sometimes "wholesome" means "not horny"; sometimes it means it's positive and uplifting; sometimes it's a kind of safe pleasantness… and it's like, none of these are consistent with each other

If we are seeing what is designated as “wholesome” as comprising the quoted facets above, I think we should recognize that they are just that — facets of a larger concept-object uniting them. They are, in fact, quite consistent with one another. All of these usages are, I believe, coming from a similar place of late-modernistic fatigue which does not know what to do with itself, and so it reverts to searching for contrived expressions of innocence. In another essay, I defined this as “a regressive response which depoliticizes content to uphold a status quo and engender happy ignorance.” As another person has put it, it represses negative reality by pushing it aside and replacing it with something hollow, temporary, and deprived of the fullness of reality.

But what is this fatigue? It is, largely, the stresses of extended exposure to the barrage of information on outlets like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook with the concomitant aspects of “needing” to have an opinion about everything, being unable (yet striving) to make sense of any of it, and also the general transformation of social media into an ideological battleground, making it very easy for people to wallow in disenchantment with the world (in truth, narcissistic self-loathing). This barrage is just a symptom of wider problems of meaning-making, and I think it is largely generational, perhaps mostly in the cultural domain of people under the age of forty.

An expectable end result of all of this is a sort of cynicism verging on nihilism. This is the person who, on their dating profile, says that they prefer “animals” to “humans.” In order to briefly alleviate such cynicism, the self searches for prepackaged symbols of Once Upon a Time, and these often manifest in forms derivative of things like Disney media. This search accounts for the common sentiment of an elephant or dog or gorilla, each reduced to the simulacrum of a cute, bite-sized visual meme, being “too pure for this world.” Each is supposed to be a window into a sort of perpetually content and simple existence — that aforementioned “happy ignorance” — , but, just like any window, we are only seeing what the construction allows us to see.

“Nature” thus comes to be casually reconceptualized through a misanthropic lens as separate from humanity (i.e., “this world”), and its howling, ruthless wilderness is softened into an image of delicate simplicity. In this way, both nature and humanity are denied, and the person performs a childish mind-trick on themselves. Of course, this is, as noted, pseudo-relief. It’s an epidermal bandage over an internal wound. And so the cycle continues of a psychic undercurrent of misanthropic cynicism.

If we are to look at other types of “wholesome” memes which purport to be forms of self-care we will observe a suffocating denial of the individual’s freedom to feel sad, angry, and/or depressed. There is an enormous irony, right out in the open, of these memes purporting to validate (and here my use of the term “validate” is meant to evoke the mutually infantilizing LGBTQ-centric “valid” meme) the “legitimacy” of the recipient while explicitly invalidating certain rawer and unpleasant emotions. Rather than conversing with the recipient, the sender enacts a sort of disengaged coddling, resulting in more repression: repression of the communicative possibilities of the relationship and repression of the recipient’s emotional breadth.

This coddling only works to the extent that the recipient has internalized the belief that emotional unpleasantness is equivalent to emotional falseness, and it allows no time or space for a deeper rumination on those emergences’ sources. The fact that so many of these memes have a threatening aspect is not just the focal point of their supposed humor but a baring of the dynamic wherein an individual shouts over the other to Feel Better Already; and since the shouting is done with “love”, it is ostensibly a compassionate move. But the violence has already been done — the violence of silencing those interrelationally inconvenient emotions.

Just like how we have an existential or attitudinal trinity of Sincerity, Irony, and Post-Irony (or Surrealism), we also have a descriptive, relative to media, trinity of Wholesome, Horny, and Edgy. The extremities and medians of one trinity do not necessarily exactly map to those of another, but, nevertheless, there are interesting suggestions in the comparative process. One of these is that the very separation which yields such divisions, and which then proceeds to prioritize one modality above all others, demonstrates an extremely fractured and limited perspective — one which is, really, not equipped to handle the wholeness implicit within wholesomeness.

To be truly wholesome is to be (w)holistic. If the saccharine latter-day meaning of “wholesome” reduces a larger, integrative idea to an ankle-deep caricature built of styrofoam-like platitudes (it is no mere coincidence that many wholesome memes utilize cartoon characters), so too do Horny (the erotic, excretory, orificial) and Edgy (the violent, enraged, depressed). Likewise, although varieties of sincerity, irony (or sarcasm), and surrealism can be incorporated with breadth and specificity, we deny ourselves this fullness when we latch onto one and deny or repress the others. This continues to shrink our worldview until anything which challenges this perceptual bubble really cannot be handled head-on (e.g., the person who has been deeply hurt adopts sarcasm as the modality because it affects disengagement, and disengagement means that you can’t be hurt again). If we are to grow, we need to stop feeding our souls cotton candy.