Arianna Conover remembers when Gritty memes "were so pure." In the beginning, which was not even two months ago, many of the memes mused about Gritty's drugs of choice (meth), placed his furry orange head on a Liberty dime or carved it on Mount Rushmore, or set him in the Distracted Boyfriend gag, with Gritty doing the distracting and the Phillie Phanatic playing the envious partner.
Conover, a moderator of Gritty Memes for Philly Teens, a Facebook group that counts more than 16,500 members, knows that this earlier, tamer time is long gone.
"Don't blame me," began an Election Day meme featuring the Flyers' grinning mascot. "I voted for executing the rich in the streets and letting their blood flow like a crimson tide, washing away their corruption and wickedness."
While bruising his way into Philadelphia's hardened heart, Gritty has managed to symbolize a multitude of meanings. He's a lovable tangerine beast, but depending on whom you ask, he's also the epitome of the Philly fan, the manifestation of our regional spirit, an icon for gender fluidity, and the new face of the radical left. For a character who lacks speech, his image has already come to say so much.
His political co-opting has caused tension in the Gritty Memes for Philly Teens group, whose founder, James Gitto, has stepped back from moderator duties after being doxxed and accused of being a Nazi. "I'm not going to let some hockey mascot who was supposed to be a good time for people put any of that at risk," he said.
So, how did we get here? It's been nearly two months since the Flyers mascot debuted, but the internet's typically short attention span has not let Gritty from sight. He first appeared on social media on Sept. 24 to throbbing techno music and an audience that didn't hold back its ridicule. The early consensus: Gritty was hideous, creepy, and bound to cause nightmares. Many residents said the tide turned, though, when Philadelphians noticed outsiders mocking him.
As a Philadelphia City Council resolution put it: "Gritty may be a hideous monster, but he is our hideous monster."
The meaning of Gritty got specific fast.
"He's the time you fell asleep on the Broad Street Line and woke up at Fern Rock," as one fan put it. "He's that punch you threw in the 700 level in 1994. He's the open tallboy that got you thrown out of Rittenhouse. He's a 4 a.m. cheesesteak you have the receipt for but don't remember. He's everything you hate about Philadelphia, which is everything you are."
Gabrielle Donatucci, a 22-year-old Drexel University senior, thinks one reason that fans have stayed interested is because Gritty allows fans to laugh at themselves.
"He's not a mascot for a team. He's a mascot for the fan base," said Donatucci, who tweets as @IncorrectFlyers and contributes to the podcast For Pucks Sake. When he's crude or mean or swooning over Flyers center Claude Giroux, these attitudes give him authenticity, she said: "Scumbag Philly fans? He's us."
Samira Rajabi, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Center for Advanced Research in Global Communication, said fans expanding on Gritty's Phillyness are staking a claim.
"Hey, that's ours," she said. "Let's map our identity onto this."
As Gritty captured hearts on Philly Twitter, he was also blowing kisses to the camera on Good Morning America and fighting Ricky Gervais and Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show. That his image continues to circulate through upstart online communities as well as mainstream media helps to keep Gritty memes coming, Rajabi said.
Flyers diehards haven't been the only ones parsing Gritty's essence. Many social media users insist that Gritty is nonbinary. The Flyers have used he/him pronouns in marketing. The team sidestepped a request to clarify Gritty's gender.
Gritty's masculine or feminine attributes were intentionally blurred while designing the character to make him more relatable across audiences, according to David Raymond, the mascot expert who first played the Phanatic and consulted on Gritty. Since Gritty is a fresh-faced creature who's hard to label, "you can define it any way you want, because he's new," Raymond said.
"It's not he or her or him," Raymond said. "It's Gritty."
In Gritty's character, political scientist George Ciccariello-Maher sees nods to Philly's "hard knock" image, a city where a large swath of the population is experiencing poverty. "This is what Gritty was meant to signify, so it's not surprising that the left seized upon Gritty," said Ciccariello-Maher, who resigned from Drexel University last year.
Gitto, founder of Gritty Memes for Philly Teens, said he wasn't surprised far-left activists have adopted Gritty as a counterpoint to Pepe the Frog, which the alt-right has claimed. "I guess we're at a moment where we need an icon."
Rallying behind iconography is not new, Rajabi said, but the speeds of internet creation and consumption are another story. As a meme spreads, it's reinterpreted rapidly. Memes respun don't lose prior meanings, she argued, they hold onto them.
Some liberal fans are sharing images that contradict goals of racial justice. For instance, a New York-based activist made a meme from the Civil War illustration on the cover of Ciccariello-Maher's book Decolonizing Dialectics. In the new version, Gritty is superimposed on the face of an enslaved person, while the enslaver becomes Pepe. Considering how black Americans are portrayed historically, Ciccariello-Maher acknowledges that it wasn't the best choice to erase the face of an enslaved person and replace it with a googly-eyed mascot.
Memes, Rajabi said, make statements that might offend easier to laugh off.
Gritty can stand for multiple liberal philosophies, even conflicting ones, simultaneously, she said. "It becomes up to the social media user to decode what that means, and that becomes really complicated."
The Flyers are staying out of divisive discussions. "When it comes to Gritty's schedule and activations, we haven't been involving him in the political landscape," a team representative said.
Experts expect Gritty to stay popular as a meme for some time now. Halloween Gritty content, Conover said, "brought back my faith in meme humanity." Thanksgiving and Christmas Gritty memes are already a thing. Next month, Gritty will be joining the Philadelphia Orchestra for its Christmas Kids' Spectacular Family Concert.
Donatucci isn't too bothered that leftist groups are claiming Gritty.
"I'd rather he be on this movement than the other one," the Drexel student said. "This way is a joke. The other way is a hate crime."