Feminist Meme Queen @gothshakira

Discussing the Politics of the Image Macro

  • Interview: Olivia Whittick
  • Photography: Rebecca Storm
  • Text: Memes created by Goth Shakira

Generally speaking, memes troll the dominant culture. They inject themselves into pop-culture by corrupting and distorting the meaning of various cultural artifacts. At their core, they represent a form of comedic relief for the masses in the face of growing inequalities of power, baffling absurdities of modern life, and increased alienation in the internet-age. In 2016 the meme was co-opted by advertisers, corporations, and politicians, it was definitively the year the meme entered the political arena. Pepe the Frog was deemed a hate symbol, and memes played an integral part in U.S presidential election campaigns. Memes have been elevated from nerd fodder to a legitimate and powerful form of communication. Do memes possess a radical potential in their ability to strip pop-culture to its subtext? Maybe the everyman fights back through the meme, particularly in the case of @gothshakira, when her feminist memes exist to make fun of, and so disempower, patriarchy and its bag of tricks. @gothshakira discusses her exalted position as the so-called “High Priestess of Dank Memery,” offering her opinion on low culture and the political potential of the meme.

Olivia Whittick

Goth Shakira

Memes have sparked heated conversations in the last year, particularly revolving around appropriation, both in terms of online authorship/image ownership, and the reliance on appropriated African-American slang as a punchline. Are these issues you have come up against as a producer of memes? Do you work with long-form text as a response to the use of slang in meme culture?

I’ve tried to be really sensitive to that and cognizant of it. This meme culture was basically invented by African-American people. I’ve tried to be as accountable to myself as I possibly can. I’ve had to catch myself a lot of times being like, no I shouldn’t say this. A while back there was a piece about the gentrification of memes. It talked about that and basically alluded to what I do in a really intelligent and respectful way. I started doing long-form memes in the language of my education and in the language of the books I read and what goes through my head, but is that respectful, is that okay? I don’t have a concrete answer. I do the best I possibly can to make sure that I stay in my lane. We should all incorporate race and class and all these systems into our paradigms of thought. Nobody comes out of the womb perfectly socio-politically aware. We’re all learning, and an unfortunate part of a lot of social justice movements and maybe more liberal, left wing circles, especially online, is the culture of shaming.

Do you find a lot of people rip you off or recycle your images? And how do you feel about that?

I remember the first time I saw a meme that was made in my style. It was long-form and using the same idiosyncratic language I use, with some celebrity and an astrology reference. It was so obviously a rip off and at the time I got super in my feelings about it, and then I realized that is the nature of the format I’m working in. It’s predicated on the fact that you take a structure that’s not your own and you create your own content within it. You can’t control who steals what in terms of ideas, things move so fast on the internet. I put something out into the world and people are using it for their own purposes, some of which I love and some of which I’m not so into, but that’s the nature of it all.

What memes say about us is that nothing has changed, but maybe we’re learning how to manipulate low culture to serve different ends.

You see more and more meme producers and viral characters monetizing on their internet presence and becoming full-blown one-man brands. A few years ago when Instagram was just becoming popular I overheard a girl say “Followers are currency.” It stuck with me as being kind of a creepy idea but also seems to have become more and more undeniably true. “Internet persona” is pretty much a viable profession. Are followers a form of currency?

Followers are currency, and I don’t want them to be. I’ve seen first hand how people treat me differently now. I benefit from it, for sure, but it’s fake to me, it’s inauthentic. But I still have to eat. I still have to pay my bills. I still want a free YSL bag. I’m a human being. You just kind of have to navigate that terrain. My main group of girlfriends in New York, all of us have a lot of followers on Instagram and we talk about that a lot, how it’s weird having an online following, but at the same time how we benefit from it. It feels nice to have people acknowledge me that didn’t before, but I’ve become a lot more reclusive since this all started.

How did your interest in producing your own memes develop?

