Election Week 2020 brought us an abundance of memes, viral videos and internet jokes, but amid all those John King fan cams and riffs on Nevada’s glacial-pace vote counting, the nation turned its attention, once again, to the city of Philadelphia.
When it became apparent that Philly and its surrounding suburbs would help propel Joe Biden to the White House, the internet suddenly stopped ridiculing the City of Brotherly Love and instead began to appreciate the beauty buried somewhere within.
Maybe it was just the fact that Philly would play such an integral role in blocking a second Trump term that had many changing their tune. Maybe it was the bad-faith GOP operatives and talking heads who were threatening to wage war on the city, trashing its electoral process and calling it a “cesspool” in an attempt to undermine the democratic process. Whatever it was, Twitter personalities from around the world were persuaded to celebrate the city’s signature hardheadedness and grit — characteristics that had previously been mocked by outsiders, even if those of us who were born and raised there have always held them to be points of pride.
As someone who falls into that latter category, the overwhelming love for my hometown was equal parts gratifying and eye-roll-inducing. Finally, it seemed, the public had recognized the true spirit of Philadelphia: blue-collar and notoriously tough but also extremely loyal and willing to stand up in the face of tyranny. I’d tried and failed for years to explain this to outsiders, but they always just reminded me about the guy who ate horse poop or that one time we threw snowballs at Santa Clause (which, look — Santa had it coming).
Even Philadelphia 76ers President Chris Heck has caught flak for not understanding the spirit of the city; in a recent interview regarding the new 76ers jerseys, Heck commented that he and the organization believe the use of the word Philly is “lazy” and “undersells the city.” “Sometimes I think ‘blue collar’ does the same,” he went on.
Heck then tried to push the term “New Philadelphia,” which was invented in a board room somewhere and is meant to prioritize the city’s art and culture over its grit, as if those things are mutually exclusive and the latter doesn’t explicitly inform the former.
Natives were quick to call bullshit.
“Translation. We’re going to continue to raise our ticket prices so we can price out our core fan base. Therefore, our whole marketing focus and semantics is centered around an elitist niche instead of the actual identity of the city we represent,” one Twitter user replied.
Another tweeted, “The city’s largest location of ‘high culture’, the art museum, is a mecca for smoking weed, and guarded by a fictional Italian boxer who pounds raw meat in a freezer. Which is beautiful. Philly is the definition of blue collar. This man is silly.”
But while Philadelphians are still struggling even among themselves to explain the spirit of their city, Election Week undoubtedly helped reflect it in a positive light. Additionally, it brought forth a cascade of wondrous memes commemorating the city’s newest — but perhaps already most treasured — mascot: Gritty. Some imagined the orange monster as the future Secretary of Defense, while others made clever Game of Thrones references or mockups of Gritty sitting on the Supreme Court.
The uptick in Gritty memes had many foreigners who were watching the American election confused. “C’est quoi Gritty?” one reader asked the French newspaper Le Monde. “Can anyone explain to this confused Italian living in the US what is up with Philadelphia and Gritty? Is he their daimon?” inquired one user on Twitter.
The attempts to explain him were equally entertaining. “Gritty has become the darling of the anti-fascist movement and is omnipresent on social media and in anti-Trump protests,” answered Le Monde. “I believe he’s the manifestation of their city as a god, like Roma,” another Twitter user replied.
Nicole Conlan, writer for The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, went so far as to post a video — in French — unpacking the phenomenon.
“Gritty is a cultural icon, like the Arc du Triomphe or the Eiffel Tower. But Gritty is not for tourists, he represents intoxicated hockey fans,” she explained. “Gritty is popular because of ‘nihilism.’ Many Americans have felt that life has no meaning. Gritty also has no meaning. But because he doesn’t have a raison d’etre he also doesn’t have a reason to fear … he doesn’t speak with his smiling mouth, but his eyes say ‘come … join me in chaos.’”
