How Feminist Memes Hit the Mainstream
Goth Shakira and Scariest Bug Ever talk about performing sadness and dealing with trolls.
Goth Shakira and Scariest Bug Ever are two of the most prolific and prominent feminist meme accounts on Instagram. With over 100,000 followers between them, they've pioneered a new, and oft-copied visual representation of humanity and womanity in 2016. Through hundreds of memes about everything from fuccbois and feminism to anxiety and depression, both Dre (Goth Shakira) and Binny (Scariest Bug Ever) are part of a group of North American (Dre is Canadian and Binny is from the US) artists redefining the way women talk about themselves online. And their reach goes well beyond social media, bringing the screenshots to gallery walls. As memes go mainstream, they're continuing to push the limits of the weird internet. In an effort to understand why feminist memes exploded over the past year, VICE asked them to interview each other [over Gchat] to talk about how they deal with their trolls and what it's like to perform your depression for tens of thousands of strangers.
Dre aka Goth Shakira: Was this the year the meme went mainstream?
Binny aka Scariest Bug Ever: Hmm.. I would say yes, but this has been happening for a while. I think it would be more accurate to say this was the year we all finally had to explain memes to our parents. Memes have been mainstream in subculture for a while, but now they act as advertising, political commentary and a substitute for actual news.
Dre: I agree. I would say that there's still an "insider" element to memes though. Although they're more visible and prevalent across many social media platforms, there's still a "weird internet" feel to them.
Binny: For sure.
Dre: Even if that feel has been rendered more and more palatable in 2016, it's still like, you have to have knowledge of certain meme formats and trends to understand a certain meme, to the point where there are memes being made about things like being able to send your crush a certain meme and having them "get it." Wow say "certain meme" again Dre...
Binny: It was kind of weird this year to see the proliferation of accounts that acted like ours, kind of like, adopted a certain style. I feel like when we started out, for example, the longform text you sometimes do at the top of a meme was kinda something unique to you, not saying it's necessarily bad to copy that format but like, now I feel like it's almost a staple of an "alt" meme account to put like a block of text. Memes are going through their trends, like anything does. It's strange to be included in that and imitated. It's flattering, weird.
Dre: I'm glad you brought that up, grappling with that has been one of the weirdest parts of the whole thing for me.
Binny: As my friend Howie said it, "I CAME TO SEE A MEME NOT A PROSAIC BUZZWORD FILLED ESSAY."
Dre: It was this meme style that I came up with and now at the end of 2016 there are scores of accounts that produce memes in that/my style, some of which have garnered tens of thousands of followers. And it's a format that I'm honestly tired of now. Yeah, I sort of feel like I've created a monster.
Binny: Me too, but probably exclusively because I (like many) am too lazy to read them. But I throw them a like anyways, lol.
Dre: But it's allowed women and femmes to share their personal experiences in cathartic ways so I am glad that there are people who have gleaned something positive from that. Yes, there was a time in 2016 where that format was fresh, but it isn't now, and that's okay. It just prompts us to be more creative.
Binny: Also agree, the process of making it is often much more beneficial than the actual response to it. It's less important how many likes it gets and more important to purge yourself of the secrecy of an experience you didn't know was shared. Like the ex-boyfriend memes I make are always uber-specific to people I've dated and then like 2000 people are like, "OMG THAT'S SO MY EX."
Dre: I know, it's such a strange phenomenon, but one that makes sense nonetheless. Either way the circulation of ideas and thoughts and words moves at hyperspeed on the internet, and this is just evidence of that. Relevancy comes fast and disappears fast.
Binny: Meme of the month.
Dre: It's how quick you as a content creator can adapt and innovate that matters.
Binny: Agree. I feel old AF making memes. Like, can I stop? But it's my diary now so I really can't stop.
Dre: I feel the same way. I'm turning 26 soon, going to be a meme admin in the latter half of my twenties. Bet my parents are wishing they used protection lol!!!!!!!!
Binny: Me too, Jesus. I used to think it was bleak, but it's nice to have a platform to spread info honestly. I wouldn't have gotten that with my visual art that's for goddamn sure.
