Carly Phillips, Reddit, and The Sheltering Suburban Mom Meme

A reader sent me a link to a Reddit thread which reveals that the image used in a popular meme online, Sheltering Suburban Mom, is the author photo of Carly Phillips, bestselling romance author.

Cue long discussion of how romance is porn.

This is a whole new kettle of WTF for an individual like Ms. Phillips, who probably never suspected that her image was being used to portray a meme character. Her identity has been listed at Know Your Meme for awhile, and their article traces the first known usage of Philips' author photo as 5 May 2011.

I don't know if I can successfully explain a meme, but usually it's an image representing a character with various captions attached. For example: judgmental bookseller ostrich, who is that horrible bookseller we've often met who judges our reading choices.

The problem for Phillips: some of the captions are funny, some are sort of meh, and some are painfully racist and homophobic, not to mention the overarching problem of having one's image used as a symbol for hypocritical self-importance.

Not the author brand anyone is looking for.

The Reddit folks have begun posting messages on Phillips' Facebook page, and the thread at Reddit may have crashed the Smexybooks giveaway featuring Phillips' trading cards.

This is a brand identity problem that most social media experts probably haven't faced before. I don't know if serving takedown notices, if they'd even be effective, would work, since it would be impossible to catch all the captions, and since it would only encourage communities like ReddIt who would mock the takedown notices with yet more captions.

I would hazard a guess that one solution might be for Phillips to publicly state that it's her image, it's being used without her permission, and she'd never say those things – and if you'd like to see a really funny meme, have a look at that ostrich. But I confess, I am flummoxed by this problem for an author and her brand on the internet, and I imagine many a social media expert would be confused, too. And I have a lot of empathy for her, too. 

So do you think is the best solution? How would you handle it? 


Random Musings

Comments are Closed

  1. 1

    Shoot, I dunno, but I’d maybe at least try a takedown.  The image itself would be copyrighted, I believe, and unless permission was received to use it?  She may have a chance with that.  Poor Carly.

  2. 2

    Or… hey…I dunno if it would work, but you can always see if romance writers can flood it with the actual truth.  I’m Carly Phillips and I wrote this book. I’m Carly Phillips and these people don’t have permission to use my image.  I’m Carly Phillips-check out my website to learn the real me.

  3. 3
    Slueth says:

    Personally, I think most people that run into memes already know what they are (since most of the time, when you see a meme, it’s on a website *specifically for* memes, like memebase). And anyone who knows what memes are, are fully aware it’s just a picture, and that the captions have nothing to do with the real-life person – they’re just a face attached to a punchline.

    I can see a few people (like her fans) running into the picture and being offended before they know what’s going on. But not enough to make a problem.

  4. 4
    ?? keri ?? says:

    It really helps, I think, to know that while you can find some good on Reddit, a lot of it is a pit of horrible misogyny and racism and tons of other prejudices (but I’d say those two are the most common – unsurprising on the Internet, I suppose). This is something where the only way to handle it is to ignore it and not react (at least, not publicly). I suspect any reaction or trying to do something about it will only stir things up and make it worse…Redditors are like Anonymous in that way.

    (Also, I’m thinking you’re simplifying matters for the purpose of this post, but… a meme is so much more than an image macro like that. Still, the site *is* “quickmeme” – a lot of them I’ve found to be fairly offensive or stupid, so I don’t browse there anymore.)

  5. 5
    Daniel A Samuelson says:

    I think it’s possible to embrace a few instances of the meme (which, in this case, is pretty universal to anyone who’s met that certain kind of suburban soccer mom) but, in pointing it out, have a serious statement saying what you do or don’t support about it. That way you’re not making enemies of the internet at large for killing their fun but you are taking a principled stance against people who are racist, homophobic, femmphobic, etc.

    It’s all about participating in the conversation and keeping your nose clean, I think. Information’s much more readily available now and part of that is that it’s more raw. We need to be honest and sure when we’re talking to anyone in regards to our work, pictures, or statements.

  6. 6
    Olivia Waite says:

    (Quick note: you mean the image IS being used without her permission, yes? End knee-jerk proofreading superpower.)

    Keri’s quite right—any engagement with the Reddit thread comments is going to turn into a massive, soul-shriveling time suck that Ms. Phillips sees no benefits from, tangible or otherwise. There was a similar problem in feminist blog circles with a photo being used in the Privilege-Denying Dude meme. Like this one, it has a few funny iterations and then promptly turns hateful. The issue with PDD was solved when a feminist dude offered his own likeness for the meme with full knowledge and consent. I can’t see anything like this happening here.

    An alternative solution is to do what authors do with negative publicity: own it, discuss it with grace and humor, and keep writing excellent books.

  7. 7
    Kristi Davis says:

    Good advice. At this point she needs to embrace it, laugh about it, and make it into her ‘3rd arm’. It’s publicity. She didn’t authorize her picture being there, but it is… so what can you do? Weird that it was just now noticed.

