Life amid COVID has been marked by isolation, but for a community on TikTok there's one thing that still unites them during this difficult year: hating Matthew Morrison. The Glee actor has become a beacon of derision on the platform over the past few months, and NBC’s announcement that Morrison would be returning to the screen in a live musical production of The Grinch was like throwing gasoline on the community’s already fiery roasts of the actor. As a result, Matthew Morrison TikTok quickly outgrew its irony-fueled corner of the internet and has started a glorified For You Page invasion, with Morrison content popping up on the feeds of users who aren’t even sure who this man is or why so many people seem to hate him.
So, how did we get here? And why is the internet so fixated on dunking on an actor whose most notable role ended when Obama was still in office? We spoke to the creators behind the anti-Matthew Morrison movement to find out how a meme gets made.
How the “renaissance of hate” began
TikTok has always been home to a strong Glee community, one which has never shied away from taking aim at Morrison’s character, the breakdancing McKinley High glee club coach Will Schuester. But for the most part, the target of fans’ ire remained on the fictional character and the videos rarely circulated beyond the echo chamber of Glee TikTok. That all changed this fall when Matthew Morrison TikTok was officially — and somewhat unintentionally — founded by Carleigh Spence, a 24-year-old TikToker better known as @teenscientist.
Spence, a musical theater grad with 210,000 followers, posted her first Matthew Morrison video on Sept. 4 after coming across her dad’s playbill from Hairspray, in which Morrison originated the role of Link from 2002 through 2004. Seeing Morrison’s headshot sparked an “instinctual repulsion” toward the actor, so the former Gleek decided to channel this into content. “I had this idea for a video where it seems really nice and I want well wishes for everyone except for him,” Spence recalls. That’s when she came up with the concept of “an unspoken vendetta from me to him that he would never know about.”
The first video Spence posted about the actor — in which she ragefully declares everyone should have access to healthcare besides Morrison — didn’t initially resonate strongly with users. But Spence was so confident in the concept that she tried the format again three days later, this time sharing a reminder that everyone, other than Morrison of course, should drink water that day. “Stay dehydrated, you sick f*ck!” she screams over footage of herself blacking out Morrison’s face in a photograph.
The video went viral, landing 2.1 million views, breaking Spence’s previous channel record and creating an entirely new brand for her as The Girl Who Hates Matthew Morrison. (Spence has since posted nearly two dozen Morrison-related videos, including a three-part series in which she pretends to have been kidnapped by the actor and held hostage in his basement.) But Spence’s content succeeded not only because of her impressive commitment to the bit — that she really, really hates Matthew Morrison — but because her own amplified animosity toward the actor inspired a similar reaction in viewers, despite many of them not having come across Morrison’s work since Glee ended in 2015.
"I definitely think she started the trend of the renaissance of Matthew Morrison hatred," explains Nicole Ciravolo, 22, an actor, screenwriter, and popular TikToker. Spence’s TikToks, she says, "just have such a pure hatred and rage in them that I think it kind of ignited that in everybody else who saw them."
But why Matthew Morrison?
TikTok users had already been primed for Spence’s anti-Morrison campaign by an unexpected Glee resurgence during quarantine. Since coronavirus lockdown began in March, members of TikTok’s Glee community, many of whom were tweens and teens during the show’s original six-season run, sought comfort in the shared experience of revisiting the defining series of their adolescence and childhood. But upon rewatching Ryan Murphy’s satirical musical dramedy, they also found themselves looking at it with a wholly new perspective — particularly when it came to Morrison’s character.
"Every time [I rewatch Glee], the older I get, the more I hate Will Schuester," says Jocelyn Silk, a 17-year-old high school student who started the "get Schuestered" trend this fall (think Rickrolling, but with a breakdancing Morrison).
"I used to think he was so cool. And I used to be like, 'Oh my gosh, Mom, I wish my choir teacher was like that,'" says Tyler, 20, a college student who considers himself part of Glee TikTok. "Now looking back, I'm like, that man was so creepy to some of his students, and some of the things he said were super, super weird."
The list of reasons Glee fans hate Mr. Schue is fairly reasonable and seemingly endless, ranging from the actual crimes he committed (planting drugs in Finn’s locker in the series premiere) to crimes against viewers’ senses (rapping “Bust a Move”), spawning the widespread joke that the character belongs behind bars. “Ryan Murphy really woke up and chose violence when he decided to make him rap and breakdance,” 21-year-old comedy TikToker Ian Smith (@ianisuglyy) tells Bustle.
