How the Internet turned Joe Biden into a funny meme—and why it needs to stop

If you had to pick one word to describe the state of American news media, “nuanced” is not likely the one you’d choose. The once implicit idea that cable news could ever be even-keeled has fallen to the famous bias of Fox News, the lack of self-awareness of MSNBC, and the flighty attention span of CNN. Social media has expanded these issues to envelop the entire culture. Heroes are risen and struck down like a carnival game, and villains are flayed before the facts are ever known. Twitter, in particular, treats the real people behind news stories like characters from their favorite fandom.

Few people in political life know this story better than Vice President Joe Biden. More than anyone else in Obama’s White House, Biden has stood up to dictators and popes for most of his adult life, from when he called the former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic “a damned war criminal” to his face or refused to kiss the ring of Pope John Paul II and then again with Pope Francis I.

During his 40 years in Washington, D.C., Joe Biden has been an active part in nearly every public policy debate of any level of importance. But also during that time, the vice president and former Senator from Delaware has suffered immense tragedy. A month after becoming the youngest person elected to the U.S. Senate in its history, Biden lost his wife and daughter in a car accident on December 18, 1972. Since then, even having remarried, Biden has taken December 18 of every year off from work to commemorate that event.

Twitter, in particular, treats the real people behind news stories like characters from their favorite fandom.

Sadly, this past weekend brought another tragedy for the affable vice president. His oldest son, Beau Biden, succumbed to brain cancer. Beau was an Iraq War veteran and Attorney General in his home state of Delaware, perhaps most famous for prosecuting one of the most prodigious pedophiles in American history and for being an avid advocate of his father’s political ambitions. Beau Biden was diagnosed with a relatively common form of brain cancer in 2013 and passed away May 30 at the age of 46, leaving behind his wife, daughter, and son.

To allow these events to define Joe Biden as some Shakespearean father who buries his children would be a great disservice to both the vice president and his family. Tragedies do not have to define their survivors, and we do a great disrespect to them if we force the issue.

However, the very accomplished wing of Biden’s life has largely been ignored by his public caricature. Instead, the cultural image of the vice president has become a bit of a joke. If we are to believe late night monologues (Jimmy Fallon once quipped Biden thought the Middle East “was one of Kim and Kanye’s kids” and David Letterman once called him “Obama’s handicap”), Biden is little more than a roaming manchild more at home in a Chuck Lorre sitcom than the White House.

The Onion and its “Diamond Joe” portrayal of the vice president has solidified this trope about Joe Biden. The satirical news site has painted Biden as a beer-crushing oaf who muddies the intellectual endeavors of Barack Obama. The Onion regularly runs headlines like “Biden Receives Lifetime Ban From Dave and Busters,” “Shirtless Biden Washes Trans-Am In The White House Driveway,” and “Biden To Honor Fallen Soldiers By Jumping Motorcycle Over Vietnam Memorial.”

These are, of course, in good fun and quite funny. Even Biden himself, who is quick to self-deprecation and has appeared on Saturday Night Live and Parks & Recreation, has probably had a chuckle at them.

Tragedies do not have to define their survivors, and we do a great disrespect to them if we force the issue.

And while he’s managed to stay out of the headlines for such actions in recent years, he’s most known for his extremely frequent habit of dropping awkward (and racist) gaffes at every turn. He once asked a wheelchair-bound man to stand up, promised an international crisis if Obama were elected, and swore you couldn’t enter a convenience store in Delaware “without a slight Indian accent” (to which he troublingly added “I’m not joking”).

Biden has helped foster the cartoon version of himself in more malicious ways, as well. More recently, Biden has gained a reputation for being a bit… handsy, shall we say, after several photos of the vice president clearly violating the personal space of some women, even girls, went viral. You want to believe they’re harmless signs of endearment, but it only takes one incident to help the argument that he’s the drunk uncle at the barbecue giving one too many compliments to your daughter’s friends.

That said, social awkwardness shouldn’t doom you to forever be the court jester.

Other than his own slip-ups, general uncertainty about why Biden is in such a powerful position is largely left to speculation. Unlike his predecessor, Biden has largely taken a backseat advisory role in Obama’s White House. He’s been next to Obama during his most important achievements, including the signing of the Affordable Care Act (which Biden assured Obama was a “big f*****g deal”) and the Navy SEAL raid that captured Osama bin Laden.

Whereas Dick Cheney largely seemed in charge of the Bush White House and Al Gore took the position as an early opportunity to begin his crusade against climate change, Joe Biden seems rather content playing sidekick. So much so that, in recent months, it’s become less and less likely Biden will seek the 2016 Democratic nomination. While he hasn’t ruled out running for president, the 71-year-old hasn’t made any specific move toward a campaign, either, as both the Democratic and Republican fields grow ever more crowded.

Social awkwardness shouldn’t doom you to forever be the court jester.

With an expressive face accompanied by astonishingly white teeth (Jason Sudeikis required a fake set to play the VP on SNL), as well as a tendency to step outside the orchestrated machinations of political events, Biden is ripe for the meme factory. 

However, the complexity of his life, like all of our lives, is far more than a witty headline or a comedic photograph. Yes, Biden can appear to be a goofy oaf who trips over his own tongue and creeps out young girls. At times, like when he pulled a biker chick onto his lap at a campaign stop, he seems to outright embrace being “Diamond Joe.” But Biden, like all of us, is large and contains multitudes.

None of us are a gaffe or a bad photograph. None of us are identified by the loss we experience when a loved one dies. Perhaps there’s even a poetic irony in Biden’s reputation as the class clown, given all his family has gone through. I’m inspired by his career, in awe of what he’s overcome, and definitely creeped out when says or does racist or sexist things.

But the same system that has made Biden an almost fictional representation can just as easily be turned inward when any one of us isn’t at our best.

Gillian Branstetter is a social commentator with a focus on the intersection of technology, security, and politics. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Business Insider, Salon, the Week, and xoJane. She attended Pennsylvania State University. Follow her on Twitter @GillBranstetter

Photo via DonkeyHotey/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter is a reporter and essayist who specializes in the intersection of technology, LGBTQ issues, and privacy. In April 2018, she joined the National Center for Transgender Equality as a media relations manager.