  8. 8
    PhyllisLaatsch says:

    It’s just weird. Make a blanket statement that you dislike their use of your photo. It’ll fade away sooner if you don’t make anything but a single, classy response. I’m sure I don’t know who any of the people in any other memes are, either. (well, except Obama and other political figures. Even then, I don’t always know who they are)

  9. 9
    SonomaLass says:

    Poor Carly Phillips! That just sucks. I agree that taking the high road is likely to be the best response, although perhaps she could do a blog post or something clarifying that her image was used without permission and that she disagrees with most of the “advice” connected with meme. Getting into it with the boyz at Reddit is not a good idea, but a sane and sensible response statement would be helpful if anyone did recognize the photo and wondered how Ms Phillips felt about it.

  10. 10
    Lori says:

    At the top of a thread calling Carly Phillips a pornographic novelist there is a reddit notice telling people that they should notify the moderators of any inappropriate/inaccurate posts.

    Irony FAIL, we haz it.

  11. 11
    alysonli says:

    Best thing to do would be to laugh it off.  Since they’ve (weirdly) just realized that it’s not a stock photo like a lot of the other memes, it’ll be A Thing for about 48 hours and then fade back into random usage.

  12. 12
    ChaoticChris says:

    A meme is a brain virus, conveyed visually. :)

  13. 13
    Jessica D says:

    Interesting. I’m at work still, so I can’t go dig up the links, but if I recall correctly, Reddit responded with much more sympathy when the real identity of Scumbag Steve was revealed. Might make for interesting comparison regarding whether this is a response to his behavior, his gender, or Redditors’ attitude toward romance novels.

  14. 14
    A_User says:

    Redditor here. Judging by Carly’s posts on facebook I conclude that she’s totally oblivious to the internet culture this meme has come from – and probably oblivious to what a meme is, too.

    Her image was used, like so many others, simply because her appearance in it roughly fit a certain archetype. The meme has existed for well over a year, but it seems only now has someone on Reddit actually realized *who* is in the picture.

    The best way for her to handle this is to just roll with it and see the funny side, but unfortunately, judging by her facebook posts so far, she is not well versed in the ways of the internet.

    Hopefully she doesn’t start calling lawyers – if she does that, she’ll trigger the dreaded Streisand effect.

  15. 15
    another redditor says:

    Redditor here as well. One of the best ways to deal with reddit is to do an IAMA. Basically, an open interview with redditors. Most things at reddit are all in good fun. IAMA’s have an amazingly positive experience.

  16. 16
    Jessica D says:

    Ugh! And I just realized “his behavior” could be misconstrued. What I meant was, “Steve” was a private citizen able to position himself as just one of the crowd; Ms. Phillips is a professional approaching this as a business issue. Nothing wrong with that, but Reddit is likely to react…poorly. For certain values of poorly. Values that include mockery and cussin’.

  17. 17
    Elaine says:

    I saw that this morning. I’m a redditor and a romance reader. I love reddit, but there’s no denying large parts of it are filled with juvenile misogyny. I think the best response would be to a) do not directly engage. b) acknowledge the meme in a ‘good sport’ manner (in a blog or facebook post or some such), and say something like ‘of course those aren’t my views’. c) have a new publicity photo taken.

  18. 18
    Corrie says:

    I love that ostrich <3

  19. 19

    Sorry, redditor, but having your face plastered on images where you’re labeled all sorts of bigotry?  Not good fun.  But if you so by and free with?  Instead of A-user and another redditor?  Go post your pics, and label them, let us know where they are and we’ll join in.  :)

  20. 20
    SB Sarah says:

    @Keri: Yes, I was absolutely giving a simplified definition for this post to try to explain this particular phenomenon. Memes are definitely more complex than that.

  21. 21
    ?? keri ?? says:

    @SB Sarah – as I thought! I had a moment of “oh, dear, but if people who don’t know see this & it’s their first exposure, how will they react to ‘meme’ in the future?” but then I figured it’s not a big deal and just wanted to verify.

    I’ll add that I think the suggestion to get a new publicity photo done is a very important one and something she should schedule soon if she hasn’t already. I’d probably move it up a ranking on Elaine’s list.

  22. 22
    Cara says:

    Why did I read the comment thread at reddit? WHYYYY?

    *weeping in corner for humanity*

    Seriously, y’all. I feel sick. I guess it’s just been too long that I’ve been hanging around the parts of the internet where people are mature and actually know better.

    As for what she should do, I agree with the idea of just laughing it off & using it as possible publicity. Hell, if it were me, I’d make more memes using the same image, poking fun at the idiocy and ignorance of it all. :/ Bleh.

  23. 23
    SB Sarah says:

    The more I think about it, the more I think the Reddit folks above (hi folks!) have a good plan: if Phillips does an “Ask me anything” and laughs about it, and through her own charm differentiates herself from the image of the “suburban mom” character, she could do a lot to diffuse the conflict. That would make a collaborative best outcome, I think.

