When Vaccines Become an Internet Personality Test
It feels very American to turn the vaccine rollout into a branding spectacle rooted in the worship of pharmaceutical companies.,
What is your favorite piece of vaccine-related content? Mine is a TikTok that goes like this: An adult man smiles assuredly at an imaginary group positioned outside the frame. “OK, I’ll see you tomorrow,” he tells them, then swivels to whisper urgently into a phone pressed to his ear. Suddenly his eyeballs are glazed with tears. “Mom, can you come get me,” he pleads. “Yeah, ’cause I freaking hate it here. I’ve been working so hard and I make one mistake and now everyone is like, trying to cancel me. Yeah, and Moderna and Pfizer,” he continues, are the meanest people “I’ve ever met.” A text box tacked to the screen identifies the man as “Johnson & Johnson.”
On April 13, the rollout of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine was halted (temporarily) across the United States while officials investigated cases of a rare but serious blood-clotting disorder. Two days later, this TikTok dropped, anthropomorphizing the vaccination effort as a clique of dramatic teens who had turned on the weakest member. Playing Johnson & Johnson was @nursenatee, who materialized on TikTok in January and started posting blunt comedy videos largely inspired by life as a Covid-era traveling nurse. There’s something mesmerizing about his work — in how he appears to strut through the pandemic, snapping his fingers to transform its dire reality into droll material.
As a nurse influencer whose star has risen alongside the Covid case count, @nursenatee is playing a role in a larger drama: the conversion of the pandemic into entertainment. For months, social media has been operating as if mass death and collective trauma could be processed (or at least ignored) by rigorously serving up topical memes on our phones. Now, the long-running Covid dramedy appears to be nearing its finale, in the form of an orgiastic flurry of vaccine content.
Images of filled-out vaccine cards are status symbols. The syringe emoji is spurting everywhere. There are vaccine fan-fiction TikToks where the pharmaceutical brands are spun into whole personalities, and playlists full of parody songs like the sex romp “Vaccinated Attitude” and the “Saturday Night Live” groove “Boomers Got the Vax.” Dolly Parton, whose charitable donations helped fund the Moderna vaccine research, turned her tune “Jolene” into “Vaccine” as she got the jab. There is even a vaccine heartthrob: Huge Ma, the “Vaccine Daddy” behind the Twitter account @TurboVax, which surfaces open appointment slots in New York.
In the early days of the pandemic I, like many others, downloaded “Contagion,” Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 pandemic thriller, for clues to how our own global disaster might play out. In the film, illness and death is on florid display: It begins with Gwyneth Paltrow foaming at the mouth beside her breakfast bar and concludes with Kate Winslet withering away in a kind of military-run corpse warehouse. What the film does not anticipate is that, while collectively bearing witness to the deaths of half a million Americans and counting, we would also experience the pandemic through a series of anesthetizing diversions. In “Contagion,” they don’t watch “Contagion” to pass the time.
At first, the internet was flooded with triumphs of the human spirit, like nurses in full personal protective equipment executing choreographed dances and doctors blaring Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin‘” as they wheeled recovered patients down the halls. Health care workers were cast as shamanic figures who could help lead us through the pandemic on both a medical level and a spiritual one.
But soon the mood shifted. Living through a pandemic was, unexpectedly, tedious. We started searching our feeds not for heroes but for clowns. In a shirtless Instagram video, the celebrity offspring Chet Hanks announced that Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson were infected. Nicholas Braun, cousin Greg on “Succession,” released a satirical charity single called “Antibodies (Do You Have The).” People started talking about the pandemic as if it were itself a television show; as the second wave hit last fall, they griped about the derivative writing on Covid Season 2.
Now the vaccine arrives as a kind of final plot twist. “Inject it directly into my veins” used to be a way of talking about a piece of culture we desperately wanted to consume, but now the inverse is happening: We are experiencing our vaccine injections as if they are coveted cultural products.
There are plenty of earnestly respectful vaccine selfies, where the inoculated person bares a shoulder and thanks science for their shot. But the array of vaccine brands, each with their own protocols and typical symptoms, has made room for them to be interpreted as an internet-wide personality test, with all the irrational identification of an astrological sign or a BuzzFeed quiz.
When a young TikToker called @idrinkurmilkshake winkingly identified herself as a member of the “Pfizer Gang,” she kicked off a joking rivalry that tore ebulliently through the internet. “Umm, only hot people get the Pfizer vaccine,” she said, smugly tucking a gleaming curl behind an ear. “If you got Moderna, then I don’t know what to tell you, queen.” In another popular video, @ellynmariemarsh appears on both ends of a phone conversation, playing Pfizer as a preening celebrity sipping bubbly from a flute while gabbing at her underrecognized frenemy Moderna.
It feels very American to convert our biggest brush with socialized medicine into a personal branding exercise rooted in the worship of pharmaceutical companies. The internet stanning of the Pfizer vaccine — “it sounds rich, decadent, luxury!” as one TikToker put it — has inspired concern over whether this elitist discourse could discourage acceptance of other brands, as Heather Schwedel detailed in Slate.
But that’s the joke — these vaccine performances are tinged with an edge of uber-capitalist sociopathy. Part of the commentary is how deeply our experience of the pandemic has been warped by the internet. When @idrinkurmilkshake uploaded her audio to the app so other users could lip-sync to her voice, she clarified her stance by titling the track “imjusykiddingyouareallhot.” In a follow-up video, she used a filter that gave her face the bloated look of extensive aesthetic dermatology, and played out an alternate reality where vaccines are distributed like wellness products. “Hey beauties, I just had to show this beautiful package from Pfizer, they sent me a beautiful set,” she purred. “Very effective against coronavirus,” she added. “Use my code, you can get 15 percent off.”
Vaccine content provides the inoculated with a sense of closure, even as infections continue to spread and herd immunity is out of reach. The vaccine rollout has also supplied content for an upside-down social media world, in which Covid skeptics, conspiracy theorists and antivax influencers run the show, and they are envisioning a very different kind of twist. In one TikTok video, a conservative influencer acts out dramatically refusing a vaccine, getting beaten to death for her insolence and ascending to heaven. The writers behind the vaccine show may be busy drafting their finale, but not everyone is tuning in.