How the #Area51 meme turns aliens into comrades
The subtly revolutionary politics behind the meme of the summer
On September 20, if all goes according to plan, 1.9 million people will storm Area 51 and liberate the extraterrestrials currently detained there by the U.S. government.
All will not go according to plan. Indeed, the plan as laid out on the Facebook event page "Storm Area 51, They Can't Stop All of Us," which was posted on June 27 and has spawned countless memes, is not much: "We will all meet up at the Area 51 Alien Center tourist attraction and coordinate our entry. If we naruto run [i.e., run with head and torso tilted forward and arms dangling behind, as popularized in anime] we can move faster than their bullets. Lets see them aliens."
Pointing out the holes in this plan is easy if not irrelevant. The real question is why so many young people want to storm Area 51. While it's clearly a joke, the meme has taken on such a life of its own that it's become a bit more than a joke. It has prompted an official response from the U.S. Air Force, and local businesses and law enforcement in Nevada are preparing for what might happen in September. So what about the idea has struck such a chord? And why do they want to free the aliens, when decades' worth of popular culture would have them fear the aliens?
For more than a century, the extraterrestrial has been an icon of reaction, symbolizing whatever it is that mainstream society is trying to protect itself from. As Lindsay Ellis discusses in an excellent video essay, the modern alien-invasion narrative evolved from the British invasion novel, a genre popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the Union Jack was increasingly threatened by other empires and readers were drawn to semi-futuristic stories in which their homeland was invaded, sometimes successfully, by foreign powers. The War of the Worlds was squarely within this mold, with Mars instead of Germany as H. G. Wells' invader of choice. The novel's famous opening paragraph — in which the Martians observe humanity going about their business "with infinite complacency ... serene in their assurance of their empire" — reflected the common anxiety that British hegemony would be undone by British degeneracy, that internal weaknesses would expose the empire to external dangers.
Since then, aliens have been a useful way for popular culture to address larger anxieties within society. The 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers spoke to Americans' fear that communists were living among them, slowly converting their neighbors and infiltrating the land of the free. John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) — in which men are infected one-by-one by an unseen alien force, their bodies grotesquely penetrated and made to grow new orifices — is arguably a film about the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the fear of the closeted gay man. More recently, Cloverfield and Spielberg's War of the Worlds invoked the imagery of 9/11 and modern fears of terrorism and biological warfare.
In the #Area51 meme, however, the aliens are not seen as invaders to be feared but rather as prisoners to be liberated. Moreover, once the aliens are free, they turn out to have a lot in common with their human liberators. Many of the #Area51 social-media posts are focused on what happens after the raid is successful and, apparently, every human who participated in the raid brings an alien back home with them to crash for a couple of weeks. The alien shows you memes on their phone, smokes weed, asks if they "can have some raviolis," asks for your WiFi password and how your microwave works, lets you know you're out of parmesan cheese.
Alien-human relations can be yet more intimate in the #Area51 meme. The official merch site (set up by whoever created the Facebook event page) sells both crew necks and tank tops that boast, "I clap alien cheeks," the cheeks in question presumably being gluteal in nature. Pornhub has seen a spike in searches for "Area 51" and other alien-related videos. The takeover of Area 51 will apparently be followed by a celebratory orgy, with the human liberators "surrounded by thicc intergalactic yams" (yams being, again, a gluteal reference).
What is going on here? Why do participants and consumers of the #Area51 meme identify so strongly with the aliens, when aliens have long symbolized whatever we identify with the least? It would appear the fantasy of raiding Area 51 is an admission of how, well, alienated younger Americans feel. Most narratives with extraterrestrials posit them as a threat to a particular system or way of life, a system which the heroes are fighting to protect. But the newer generation — facing a future of economic inequality, environmental instability, and rising neo-fascism — doesn't feel like they're benefiting from that system. Rather than trying to preserve American hegemony in the face of an alien invasion, the #Area51 memesters want to overthrow American hegemony alongside their otherworldly allies.