  24. 24
    Carlyphillips says:

    Thank you for all of the support and advice.  It really means a lot.  I do have a great sense of humor and can take a joke—but it’s upsetting to think that people who don’t know me personally or who aren’t of the Meme generation may recognize my picture and think those comments reflect my beliefs. That said, this has been around for the last year and Reddit editors as well as others have explained Memes (I admit to being ignorant before this surfaced last year).  I have explained my concerns to them on my FB Fan page where they posted, just so we all understand each other, and have stated I will delete any direct links to the Meme on my FB page.  I have also publicly posted that the photo was an unauthorized use (thank you for that advice I read here).  Again, I appreciate all the support I’ve received from the Romance community including writers, readers, bloggers, and any one else I’ve inadvertently neglected to mention.  And now, back to our regularly scheduled discussion of good books! :)

  25. 25
    Slueth says:

    I took a look at her facebook page. It’s clear none of her fans have any idea what a meme is. It’s a pity she’s so deeply hurt by this. A meme is not a personal attack on the person whose photo it uses, and I wish she understood this, so perhaps she would not be quite so distraught.

    If anything, I feel this is going to HELP her image (unless she throw a tantrum). After all, no one is actually attacking her or her image, and meanwhile all her supporters are rallying around her (and comforting her) to protect her from the imaginary “bullies”. That’s solidarity, and shit.

  26. 26

    I can’t help but point out that every time some jackass spouts off about why many writers (and most women authors) use pen names on the internet and elsewhere, and why so many of us are photography-phobic, *this* is the reason. Not that men’s privacy isn’t violated too, but the hate and misogyny is so much worse for women who engage in any kind of public interaction.

    My sympathy to Ms Phillips. This must be very painful to go through, and being told to laugh it off can’t be helping.

  27. 27
    kkw says:

    I don’t get memes.  I don’t really understand what they are, or why people persist in sending me links to them.  There are a lot of things I don’t get.  Facebook, Puccini, why photography is an art, the slogan t-shirts described in the Kleypas give-away…  I know these are failings on my part, but I have a lot of failings, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be dead before I get around to figuring out many of them.  Certainly I’m prepared to die without knowing why memes exist.
    But for what it’s worth, I wouldn’t ever look at one of those and suppose it reflected Carly Phillip’s views, or was a personal attack on her.  If it were my image being used I would not be thrilled (assuming I ever realized) but my name and image aren’t a brand, so there’s no reason I couldn’t simply ignore it.  Ms. Phillips is in the unfortunate position of having to care what people say about her, and I haven’t a clue how one copes with that.

  28. 28
    Emily says:

    I just read this for the first time. While I agree with most, I have no idea what a Meme is until I read this particular blog post. (I sort of get it.) Its an avitar icon kind of thing. Right? It also seems like one of those things you intuitively what it is without knowing what its called.
    But I do think C. Phillips needs to take a high road that addresses the issue since people who might think the image is affliated with her. Just say some person is using my image without my concent and saying things I don’t agree with that person, etc, etc.  From the above comment she seems to be doing it.
    @Carly Phillips Keep your head held high and stand tall.  You did nothing wrong. You don’t have to laugh it off; if you don’t feel like it. Just be strong in your denial. You have my deepest sympathies.

  29. 29
    Scrin says:


    Do -not- try takedowns. It’s called the Streisand Effect:; . If you try a takedown, it may even work. However, you cannot stop people from talking about and commenting on the takedown, and doing whatever resistance they can (alternate sites, etc). If you want to get a reputation as an old stick-in-the-mud author in a hurry, just try throwing a C&D/takedown around on the Internet when folks are working a gag.

    What Mrs. Phillips really needs to do is roll with the joke for now, maybe do a post saying she isn’t HAPPY about it, but concede it’s the Internet and filled with weird and sometimes dumb things and not go looking at it if it bothers her. Honestly, I don’t think this is cool, but my internet instincts tell me the quickest and best way to handle it is to just ignore it and let the Internet meme-machine move on to something else.

    (Side note: Memes are really fascinating stuff, from a psychological standpoint. Tecnnically, a meme is any idea (ANY) and how it spreads. Learned behavior, and so on. They have a lot of parallels with genes, in a way.)

  30. 30
    Emily says:

    I doubt it was initially used to be specific to her. The picture does look like an everyday sort of person that you might meet in the grocery store and it was probably chosen to just be a standin. I think if she does say what she stands for and what she doesn’t (and possibly offers some sort of witty alternative) it would tell people that she (the person, not the picture) is in no way related to any of the captions. And at some point it won’t be worth it or the captioners will get bored and it’ll be obsolete.

    I also think there should be a Smart Bitches meme with ridiculous backgrounds from covers and plays on romance stereotypes.

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