Funny or Fucked Up? The Backlash Against “Florida Man”

"Florida Men" have long caused chaos in daily news and gone viral. Now people are trying to trademark the concept, too. But is this OK?

By Jessie Schiewe

Photo: Flickr/ DonkeyHotey

Photo: Flickr/DonkeyHotey

“Florida Man” has been busy these last few months.

He’s hidden in a dishwasher, broken into a house to eat egg rolls, attacked a mattress, wrangled an alligator, “belligerently” eaten pasta outside of an Olive Garden, and tried to pawn his own toddler.

Of course, “Florida Man” isn’t just one guy, but an amalgamation of people from the Sunshine State who have, for one reason or another, made the news for their bizarre antics.

News junkies may notice that some of the wackiest daily news stories seem to come from Florida. That’s partially because of the state’s liberal and transparent public records laws, known as “sunshine laws,” which allow reporters to unearth all manners of weird and unsettling tales. The joke behind it — aside from the crazy crimes themselves — is that the subjects aren’t reported on as individuals, but collapsed into a strange cliche. And since 2013, when the Florida Man concept became popular as a meme, internet denizens have treated each instance of Florida Man in the news as if he were a singular superhero — albeit one that’s absolutely terrible at his job.

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The @_FloridaMan Twitter account has been going strong for six years. Reddit has a massively popular forum dedicated to it, and aggregation news sites, like Fark.com, offer a “Florida” label for inane news stories. Earlier this year, a Florida Man Challenge circulated online, asking users to type in their birthdate and the phrase “Florida Man” to reveal what nutty news story came out on the day they were born. A Tampa-based brewery even released a Florida man IPA.

“I remember my first time seeing [the Reddit forum] /r/FloridaMan, scrolling down the front page and laughing uncontrollably, trying to explain to my skeptical girlfriend what was so funny,” wrote a Reddit user by the name of Diet_Coke.

With headlines like “Florida Man Arrested for Practicing Karate By Kicking Swans In the Head” and “Florida Man Broke Into House, Masturbated, Pooped On the Floor, And Then Drank The Contents of a Vacuum Cleaner,” it’s easy to forget that these aren’t some warped Marvel characters created by a stoned cartoonist with a wild imagination.

Now several groups and individuals are scrambling to trademark the idea. First is Ryan Davis, a California expat who lives in the Sunshine State, runs the news aggregator floridaman.com and sells merchandise on the site, including a $24.99 tank top that says, “Beware of Florida Man.” The television network Oxygen has also applied in anticipation of a new reality TV show called Florida Man. An unknown third party has turned in another application, too.

If one of their applications is approved, they’ll be able to impose all sorts of limitations on who can use the term and how. If Davis doesn’t get the trademark but someone else does, he could be forced to shut down his website, or at the very least have to stop selling his merch.

Trademarking a term is a hairy process, especially when you’re dealing with an abstract idea rather than a product or service. As a Largo-based trademark attorney told the Tampa Bay Times, “If it's a generic term that everyone uses — like escalator or elevator — those would not be able to be registered."Given the breadth and scope of the Florida Man concept, one could argue that it’s too broad and widespread for anyone to own.

There are certainly moral implications to making money off these individuals, or even reporting on them at all. Is it ethical to grab someone’s mugshot, report on it, or turn it into a meme? It depends on the subject. Often, these aren’t just funny, eccentric people, but those with addiction, financial trouble, and mental health issues.In 2017, the Orlando Sentinel declared “a mental illness epidemic” in Florida. A reported 660,000 adults and 181,000 children there live with serious psychological ailments including bipolar disorder, severe depression, or schizophrenia. In the recent past, Florida has provided a mere $37.28 per person annually for mental-health programs.

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Florida Men stories don’t just exist in a bubble. They live in the same world as you and I, use the same social media platforms, drive down the same streets, and shop at the same grocery stores. While a lot of them end up in jail, being exploited in this way puts them in another sort of prison.

“Having your face go viral on Facebook or in a tabloid paper is still tormenting,” journalist Adam Johnson wrote in an article for  Fair.org. “Not just with regard to employment, but dating, socializing, any interaction with someone who could potentially search online for you or come across a tabloid.”

When you consider all of this, the pathos behind the Florida man concept becomes more obvious. The naked Florida Man who broke into a restaurant to eat ramen may have been high, while the Florida Man who couldn’t afford two packs of beef jerky from a Walgreens and then hit a baby in the head may have had some serious health and financial issues.

Just remember that not everything is at it seems — and there are more honest glimpses into Florida Man than a mere meme.

 

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