Article Thumbnail

There’s No Wrong Way to Kill a Small Victorian Child

This time-bending meme opens up big questions about the arc of history

The most conventional thought experiment in time travel is probably the “Killing Hitler” scenario, in which you theoretically avert World War II by offing the would-be Führer before he and the Nazis come to power. After that, it’s usually a scheme we can think of as “Biffing It,” or accruing fabulous wealth by betting on sports events with known outcomes, as the antagonist Biff Tannen does in Back to the Future Part II. Next, you might use your machine to achieve a sexual union with yourself. But when you’ve accomplished all that, there’s just one thing left to try.

You must travel to the Victorian era and give a child a spoonful of Takis dust.

Measuring the arc of history through snacks is a concept that dates back to at least 2015, when The Onion’s Matthew Crowley speculated that for any peasant of the Middle Ages, a single Dorito would carry an inconceivable amount of nacho spice. Roughly the same idea popped up on Tumblr user jvlianbashir’s blog in 2019, only this time it was Flavor-Blasted Goldfish, and a taste was suggested to be lethal. I read these jokes as double-edged: We’re imagining life in the distant past as dreary and bland, but also mocking ourselves for gorging on unhealthy, processed garbage that our ancestors wouldn’t even regard as food. We have gone too far.  

In recent years, the theoretical peasant of this exercise has been replaced by a Victorian child — i.e., a child of the period spanning 1820 to 1914 — thanks to another Tumblr post, which was then plagiarized in a viral tweet. Following claims that Four Loko or Riverdale would be too much for 19th-century youngsters to survive, everyone began to chime in with more 21st-century mechanisms of annihilation. Proposals included a virtual-reality headset, the Transformers movies and any song by 100 gecs (as well as hyperpop in general). Again, the assumption seems to be that Victorian kids were sickly urchins of meager experience and therefore not made to withstand the assaultive culture or mass-produced novelties of our era. This attitude has escalated to the point where even a shitpost, if sufficiently overwhelming, unhinged or incoherent, prompts the question: What if you inflicted this upon a Victorian child?   

Throughout this trend, many have pointed out that the target selected is rather an odd choice. Children of the period in question worked in dangerous factories, fought to survive diseases like tuberculosis and typhoid and consumed everything from gin to arsenic. Those that made it to adolescence might be considered, if anything, hardier souls than most adults alive today.  

It’s a fair if pedantic criticism, though I believe it misses the point, which goes all the way back to the “medieval peasant eating a Dorito” setup. We aren’t asserting the weakness or vulnerability of these long-dead people, whose exact attributes are all but invisible to us anyway. The meme is a comment on how alienated we are by our own zeitgeist, the bewilderment at a world that we have a hand in making. It’s perfectly accurate that the “Posts To Show To a Small Victorian Child” gimmick account describes the content presented as “Images that make you feel like a small Victorian child.” It is we who cannot fathom contemporary reality; the youth of another age only signifies the distance between us and a sense of “normality.” It’s like taking stock of current events and ascribing their strangeness to a simulation run amok. Nothing to do but shrug at it.

On balance, let’s be grateful that time travel doesn’t exist and we aren’t sending tourists back 150 years to harass their great-great-great-great-great grandparents with TikTok videos. They had it hard enough without learning how fucked up the future would be. And how would you like it if someone from 2172 A.D. materialized in your apartment, demanding that you try a brightly colored mystery snack they expect to put you into a coma? Not so funny now, is it? Hell, you may not want a visit from a Victorian child, either.