5 theses about possum memes
Pitied and scorned, the humble possum is having a moment on the internet
1. Possums are avatars of mental illness.
Certain postures and expressions predominate in the most successful possum memes: back arched, mouth agape, nose disconcertingly wet. Whether accurate or not, we can intuit the possum’s emotional state. The possum does not appear to be having a good time.
Possums 1 epitomize the human experience of clinical depression when they wallow in trash. They protect their garbage and eat it, because even if it does not bring relief, it’s their trash, dammit.
The possum’s signature response to stress is neither fight nor flight, but collapsing as if dead. “Playing possum” is an understandable response to moments of acute anxiety.
Diagnoses of mental illness are on the rise with each new generation. Unlike the imperious cat or the happy-go-lucky dog, the possum captures the zeitgeist of young people taking SSRIs and going to therapy.
2. Possums are objects of fear.
Daniel Lavery wrote what I consider to be the best piece of writing on possums in the era immediately before possum memes became popular. Here’s an excerpt from his 2016 piece in The Toast, “Everything What’s Wrong Of Possums: It’s All Of Them”:
you clarve holes into the dirt and hide yourselves there, dirt is only to live in once you’re dead and you are angering Hades …
your babies clutch up on your back like a nest of pest-pellets and they cratchle-scrabble onto your skin with their little fist-knives which is not how babies should behave, babies oughtn’t to grasple-snatch, human babies don’t permanently breast-feed with their teeth and nails, you little vampire tots
the sound I always feel like you are making when I happen upon your lurkment patch is “SKEHHHH” and I don’t want you around me ever
If you live near a road, you are more likely to see a dead possum than a live one. If you catch one rooting through your trash can, it might make a hissing noise at you and waddle off angrily into the night.
City folks might recoil at the sight of a possum. Country folks might reach for their pellet gun. One way to create a successful possum meme is to allude to such tense encounters: What if it approaches me? What if it thwacks me with its meaty tail? I literally shudder to think.
3. Possums are objects of pity.
Aristotle wrote that tragic theater allows the audience to purge itself of pity and fear. By identifying with the tragic protagonist from a safe vantage point, we can gain insights or empathy or a simple feeling of release from the stress of daily life.
The possum is a tragic hero. He seems doomed from birth. To the extent that a possum meme feels relatable, we are imbibing tragedy in the classical sense.
I know of one man who takes pity on real-life possums: George Singleton.
George is a writer from Spartanburg, South Carolina, whose stories are gritty and funny and often end with a gut punch (his latest story collection, You Want More, is out now from Hub City Press and I highly recommend it). I noticed on social media last year that he had posted several pictures of himself cradling and feeding possums, and the pictures looked extremely on-brand for him as an artist.
I emailed George some questions about the possums.
Brutal South: I've seen pictures of you holding possums from time to time. What's the story there? Do you feed wild possums?
George Singleton: A couple years ago, right before the pandemic, possums started showing up regularly on our back deck. The first one was tiny, and just kind of froze on the table because one of our dogs kind of wrangled it. After that, I started putting out food—cat food, grapes, bananas, dog food, leftovers. One thing about the humble possum (I know it’s technically called opossum, so everyone stop having ocows over it) is that it ain’t picky. That first possum grew and grew, and then started calling its buddies. At one point three adult possums hung out on the table. Now, they’d hiss and snarl, but I’d pick them up by the tail, sit down, and set them right on my lap. All hissing and snarling stopped. It’s as if they thought, Well, we can’t scare this guy, so we might as well enjoy his petting us.
BS: I haven't gotten to hold a possum before. Any time I see one, it's either dead or rooting through my trash or running away. What are they like up close? What do they feel like when you hold them?
GS: They’re very soft, and a lot skinnier than they look. I’ve held a stinky possum before, but usually they’re clean.
BS: What do you like about possums?
GS: I don’t want to get all “totem animal” about it, but I believe possums are focussed, solitary, slightly adaptive, and cautious, unless they get near asphalt. It’s kind of the same with a writer.
BS: What do you make of the possum memes I sent you? Do they speak to you?
GS: I’ve seen those memes. Funny.
4. Possums are survivors.
Possums live all over North America, but in the popular imagination they are often associated with Appalachia and the Deep South. Killing and eating possums is a common hillbilly trope, and cartoons frequently depict possums wearing overalls and picking banjos.
Maybe for this reason, progressive Southerners in some circles have adopted the possum as a mascot. We can relate to the unloved underdog, written off by elites but wily enough to survive and fight another day.
5. Possums express the horror of corporeality.
Sometimes our bodies fail us and our teeth fall out. We try to practice self-care, but we cannot always summon up feelings of wellness, or even of comfort in our own skin. Our souls are enmeshed with our imperfect bodies, and that’s bound to cause some trouble.
Much as we might tell ourselves that God has a plan for every creature, a possum looks like it was put together wrong. The whiskers are too scraggly, the mouth is a horror show, the ears look like bat ears, and the torso is too big for the stubby legs.
And, again, I must remark on the tail: It is whip-like and pink and deeply upsetting to behold.
The possum is not OK. Neither are we.
In case you missed it, I released Episode 22 of the Brutal South podcast last week. It’s an interview with unionizing journalists from The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C. In a state with the lowest union density in the entire country, their union drive is a big deal and a cause for celebration. Check out the episode by clicking here or searching for “Brutal South” in your podcast app of choice.
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By “possum,” I am referring to the Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana), the only marsupial found north of Mexico. Confusingly, a separate marsupial species native to Australia and New Guinea, the common brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula), is also called “possum” for short. Internet pedants will sometimes insist on calling the North American one “opossum” in all instances, but Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary has ruled that it’s fine to omit the “o,” which was dropped long ago in common usage through the linguistic process of aphesis.