I was always super into memes, obsessed with memes, even proto-memes from the 2000s. When I moved to Montreal I went through a winter where I was really depressed and all I was doing was going to work, coming home, spending so much time on the internet, and smoking weed. When I was coming out of that fog I thought it would be funny if I made memes super specific to my life that my friends might laugh at. People started sharing them and it grew into this thing. Then I was like a meme factory, making like 3 memes a day, 6 days a week for a solid couple of months. Once I started getting more of an audience, I got freaked out and slowed down.

Your memes are almost always political in nature, centering around intersectional feminist politics, with reference to noted feminists like bell hooks, or otherwise functioning as critiques of unequal power dynamics. Do you believe there is revolutionary potential in memes? Is a meme capable of inciting change?

I think by virtue of the fact that memes are so accessible and so easily consumed, they are almost the perfect medium to transmit ideas. The challenge lies in how to do so in a humorous way that doesn’t devalue the seriousness of what you’re talking about, but also doesn’t alienate people who are just cruising a social media app. It’s a delicate balance, you want to say heavy things but in a way that doesn’t put people off. I believe memes can change thoughts, they can change ideas. But it lies with the consumer, and how are they going to translate that—and everything else they consume media-wise on a daily basis—into real life action. I don’t think that internet activism is enough. Everybody has the prerogative to translate their beliefs into everyday action. People have asked if I am an activist, and in real life I’m not at a protest every week, and maybe I should be.

I think by virtue of the fact that memes are so accessible and so easily consumed, they are almost the perfect medium to transmit ideas.

What do you think the popularity of memes says about our cultural location?

I think that memes are an example of low culture, things people consume just to laugh. Why do we watch MTV, why do some people obsess over the Kardashians? To me it says nothing is new. Back in the day when people went to consume Vaudeville shows, it’s entertainment, theoretically it’s not supposed to be profound. It’s not like you’re reading Moby Dick or going to the opera. What’s fascinating to me about memes, and what I’ve tried to do when I produce them, is turn that on its head by taking a format that people don’t think is going to be meaningful and using it to say meaningful things. What memes say about us is that nothing has changed, but maybe we’re learning how to manipulate low culture to serve different ends.

George Orwell wrote an essay on humor, saying “A thing is funny when it upsets the established order. Every joke is a tiny revolution. If you had to define humor in a single phrase, you might define it as dignity sitting on a tin-tack.” This reminds me of your work for two reasons, firstly because your memes often hinge on a critique of systemic oppression and secondly, because your work involves a comedic tension between self-love and self-deprecation. You are dignity sitting on a tin-tack.

I think that tension is indicative of the way that I relate to myself. A common theme in my life is towing the line between narcissism and self-deprecation, because at the end of the day I don’t have a solid grasp on who I am or how people view me. I’m my own muse. I’m the subject that I find the most fascinating. I haven’t figured myself out, and I still don’t know if the shit I put out is good. When I started making memes, that tension naturally came out of me because it’s a fundamental part of who I am. When I started talking about it I realized that so many people, especially women, were having these sorts of emotions and thoughts and it was cathartic to me to be able to express those things and have an online community of people being like, me too.

Is there a difficulty in finding a balance between being critical and making a joke out of something, and making light of a subject or experience that’s really serious or political in nature?

It’s a hard line to tow. We all process traumatic experiences, negative experiences, positive experiences, all of them, in different ways. Sometimes I have to be really careful. I think I try to stay away from speaking on any experiences that aren’t mine, and that’s how I’ve been able to stay afloat, all my deeply personal memes are just that. They’re about only things that I’ve been through and that’s why for me the very ultra-specific format felt natural. I’m not trying to tell anybody how they should feel or what their experience was, and I’m not the kind of person who makes fun of other people a lot. I’ve talked to a lot of friends that I have who also have big online followings, and the common grievance is that you have to be so careful. It’s a responsibility, one comment can ruin your life in an era where doxing is a thing and hacking is a thing, where tarnishing your name in certain online communities can be the end of your career. When your online presence is tied to how you make money, it becomes very complex.

  • Interview: Olivia Whittick
  • Photography: Rebecca Storm
  • Text: Memes created by Goth Shakira