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Married to the game, devoted to the memes

gothshakira discusses memes, friends, intersectionality, and being a double Aquarius

Sporting a baby pink top bun that matches her sweatpants, gothshakira exclaims, “I love it!” as she steps into the apartment where our interview will take place. “So cute and cozy.” She lounges on the couch while discussing creating Girl’s Club, a blog that arose out of a need for women and femmes of colour to own creative spaces. In other equally impassioned moments, she delivers an in-depth analysis of the rivalry between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump based on their astrological birth charts.

gothshakira is best known on Instagram for “intersectional feminist meme-making,” a description that publications and fans alike have coined to try and encapsulate her work. What began as a self care practice during a challenging Montreal winter evolved into a semi-career, with over 36,000 Instagram followers as of this writing. Initially an attempt to process her vulnerabilities through laughter, her memes gained traction as they connected and represented marginalized voices. As a nonbinary person of colour, gothshakira’s memes represent a new wave of “internet activism.” They create dialogue around the nuanced nature of identities – the ways in which they are shaped by history, personal experiences, and perceptions of others – in an easily consumable way.

Memes, by definition, are shared content; they exist to be reproduced, reacted to, and altered in online communities. Thus, they can be studied as a way to gain insight into the politics of the communities in which they circulate. For instance, in the recent U.S. presidential elections, candidates from both parties have tried to capitalize on the viral power of memes, leading to Hillary Clinton declaring Pepe the Frog a hate symbol due to its appropriation by Trump supporters. For gothshakira, meme-making reconstructs the complexities and contradictions of society in a format that is accessible and allows for dialogue. Her large following shows just how influential these seemingly innocuous images can be. She regularly receives private messages of gratitude from people who see their identities and experiences validated through her memes.

However, her work is not without controversy. This June, gothshakira came under fire for a photo published in the Fader that showed her with blonde hair and pale skin. The accompanying article hailed her as “The High Priestess of Intersectional Feminist Memes.” Black feminists on social media took issue with the fact that a white-passing, middle-class content creator – was being idolized as a trailblazer, while Black people have been making politically conscious memes “way before” gothshakira came along.
gothshakira emphasizes that she is proud of being Latinx and a child of immigrants, but acknowledges that those aspects of her identity are complicated by her privileges. Growing up, she saw her father, speaking English in a thick accent, deal with racist violence. Witnessing how immigrants are othered and punished is a key motivator for her anti-oppressive politics.

Critical self-reflection is difficult, but it is necessarily involved in understanding the power imbalances woven into the framework of society. gothshakira creates a shared sense of belonging among marginalized communities, while highlighting the complexities within one’s personal experience. Her memes evoke learning and healing – for not only herself, but also the wider community.

The McGill Daily (MD): What is it like being a “double Aquarius” [having both Sun and Moon signs as Aquarius]?
gothshakira (GS): Being a “double Aquarius” means that I vacillate between being a robot with no emotions and being really passionate about the world. Although Aquarians may have difficulty relating to people emotionally on a one-on-one basis, we find it very easy to be emotionally attached to causes, and bring up the underdog, and give people voices. But we are very eccentric – the weirdo sign. There’s a joke that says that if aliens ever came to earth, the first people we should thrust at them would be Aquarians, because they’d know how to communicate with them.

MD: Do you consider your work a form of activism?
GS: That’s a good question. I’m not sure. I would call myself an “internet activist” but when that goes through my head I begin to think, is that a thing? Is there activism on the internet? Is it activism if it’s not done in real life? But, at the end of the day, at a time when more parts of our existence are lived through the internet, what is real life? Is what’s happening on the internet not “real life?” I don’t know what I would label myself at this point, and a lot of my interests coincide with those of activists, and I do participate in acts of activism in my life, but I’m still not sure.

MD: Are you involved in any other artistic projects?
GS: I’m involved with quite a few creative projects right now. I’ve been doing commissions for galleries and events, and I’ve just started branching out into digital art. I did a piece, that’s not a meme, for a book that’s curated by Molly Soda. The book is coming out in November, and I’m really excited about that. But I’ve always been a writer, and I’m working on some pieces for different publications right now, and that’s kind of what I want to branch out into. But I mean, I love memes and I love making them. I’m not making as many as I did before because I have a lot of stuff on my plate, but I think I’ll always love memes, you know! “I’m married to the game,” as a great philosopher once said.

