“Okay, who thinks it’s funny to spray paint The Manny up there, huh?” user @/ jacob.jarvis mocked in his viral tik tok with a can of spray paint in his hand. This was among the first sightings of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” character Manny Heffley being taken to the streets by Generation Z. Created by author Jeff Kinney, the protagonist Greg Heffley’s spoiled three-year-old brother Manny cries his way through his toddler-esque troubles. He is portrayed as growing in his antagonism throughout the series, and is described by fans as “quite intelligent but is still socially awkward” — arguably the perfect representation of our generation. User @/ themannyspotted took this idea a step further, accompanying drawings of The Manny with his viral audio, “The Manny will not be televised. Look at how pissed off The Manny is — look how mad he is, he’s tired of police brutality!”
The commentary takes a modern spin on Gill Scott-Heron’s radical 1971 classic “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Since then, street art of The Manny has been complemented with phrases like “ACAB” and “F*** 12” as a retaliation against police brutality and American imperialism. What started out as a joke quickly evolved into what many are calling an unlikely and perhaps trivializing symbol for the Black Lives Matter movement. In response to the critics of the symbol, user @/soupytime suggested The Manny is an unavoidable and glaring nod to “stop what you’re doing and sign a petition,” concluding that the end goal would be “to get Fox News to declare it [The Manny] officially a hate symbol used by the radical-left youth.” Despite the rather calculating intentions of this user, instagram account @/tmwnbt created a carrd, a customizable platform for building easily accessible one-page sites for pretty much anything. The Manny site was ultimately used as a landing page for petitions and organizations.
This is not the first time members of Gen Z have worked to disrupt what President Donald Trump declared as a “culture war” against the progressive left. After all, trolling to demand social justice is what we do best — from falsely overestimating the anticipated audience of President Trump’s re-election campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla., by registering thousands of tickets to Tik Tok teens who had no intention of attending, to campaigning for The Manny flag and Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow” to take place of the current American flag and national anthem. The absurdity of these political pranks puts our generation under the same naive and cartoon-like lens as Manny Heffley, but this perception is nothing new to Boomers like Michael Levin. The wrath of Generation Z further reinforces the so-called left-wing cultural revolution Trump accuses of seeking to wage a “merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children.” In terms, we are The Manny all grown up: pissed off enough to peel away from our self-absorption and youthful arrogance.
While the comedic origins of the meme are certainly questionable, and meme activism itself steps dangerously into an amalgamation of humor and serious politics, The Manny does act as a social commentary on generational conflict. Boomers and Zoomers ruthlessly deride the other for their way of life and their view on politics, overlooking the obvious generational disconnection in experiences. The trolling nature of The Manny and the sarcastic support to replace the American flag with The Manny flag subtly resembles every older conservative’s greatest dread: cancel culture. When this brutally unforgiving phenomenon rears its head in politics, it’s often carelessly dismissed as the left-wing’s lack of tolerance.
In line with the stereotypically sardonic and nihilist nature of Generation Z, we are notoriously known for our dramatics in political correctness and the online shaming of those who defy proper etiquette. While it’s true that this practice can be toxic at times and that well-intended memos are usually overwhelmed by frivolous Twitter fights, the sentiments of this act are quite simple: Cancel culture expects accountability. It demands that tolerance not be the solution to differences of opinion — especially when the problematic voice is far more influential than the other. In a country where patriotism and loyalty are praised and expected, cancel culture seems like the anti-American hellion. According to Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, it is the gateway into “a purge of traditional American narratives and icons.” But American patriotism begins to delegitimize when its past relics are rooted in white supremacist sentiments, and the American dream that promises equality and opportunity begins to crumble at the reality of discrimination based on race, gender, class and sexuality. The inconceivable facade of American greatness is finally stripped down to its corrupt and repeating history, and the only thing that’s left is a lasting admission to guilt.
The recent removal of many controversial statues along with the neverending Confederate flag debate brings out two sides to an ultimately fruitless argument. These historical symbols are a representation of a very racist and imperialist heritage, and they are a constant reminder of division. Taking them down is vital to genuine progress, but it is nothing but a preliminary acknowledgement that American history is not without fault. Just as real change does not end with taking down these statues, the Black Lives Matter movement does not end with a few polished off street murals. The revolution is not measured by which symbol will last the longest. The nonsensical Manny is a confrontation to this country’s obsession with symbology, despite the generation. It is, in a way, in line with countless other deceptively ostentatious accounts of activism we’ve applauded: from Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.,’s act of defiance after Trump’s State of the Union address in February to empty corporate statements from companies like Amazon supporting the BLM movement without any effective change to their policies.
We fight for a big show of performative activism and online dramatics with no legitimate improvements to back it up. The Manny reminds us that there is still work to be done, and it has sparked a big picture conversation of how to break the very American tendency of prioritizing statues over statutes. Despite the increasing support for the Confederate flag ban, we have held onto that divisive symbol long enough for the sake of preserving culture, and in response we have turned to the most ridiculous display of activism yet: The Manny. But in time, all symbols fade. The Manny gained traction from a bored generation, and soon enough we’ll pick up something new.
Virality is finite, but the “revolution” Gill-Scott Heron emphasizes in his song is not a trend. In the age of media overconsumption, Scott-Heron’s interview from the 1990s remains applicable today: “Before we can engage meaningfully with current events, a revolutionary change must happen from the inside out. No one’s broadcasting the truths we first, most need to hear.” Live updates of protests on social media have demonstrated that news coverage is often one sided and focused on violence. In an era that is consumed by sensationalism and inefficient debate, Scott-Heron reminds us that “the information is where the battles are being fought, at the street level, and in the mechanisms of the legal process.” Radical change is a far more complex image than what the media will capture. Just like television, we are easily bored without entertainment, but the revolution is not meant to be an object of muse. No one will remember the cartoon character that encouraged a generation to amplify their activism if it isn’t consumed by counterproductive controversy first. So maybe Generation Z did have one thing right: The Manny, in fact, will not be televised.
Easheta Shah can be reached at email@example.com.