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A digital painting of an armored knight shielding a princess from an arena full of jeering spectators is becoming the internet’s metaphor of choice for representing precious things and the steps we take to protect them. Because this is meme culture, though, the precious things are less like “our children” and more like “our weird porn habits” or “our actual emotions”—and the shields we use to protect them are our feeble coping mechanisms.
The “knight protecting princess” image comes from a webcomic called Ghost Blade, by Chinese digital painter Wang Ling, a.k.a. “wlop.” It was posted in 2016, but became a meme in late February, likely thanks to this entry on r/dankmemes:
Since then, it’s taken off on Twitter and Reddit.
I’m muting this tweet pic.twitter.com/8ZcYdhy8oE— • Honestly Astrology • (@happycapricorn) February 26, 2018
R/animemes, Reddit’s forum for anime-based memes, even used the image to celebrate reaching 90,000 subscribers.
“Object labeling” memes, where the figures in an image are labeled with text and used to represent other concepts, have grown increasingly popular over the past year or so. The Distracted Boyfriend meme is easily the best known of these, but the bullet and skeleton meme and Trumpet Boy also exemplify the form. PewDiePie, the gaming YouTuber who remains wildly popular despite making Nazi jokes and using the “N-word” in videos, helped to popularize images like these with a “meme review” video in late January.
Knight Protecting Princess isn’t even the first fantasy painting to become an object labeling meme—although it’s proving to be the most successful one. Here are some other versions of the meme:
Most of these paintings (sometimes called “Colossus Memes“) feature something giant or scary attacking a much smaller character, but they’re a clear inspiration for suddenly turning wlop’s “Guard” painting, which had been online for nearly two years, into a meme.
Object labeling is starting to come into its own. It’s more than a fad; it’s a staple meme genre like fill-in-the-blank “exploitable” images or “deep-fried” memes covered in Photoshop filters. Knight Protecting Princess probably won’t be the kind of blockbuster meme that major brands co-opt and ruin, but it’s a sign of a healthy new meme genre hitting its stride.
Jay Hathaway is a former senior writer who specialized in internet memes and weird online culture. He previously served as the Daily Dot’s news editor, was a staff writer at Gawker, and edited the classic websites Urlesque and Download Squad. His work has also appeared on nymag.com, suicidegirls.com, and the Morning News.