Dre: It's bleak as hell but so is life. But I often find myself wondering… *Carrie Bradshaw voice.*
Dre: But for real, is performing bleakness in public online spaces really authentic? I can only speak for myself and I know that although my intentions are always oriented towards being Real(TM), that doesn't always happen. When you have that much of a followership you inevitably alter the way you portray yourself.
Binny: I often think about that tweet that once told me that I would soon tire of publicizing emotional vulnerability and only care about making my apartment nice. That tweet fucking haunts me.
Dre: That is indeed a haunted tweet. Perhaps we need to release and have our weird little time in the sun on Instagram.
Binny: The hive mind mentality of depression in 2016 is weird. You're weird if this year didn't like RUIN you or something. I feel like depression got trendier and more relatable. And everyone's like *hand clap emojis everywhere* STOP ROMANTICIZING MENTAL ILLNESSSS and for a while I was on that train but then I was like, wait a minute, humour is my healthiest coping mechanism, I need that tho. It's weird how depersonalized something gets when it's shared as opposed to when it's kept private. Nothing is private any more in my life after this shit. Like I get messages from followers like, "Hey! I know u have dry skin in the winter…"
Like what, you remembered that I have dry skin but my mom still calls me by my cat's name?
Dre: l o l
Binny: Whoops. I'm on a tangent
Dre: Tangents are good. It's very alienating when you meet strangers in real life and they genuinely think that they know you...
Binny: Agree. When we met IRL you were refreshingly diff than what I even imagined... Like not in a bad way, I was just like, oh, she is so open about all of these insecurities but IRL I can't see any of them based on the way you move through the world.
Dre: It's odd but how do you explain to someone that just because you may know my very intimate feelings about my relationship with my father doesn't mean you know who I am!
Binny: Right? Like I was like, I already knew what parts of her body she is insecure about but do I know her drink order at the rum bar? Now i know... lol. Oversharing can create a false sense of familiarity.
Dre: Yes, re: oversharing! It's an odd thing, vulnerability.
Binny: It's also trendy and be performative?
Dre: Dare I say that we might have made it trendy? And I don't know how I feel about that.
Binny: It comes in waves, stoic is trendy for like five years and then crying is trendy. Glad I am crying at a time when it's cute.
Dre: Ha! It makes me feel strange though.
Binny: I know, I'm totally minimizing. What do you think about vulnerability being a trend?
Dre: Like I wrote/made a lot of my long-form memes when I was going through depression. But I'm not anymore, and I'm really stoked on life, and have been for awhile. But sometimes I feel like, wow, am I just not Sad(TM) enough to be a cool internet girl/fulfill the qualifications of the role that I have somehow come to play?
Binny: Totally agree with this.
Dre: I'm very, VERY glad that femmes/women/non-gender conforming folk are becoming more vocal and emboldened to be vulnerable on the internet.
Binny: Me too for sure.
Dre: That is so important. But at the same time, it can be difficult to draw the line between performing vulnerability as a radical act of self-acceptance and visibility in a world that may marginalize you, and as just a way to seem cool/gain followers because it's trendy right now.
Binny: I agree. Sometimes with all the nuance involved the memes almost have LESS meaning in that regard. At least all the major meme accounts have blocked me, I wear that as a badge of honour.
Dre: The super-personal meme has its place, but there is a difference between vocalizations of one's experience (as a means to an end) and just straight-up over-indulgence and narcissism (as an end in and of itself.) LOL. I mean dude tbh I'm doing things purposely now to not gain more followers. The more people watching, the more careful I have to be and I want to feel free. That's what drew me to making memes in the first place.
Binny: tequilafunrise has super good memes re: narcissism and indulgence. I heavily relate to her and she has kind of an academic tone that resonates with the snobby binch side of me lmao. Do you remember when or why you started making them? Also I'm listening to Robyn Call Your Girlfirend rn and it's rly boosting me, you should sync up.
Binny: Ada.Wrong is an underappreciated genius I think.
Dre: Agreed. Want to see more of her.
Binny: Ada we summon you.
Dre: ALSO girlybullshitmemes has NOT gotten the credit she deserves imo.
Binny: TRUTH. Ok, so why did you start making memes? Because my reasons are super specific and trauma related and I'm wondering if that's common.
