Milkshake Duck

Milkshake Duck by Ben Ward

Milkshake Duck is an Internet meme that describes phenomena that are initially perceived as positive but later revealed to be flawed. Oxford Dictionaries defined the term as ‘a person or character on social media that appears to be endearing at first, but is found to have an unappealing back story,’ but did not consider usage of the neologism to be sufficiently long-lived or widespread to warrant inclusion in their dictionaries.

The term has been connected to ‘cancel culture,’ a growing trend of call-out culture on social media resulting in celebrities being ostracized and careers abruptly derailed by publicized misconduct.

The meme is a reference to a 2016 Twitter post by Ben Ward, an Australian cartoonist using the online handle ‘pixelatedboat.’ His Twitter joke describes a fictional Internet viral phenomenon of a ‘lovely duck that drinks milkshakes’ and is subsequently discovered to be racist. Ward described the Twitter message as ‘a pretty good joke’ summing up a recent trend where popularity that comes via the Internet can be quickly undone by the discovery of something troubling in a person’s past. When asked in 2017, Ward was unsure what actually inspired him to make the joke, but recalled it was partially influenced by the Chewbacca Mask Lady.

The phenomenon had some notable examples prior to 2017, in particular with Ken Bone during the 2016 United States Presidential debate, who was initially given positive exposure, until a questionable Reddit history was revealed after his appearances.

The demonstration of the independently developed video game ‘The Last Night’ was a highlight of Microsoft’s press conference during the Electronic Entertainment Expo 2017 due to its stylish cyberpunk visuals. Then one of its creators, Tim Soret, was found to have spoken in support of the Gamergate controversy in 2014, which led to criticism of his views a day later and tarnished the game’s image. Soret apologized the next day and said his views on Gamergate and other matters had since changed. The ‘milkshake duck’ term was quickly applied to the game.

South African-born R&B singer Doja Cat was declared the Milkshake Duck of 2018 by NME. The recording artist had experienced a viral hit with her single ‘Mooo!,’ a novelty song with an absurdist lyrical theme in which she fantasizes about being a cow. Controversy ensued when it was revealed that in a 2015 tweet she had used the homophobic term ‘faggot’ to describe hiphop artists Tyler, the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt, members of the musical collective Odd Future. She initially defended her remarks, writing, ‘I called a couple people faggots when I was in high school in 2015 does this mean I don’t deserve support? I’ve said faggot roughly like 15 thousand times in my life. Does saying faggot mean you hate gay people?’ Her response met further backlash, including a critical tweet by Will and Grace actress Debra Messing, expressing disappointment in Doja for defending past ignorance and imploring her to use her fame and platform for good. Doja Cat later issued a series of apologies for her derogatory words and deleted her tweets. The controversy generated much discourse about the limits of ‘cancel culture.’

In 2018, some news outlets used the term ‘reverse milkshake duck’ to describe the reversal of one’s public image from problematic to positive. A mother with the Twitter username BlueStarNavyMom3 tweeted a picture of her son, associating him with the #HimToo hashtag, suggesting he was afraid to go on solo dates to due to false sexual accusations. The son, Pieter Hanson, was surprised by the post and in a newly created Twitter account posted a message saying the opposite: That was my Mom. Sometimes the people we love do things that hurt us without realizing it. Let’s turn this around. I respect and #BelieveWomen. I never have and never will support #HimToo. I’m a proud Navy vet, Cat Dad and Ally. Also, Twitter, your meme game is on point.’

A related concept to “milkshake duck” is that of the ‘problematic fave,’ describing a notable and popular person who, despite recent offensive or harmful statements or actions, manages to retain their popularity. Entrepreneur Elon Musk has been described as a ‘problematic fave’ following his calling one of the Thai cave rescuers a ‘pedo guy,’ apparently referencing the prominence of child sex tourism and child prostitution in Thailand, in response to criticism from Vern Unsworth, a Westerner in Thailand.

Polygon writer Julia Alexander argued that terms like ‘milkshake duck’ and ‘problematic fave’ are symptoms of current cultural conflict on the Internet in which users are ready to be outraged and have the ability to search a person’s public Internet history to find statements to support that. Alexander suggested that to avoid these labels, one should not worry about what statements they may have made, but show awareness they made them and that they have grown past or changed away from them.

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