"Everything about him is kind of cringe, I think, to our generation."
Due to most fans’ limited exposure to Morrison outside of Glee — as well as the apparent gusto with which the actor embraced Mr. Schue’s cringiest moments — many still have a hard time separating Morrison from the character he’s best known for. “I'm sure he’s a great guy,” says Michaela Sullivan, 22, whose four-part series on why Mr. Schue is a war criminal went viral this fall. “It's not about him, but the more the character Will Schuester, and [Morrison] just happened to be the scapegoat.”
Once attention was turned onto Morrison, TikTok creators found plenty of material to work with. From the infamous Greatest Dancer masterclass instructional video, to Morrison’s actual nickname from the ‘90s (which was — we wish we were joking here — “Matty Fresh”), to his notoriously tone deaf Instagram tribute to his late Glee co-stars, “everything about him is kind of cringe, I think, to our generation,” sums up Ciravolo.
Once every clip of him breakdancing, rapping, and generally embodying Matty Fresh’s signature “go white boy, go” energy was mined for memes, the joke outgrew the reality of the actual Morrison’s well-meaning if try-hard persona. No longer was the greatest charge against Morrison thrusting to “Thong Song” on Glee. Instead, TikTok created a fictional caricature of Morrison as the embodiment of all that is wrong in the world at a time when it feels like literally all is wrong with the world — a war criminal who is to blame for the California wildfires, the Cuban Missile Crisis, killing God, and several other equally absurd accusations the Matthew Morrison community has invented to keep the joke fresh.
“I think that the bit has been so committed to that it's just a series of blurred lines,” Spence says. “I never have known where [the line is between] Matthew Morrison and Mr. Schue and the TikTok villain that is Matthew Morrison.”
From niche comedy to mainstream meme
The online vitriol for Morrison hit a fever pitch on Nov. 10, when NBC announced the actor’s casting as the titular role in The Grinch musical. “Now we're gonna see him again. I think we need to reconcile with what that's gonna be like,” Spence says. “I think the community might explode.”
As furor over Morrison’s casting infiltrated users’ For You Pages across the country — with Netflix’s Nov. 13 addition of AHS: 1984, in which Morrison stars as a character whose biggest personality trait is his big penis, only giving users more source material to work with — many creators sought to capitalize off the hatred in their own unique ways. Silk kickstarted the “get Schuestered” trend on Nov. 11 when she posted a video claiming it would show new photos of Harry Styles in which “HE LOOKS SO GOOD,” only to have the video switch to footage of Morrison breakdancing on Glee. The easy to replicate take on Rickrolling quickly made it harder than ever for users to escape Matthew Morrison TikTok.
“Oh my gosh, it’s everywhere,” says Tyler, who created a video comparing Morrison to the devil that has over 3 million views. “I’ll just be watching a video thinking I’m watching a cooking recipe and then all of the sudden they open the oven and it's a video of Matthew Morrison.”
Smith and TikToker Emmy Hartman (@emmwee) created their own viral moment when they posted a song in defense of Matthew Morrison to Smith’s account after seeing how much hate the actor was getting for being cast as the Grinch. “I was like, OK, well, everyone hates this man so let me just start drama for no reason,” Smith says. ”Let me just pretend that I love him and I think he's hot.”
The catchy tune sparked a “feud” between Smith and Spence, as they began creating content back and forth and commenting on each other’s videos, building out the already layered mythology of Matthew Morrison TikTok. Though Smith acknowledges he has no strong feelings toward Matthew Morrison either way, he threw himself into the bit, starring in videos simping over “daddy” Matty Fresh, as well as one where he compliments the actor as though Morrison is forcing him to read cue cards under duress.
“It's just so great to see [how creative people are getting]” with this trend, Silk says, “because TikTok was getting a little dry. So we needed a new meme to spice it up.”
What happens when the joke goes too far?
As the popularity of Matthew Morrison content continues to grow, Spence is acutely aware of the complex questions this ironic hate campaign raises about where the line gets drawn between comedy and cyberbullying. But that hasn’t stopped her from continuing to find new ways to escalate her one-sided feud with Morrison, recently going so far as to create a Change.org petition demanding he be sent to Guantanamo Bay. (Since it started on Nov. 17, the petition has netted over 18,000 signatures.)