But while Gritty has now become a beloved cultural icon on a national and international level thanks to Philadelphia’s involvement in the election, he famously did not begin as such.
On September 24, 2018, Gritty made his official debut as the Philadelphia Flyers mascot. The team’s Twitter account tweeted, “Join us in welcoming the newest member of the #Flyers Family, @GrittyNHL!!” with an attached video reveal.
Out skated a bedraggled orange muppet with bulging eyes, a large belly and a toothless black smile. It was perhaps the first time in my Philadelphian life I was at a loss for words, mainly because I had no idea what the fuck I was looking at. Gritty, as one Twitter user succinctly noted, looked like “he just crawled out from under I-95.” I was convinced that he wanted to kill me.
According to his bio on the Philadelphia Flyers website, the “loyal but mischievous” Gritty has been lurking around the underground of the Wells Fargo Center for some time, but recent construction of the stadium “disturbed his secret hideout forcing him to show his face publicly for the first time.” He got his name for embodying the notoriously gritty attitude of the hockey team — and city — he represents. He also loves hot dogs and eating snow straight from the Zamboni.
“There’s no denying that he’s one of our own,” the bio concluded.
I wondered what this orange menace had to do with the Flyers or hockey in general. Then I remembered that the city’s other beloved mascot was the Philly Phanatic — a large, green flightless bird from the Galápagos Islands with a prehensile tongue who drives around the ballpark in an ATV shooting hotdogs into the stands — and I had never questioned the meaning of his existence in my life. It soon became apparent that my city and I would just need to embrace this bearded orange hellraiser.
And embrace him we did.
After watching Gritty in action at Flyers games — fighting with small children, embarrassing small children, destroying things, crashing weddings, streaking, heckling opposing team members, dancing with the Phanatic and cracking 69 jokes — Philly proudly came to defend the manic mascot as one of their own.
Philadelphia’s City Council even welcomed Gritty to the city with a formal resolution at the time. “Gritty came into our lives when we most needed him, and while he may be a hideous monster, he is our hideous monster,” Philadelphia City Council member Helen Gym said in a press release.
Now, Gritty has transcended his role as Philly’s mascot and become a symbol of hope and progress for people around the country. Gritty was born into chaos, uncertainty and fear, and as is the case with the cynical tone underlying many of 2020’s best viral memes, people across the nation have found comfort and alliance with a deranged lunatic — so much so that he’s now become a leftist icon.
Philadelphians will note that this transformation did not began last week. Soon after his debut in 2018, Gritty was adopted as a symbol for anti-fascism and anti-capitalism by Philly’s activist left community. As exemplified by the Fellow Worker Gritty Twitter account, he’s a blue-collared monster fighting for workers’ rights, and his visage is a common theme at anti-Trump protests and demonstrations.
“I think fundamentally, Gritty transcends politics,” Gym told the Ringer in 2018, “but there’s no question he’s been embraced by the left and progressives, and others who feel as if one orange horror has been met with another. What I do appreciate about Gritty is the idea that he’s huggable but potentially insurrectionary.”
As many writers and leftist activists have noted over the years, Gritty’s ridiculous appearance and proclivity for anarchic hijinks make him the perfect ringleader around which to rally.
“His uncontrollable antics are very much like those of the ruling class as they make massively destructive decisions without concern for the people they impact,” Alex Manescu, a member of Philly Socialists told the Verge in 2018. “So when we recuperate this orange menace, it’s as an antihero. A no-fucks-given orange lunatic — but one who belongs to us. Gritty is a symbol we’ve claimed, because as Philadelphians, we famously don’t give a shit if we’re allowed to or not.”
While I can get a tad territorial about my city, even I know that Gritty is for The People. He also might be the best PR move Philly has ever made.
Gritty is a large unpredictable menace who will without hesitation fight small children and nazis. He is also a messianic figure in the nationwide struggle to preserve our democracy. He is all the good that Philly has to offer distilled into one beatific form, and for now, we are happy to share him with the rest of you.