical lads. I think the people who gave us abuse thought we would just take it on the chin and move on, without thinking what effect these comments have on someone’s mental health.”
Going way beyond banter, the group experienced prank phone calls and comments aimed at their family, but they’ve seen it as an opportunity to shine a light on the damaging impact of cyberbullying. Jamie’s seen how social media can make it easier for people to make cruel comments:
“People will always feel braver behind a screen. It’s a bit like when someone gets bad road rage – they feel safe in their car.”
Kevin explains how they want to use their new found fame to work with charities like CALM, fighting back by calling out the keyboard warriors and cyberbullies on their actions:
“I’ve had some horrible messages, but we’ve always wanted to turn this into a positive. Trolls can’t carry on sending the abusive messages they do. Now we have a platform we’ll do everything we can to get the message across. Since then we’ve had messages from people saying how much we’ve helped them.”
Like all internet memes, things eventually quietened down, but thanks to TikTok, the meme recently resurfaced as something a little more positive. Hopping on the sea shanty trend, some clever editing transformed the group into a singing quartet. Once again, they went viral, but for Alex, Jamie, Kevin and Connor, it’s been a welcome spin on the photo. Alex says:
“We’re actually happy about the fact the sea shanty edit has taken the focus away from all the negativity which was going on. It’s like a light’s been switched on.”
Will the friendship group be ditching their tight trousers in favour of some roomier legwear? Certainly not. Connor has some advice for anyone who’s felt under pressure to change how they dress because of bullies:
“Why would you want to be someone else? Be unapologetically you all the time. If you’re being bullied, talk to someone. There’s always people out there who’ll listen and help you through it.”
It’s probably not the last you’ll see of this lot, who have big plans for the future. Connor says: “This is only the start for us lads! We’re planning on plenty of amazing campaigns to flip this around and bring some positivity back.”
Cyberbullying can be really tough but you’re not on your own: CALM’s helpline and webchat service is free, confidential and run by trained staff who are here no matter what. Open every day from 5pm until midnight, you can access it here, or alternatively, you can read more about bullying on our Get Help On page.
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