To Spence, there’s a crucial difference between blaming Morrison for natural disasters or saying he belongs in a federal prison and actually attacking Matthew Morrison as a person and actor. "The Guantanamo Bay thing, I just think there's comedy in that it's such a reach for what he's done," she explains. "I don't want to make a man feel bad. I don’t want to be the source for his trauma."
What’s currently happening with Morrison on TikTok is typical for the platform, Sullivan explains. “I've definitely noticed the trend of [how] TikTok will pick ... a celebrity to collectively cyberbully,” she says, noting how the previous target of users’ rage was Lin-Manuel Miranda, who got savagely roasted over a photo of him biting his lip over the summer. While Miranda seemingly took the hate posts in stride, making a self-deprecating joke about it during a freestyle video on Twitter, this type of collective trolling can quickly veer into dangerous territory.
In 2018, Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown quit Twitter amid purposefully preposterous assertions that she was homophobic as part of the #TakeDownMillieBobbyBrown meme — one which, similar to the anti-Matthew Morrison movement, built its success off the surreal absurdity of the heinous and false accusations against the star. The Brown meme was “a dark satirization of the gross absurdity of the real world,” Vox’s Alex Abad-Santos wrote, and was for some a twisted coping mechanism for the realities of homophobia. But at the time of the widespread trolling, the actress was only 14. Portraying the young star as a bigot was not only in poor taste, but appeared to have had a real and damaging effect on the actor.
Though the trend about Brown has died down, there are occasional revivals of the meme across social media platforms, and it’s unlikely it will ever completely go away. The black humor that contributes to the popularity and longevity of both the Brown and Morrison memes lies in the stark juxtaposition between the reality of who they are (seemingly nice, uncontroversial people) and the horrible accusations against them (Morrison is a war criminal, Brown runs over gay men with her car), which no one believes or is supposed to believe. Because stars like Brown and Morrison are so relatively scandal-free, they’re easy targets for this type of faux outrage.
“I think there are so many people who are actually problematic, but that just gets really frustrating and depressing,” says Taylor, 22, who made a viral reaction video to Morrison’s casting as the Grinch. “In this time when we’re so upset about the pandemic, I think people just want to make fun of things, make lighthearted jokes. And even though I know it can get kind of dicey, because I know Millie Bobby Brown was actually affected by that, I hope Matthew Morrison isn’t actually affected by this.”
While Morrison hasn’t responded to the TikTok trend (the actor’s reps also didn’t respond to Bustle's request for comment), some of the most popular creators in the movement have already started to experience the consequences of what happens when an ironic joke crosses over into reality. Both Smith and Silk say they have had videos featuring Morrison temporarily taken down after users mass reported them as inappropriate content. “It literally broke my TikTok account for like two weeks,” says Smith, who makes daily videos for over 800,000 followers. “People were so actually mean and then it started to piss me off.” (One of Spence’s videos, featuring her blowing up a stand-in for Morrison’s head, was removed, but another, in which she stabs his photograph with a large knife and throws darts at his face, remains live.)
Despite the strikes against their accounts, neither Smith nor Silk plan on stopping making anti-Morrison content anytime soon — especially with his debut as the Grinch quickly approaching on Dec. 9. (“Now that my account is fixed, like I'm ready for round two of this war,” Smith declares.) And though Matthew Morrison TikTok does toe a fine ethical line, most members of the movement aren’t too concerned with how the actor may feel about the mockery. “He’s a straight white dude in Hollywood. We’re all punching up,” says Ciravolo, who demanded to know who she could sue over Morrison’s Grinch casting in a popular TikTok. “He has nothing to lose from the hatred that he’s getting from us. If anything, it’s honestly serving his career and keeping his name in the press.”
Could Morrison ever redeem himself for his various “crimes” and earn back favor in the eyes of TikTok? Spence has a few tongue-in-cheek suggestions for the actor. “I mean, first of all, he's gonna have to solve the climate crisis. That's a given. Second, I feel like he's gonna have to pay me a lot of money for the time he kidnapped me. I'm still planning on taking him to court. I think he should serve some serious time in Guantanamo Bay before we get rid of Guantanamo Bay entirely,” she says.
“And then retire. He should retire.”