“WTF Are You Guys Talking About” is a series dedicated to decoding the language of menswear.
It takes a troll to know a troll, so I’m going to get a few things out of the way right up top to avoid any confusion. What follows is a dissertation on the “If You Can’t Handle Me at My [X], Then You Don’t Deserve Me at My [Y]” meme — one that I’m well aware has been around for years, and that recently went viral again in a new format. At this point, the meme has a zillion different iterations, and can be applied to almost any subject. But I’m interested in how and why it’s being used in the fashion world right now, specifically to talk about menswear. So, if you’re looking for something else, or the Mariah Carey version, eject here.
Are you still with me? Great. Let’s start with some background for those of you living under a rock. According to Know Your Meme, the phrase “if you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best” is a quote most often attributed to Marilyn Monroe. But there’s actually no concrete evidence out there that she uttered it even once. Still, it makes sense that she became the dorm-room poster girl for the phrase: It’s got attitude, and it implies that one’s highs and one’s lows are diametrically opposed, rather than existing in some schlubby middle. It’s also a rags-to-riches narrative — like Marilyn Monroe, you too can go from humble beginnings to a picture of good looks.
Funnily enough, the phrase became popular online in 2015, around the same time that online dating became utterly mainstream. According to Reddit, people copied the phrase in their bios as way to put everything on the table (and to cornily quote Marilyn Monroe). From there, it spread to Tumblr, where it became a “snowclone” phrase, or one in which certain words — and images, in this case — were replaced to create new meanings, like a game of internet Mad Libs.
Rihanna, for example, shared a memorable meme on Instagram last summer that read: “If you can’t handle me at my 2007 Gucci Mane then you don’t deserve me at my 2017 Gucci Mane,” referencing the fact that, like the Atlanta rapper, her weight was fluctuating as well.
In 2018, the “If You Can’t Handle Me” meme is back because of a tweet about a K-pop boy band star’s transformation, which went viral in March partly because of its brilliant, eye-catching format. The creator spaced the phrase out so that “if you can’t handle me …” and “then you don’t deserve me …” lined up perfectly with two different “before” and “after” images. This format has since been copied on Twitter by brands like Netflix and celebrities like Mariah Carey, Tyra Banks, and Mindy Kaling.
Vogue recently described the “If You Can’t Handle Me” meme as being generally about “self care,” but I don’t think that’s quite right. It’s really about the “glo-up,” or the makeover of someone’s whole entire thing — and the people who doubted them along the way. Like self-care, though, the “glo-up” speaks to a current cultural moment where people, specifically men, are working to improve themselves, inside and out.
Jonah Hill is perhaps the best example of this. Since getting in shape and adopting a trendy new wardrobe, he’s become a street-style icon of the Shia LaBeouf variety. “Jonah Hill happens to have one of the all-time glo-ups,” wrote former Complex editor and “Failing Upwards” podcast host James Harris in an email referencing the improvement in status of Hill’s career, his personal style, and his place in the menswear world. Earlier this month, Harris tweeted a “If You Don’t Love Me” meme featuring a 40-Year-Old Virgin Jonah Hill versus Jonah Hill circa now, and it’s received almost 5,000 likes to date.
I’ve seen a handful of Jonah Hill glo-up memes on my Twitter timeline recently, which makes me think that he’s becoming the Marilyn Monroe of the concept. But this meme also coincides with a moment when Queer Eye for the Straight Guy is popular on television once again; when Mark Zuckerberg is putting on big boy suits; and when NBA players like James Harden are seen wearing designer basketball shorts that quite literally glow. Beyond menswear, makeover memes like “Karma’s a bitch” are going viral as well.
Self-improvement is not a new concept for the menswear community, it’s just recently taken a different, and arguably more humorous, form online. “There is not a single men’s-oriented publication that hasn’t riffed on being a better man (through the consumption of unnecessary things),” wrote Harris. “I think [this meme] just plays to both celebrating self-improvement and mocking the notion that — at any given moment in the past and present — you’ve thought you were at your personal peak.” The irony, of course, being that your best is never good enough.
In the grand scheme of things, men are more motivated than ever to avoid being seen as shitty. Perhaps this is why (some) men seem particularly bent on presenting a better version of themselves in 2018. I also think it’s just a lot easier to not look shitty, with menswear becoming both more accessible, and more acceptable to indulge in.
If you think about it, the “If You Can’t Handle Me” meme is actually a perfect successor to “Absolute Unit,” a meme that also made its rounds in the menswear community this winter. It sums up the current Zeitgeist in three words: Enhance, enhance, enhance.