Dre: Well, I started making them because I was going through depression and had just gotten "broken up" with and felt like just some kid with a BA and a shitty job in a tiny apartment and was like, welp I have no ego anymore, I'm a loser and it's cool!!! It'll be funny to share this with my five pals and maybe they'll get it. And now we're here.
Binny: I got punched in the dang face by a stranger. I had never been physically attacked before. I ended up staying inside on my phone a LOT and it changed the way I spent time with myself.
Dre: That's horrific, I'm so sorry that happened to you.
Binny: It wasn't that bad in the grand scheme of things but it gave me some weird-ass PTSD that I've been working through and memes have helped a lot in terms of just externalizing my fears, even though they seem idiotic. People relating to certain elements of helplessness/anxiety has been, in a way, empowering.
Dre: Yes, yes all of the yes.
Binny: My therapist looks at my IG, LMAO.
Dre: Hey I mean... it would be weird if they didn't tbh. I'm glad your internet presence was able to help with that.
Binny: Honestly, a lot of my closest friends for a really long time HATED my memes. I understand why they're troubling, a lot of content about self-isolation.
Dre: Yeah dude, friends have gotten mad at me for being on my phone while out. Dudes have gotten mad at me about memes that may or may not have been about them.
Binny: Oof dudes. Can I even count the amount of times I've gotten the "please don't meme me " request from dudes? Cowering.
Dre: The fucked up thing is that they secretly want you to *rolling eyes emoji* Have you gotten sad art bois who fetishize you for your meme presence?
Binny: Almost exclusively. I think what might be worse is some dudes think that following me and you is an acceptable replacement for actual feminist labour / doing their part to disrupt patriarchal attitudes. It worries me that a lot of dudes stop at consuming content we promote and are like ... ALL GOOD! CURED OF INTERNALIZED MISOGYNY NOW!
Dre: YES OH YES. Say it again!
Binny: I want the memes to make you think but I don't want it to stop there. A lot of men who seem drawn to me really want me to explain feminism to them.
Dre: Man same. I'm like, I do a lot of explaining online already I feel and now you want me to do that in the context of a romantic/sexual relationship? Like I just wanna be able to relax around you. Can you just know already?
Binny: The emotional labour of memeing is kinda underplayed especially in the feminist meme community. You have to stay on top of your shit or else you get served a flamin' hot plate of SPICY DISCOURSE.
Dre: We just do our best and have this weird responsibility that we didn't ask for, but it is a responsibility nonetheless.
Binny: It is, yeah, it takes maintenance. My comments section is the ninth circle of hell.
Dre: Now THIS is a tasty question. What are the worst comments you've gotten, and how do you deal with them?
Binny: I like don't want to even address that one though. I feel like the trolls are strengthened.
I'm gonna choose to ignore that one. I think the healthiest practice I've developed is picking my battles. I could spend all day yelling at men's rights activists. I have to know how much I can handle.
Dre: Word! I respect that, setting boundaries.
Binny: When it comes down to it, people that are weak af are the ones that attack me. It makes me sad. I don't always fight back, I don't always ignore it . I do whatever I think is best at the time. My skin has been thickened from the experience for sure. How do you wanna answer that one?
Dre: That skin thickening, mmhmm, approaching pachydermal levels. Honestly I can count on one hand the amount of times I've engaged with negative commenters. My block game is extremely strong and I'm not about to put in more effort "fighting" someone.
Binny: Blocking is so nice.
Dre: Not gonna lie, sometimes people say things that hurt, but I'm able to keep an objective distance if I try hard enough, in 99 percent of cases blocking clears my skin up. Blocking ensures my period remains regular. Blocking will never leave me on seen.
Dre: I wanna say something nice about you and then i think we're good tbh.
Binny: Yay, I survived.
Dre: You did great. Said some v important things that I'm stoked for people to read.
Binny: I like that like it's just a normal convo but I'm also like *kermit hood* STRESS ABOUT IT.
Dre: I really appreciate you Binny, your strength, talent, and potential is so great. I also love how generous you are, and how you use your platform to support your friends and other artists on the come up.
Binny: Aw shit. I admire the heck out of you, not only because you are hot and talented and motivated and smell good, but also because of your willingness to help me understand me and overshare as much as me.
Dre: Bless you Bin.
Binny: Bless up, thine guy.