Area 51 is, after all, a U.S. Air Force base. Storming Area 51 isn't just an act of intergalactic liberation; it's an unambiguous rebellion against the American government. There are certainly many young conservatives, especially military fetishists, who understand the proposed raid that way. In their rebuttal memes, they fantasize about the U.S. military mowing down thousands of deluded Internet weaklings. The kids storming Area 51, not the aliens detained there, are the invaders.
It is useful to compare Area 51's place in the meme to its place in the 1996 film Independence Day. The movie is a standard invasion narrative, with the aliens as the threat to civilization and the U.S. military as the protectors of civilization. When the president, played by a charismatic Bill Pullman, learns halfway through the film that Area 51 has alien specimens, he asks why he was never told the truth about the Air Force base. The answer is "plausible deniability," and that is good enough for the movie and its audience. Independence Day is not offering a critique of the U.S. intelligence or military state. The secrecy behind Area 51 is presented as a necessity, and badass fighter pilots, including the president himself, are the saviors of the day. Today, after Iraq and Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay and the proliferation of detention camps along America's southern border, Area 51 has a different resonance, reminding many of the cruelties of American militarism rather than its supposed triumphs.
Though it is likely unintentional, the #Area51 meme hearkens to a fringe leftist ideology, Posadism, that similarly imagines extraterrestrials as allies rather than enemies. J. Posadas, an Argentine Trotskyist who led a splinter sect of the anti-Stalinist Fourth International, theorized that extraterrestrials, since they had achieved intergalactic travel without killing each other first, had transcended capitalism, imperialism, and violence, and would be a necessary part of the revolutionary vanguard on Earth. In a 1968 pamphlet, Posadas wrote, "We must appeal to the beings on other planets, when they come here, to intervene and collaborate with Earth's inhabitants in suppressing poverty." Whereas capitalists were understandably afraid of aliens, socialists should welcome them with open arms, for "socialism … has no fear in being compared with or integrated into higher forms of progress."
Though Posadism has seen a resurgence of interest (at least ironically) from leftists, the #Area51 meme is more a kind of folk-Posadism — a growing openness to the possibility, as the globe warms and democracy falters, that extraterrestrials could run things better than whoever is running it now. The aliens certainly couldn't do any worse.
It was perhaps inevitable that the #Area51 meme would intersect with the extremely-online song of the summer, Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road." There were jokes that the liberated aliens would finally get to hear the song and then promptly, like teenagers doing the yeehaw challenge on TikTok, don cowboy gear. But these two meme universes fully collided last week when Lil Nas X released an animated music video titled "Old Town Raid."
The video must be seen to be even feebly explained. Lil Nas X and the featured artists on this particular remix (Billy Ray Cyrus, Young Thug, and "Wal-Mart yodeler" Mason Ramsey) storm Area 51 on horseback, with Keanu Reeves and many thousands more doing the Naruto run behind them. The Area 51 guards drop their guns in fear and urinate themselves; green goo pours from their orifices, presumably thanks to alien technology. Our heroes are then given gifts by the thankful aliens (who are wearing hoodies and smoking joints): a hovering motorcycle, a robotic horse, a glowing green chain for Young Thug.
It makes a strange sort of sense that Lil Nas X would lead the raid on Area 51. Just as the #Area51 meme scrambles the traditional narrative of the extraterrestrial, "Old Town Road" remixes and subverts the archetype of the American cowboy, appropriating a symbol that has long been tied to American territorial expansion and white patriarchal power. One could not imagine John Wayne storming Area 51; if anything he'd be standing right alongside the guards. But Lil Nas X is a different kind of cowboy, one who is more interested in freeing his comrades than preserving U.S. legitimacy.
The whole thing is unabashedly silly, and there are more than a few scolds who wish everyone joking about storming Area 51 would realize that they could channel that same energy into real revolutionary change.
But that may be asking too much of a meme. It should be enough to hear the meme for what it is: an expression of distrust for, and estrangement from, those who claim to be protecting us. At the heart of the #Area51 meme is the nagging feeling that we no longer belong — that we were "born," as one of the #StormArea51 t-shirts says, "on the wrong planet."