MD: Do you find that there are differences between these different platforms you mentioned – your writing, your memes – with regards to how they facilitate discussions on intersectionality?
GS: The main thing about memes is that they’re accessible, and that’s what attracted me in the first place. The reason I started introducing more complex ideas like intersectionality is because I thought I should use this platform to say something productive about what I believe, the way I’ve thought for a really long time, and the reality of my lived experiences. It wasn’t super intentional. “Intersectional feminist memes” was kind of a label that other people put on me. I was just making memes about my life and what I’ve been through as a person who’s identified as a woman, as non-binary, as a child of immigrants, as Latina.

“I don’t know what I would label myself at this point, and a lot of my interests coincide with those of activists, and I do participate in acts of activism in my life, but I’m still not sure.”

— gothshakira

MD: You’ve talked about representation of people of colour in memes before. Can you elaborate on the complexities of this kind of representation?
GS: It’s always been really close to my heart to represent the voices of people who aren’t otherwise heard, because I’ve felt like that person at a lot of points in my life. I know that I am white-passing, and I know that I have privileges that a lot of people don’t have, like how I speak English fluently with no accent. My dad doesn’t. He has experienced so much discrimination over the years, and I saw that from a really young age. I try to only speak for myself and my experiences, because I’m not trying to claim that I know anything about the experiences of other people of colour. I have come under fire for being privileged. There’s a lot of critique about this one press photo in which I happen to be blonde, and I looked very pale because of the photo editing, and there was a lot of dialogue on the internet about it. People were saying, is it okay that this person is being called an intersectional feminist meme creator, when a lot of Black people have been making political, intersectional memes for a really long time.

MD: You’ve made memes before about being white-passing and middle-class, and having friends with similar identities. How do you navigate your positionality?
GS: I grew up in Calgary, which is predominantly white. A few years ago, a lot of my friends were people who grew up in smaller cities and moved to big cities like Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto. We were all kind of into the same thing, and our social circles were white in a lot of ways. It’s been difficult learning to critique different aspects of this culture, which are things that I’ve seen my entire life: marginalization of people of colour in different communities, as well as women in creative spaces. That’s why we created Girl’s Club. It’s really difficult trying to critique these things in a way that’s funny, but not slanderous – but still incisive and still constitutes social commentary. I just feel like, if nobody says it, I gotta say it. When I first moved here two or three years ago, I was like “the new kid” and I did feel a very cold front, like I wasn’t cool enough. But now, since I’ve somehow gained this big Instagram following, and most of the people in these communities are down with what I’m saying, I’ve found that people’s attitudes towards me have changed, and that’s really unfortunate. But that just goes to show that what I say is important if it’s my personal lived experience, and I see that people like me have gone through the same feelings of being an outcast, and I do it for them. I do it for us. We deserve to be heard, right? We deserve to be heard in creative spaces as artists as POC, as women, as non-gender conforming individuals.

MD: A lot of your memes address dating in Montreal. What is the dating scene like, in your experience?
GS: A lot of those memes were about experiences I had from 2013 to 2015. I was a lot younger then and was going through a lot of partners – both lovely and questionable ones – and I was noticing certain trends. I don’t know if there’s a definitive dating scene. I don’t date a lot anymore. I’m pretty introverted and have become even more reclusive since the Instagram thing happened. This sounds weird coming out of my mouth, but people will actually want to fuck you just because you have a lot of Instagram followers. It’s really weird, and it makes me suspicious of everyone’s intentions now. I used to be a lot more free-spirited because I was allowed to be, but now I feel like there’s something I have to protect, so that’s a little sad. Sometimes I wish I could be as free and gloriously slutty as I used to be.

MD: Have you learned to care for yourself through Instagram?
GS: When I started making memes, I was going through a really rough winter and was feeling like a loser in a lot of ways. I realized I had a lot of self loathing that I needed to work through and I figured – well, that my tactic was always to laugh at myself – and I love memes. I think they’re hilarious. I love the absurdity of them. I figured that If I were to write all my feelings in this relatively innocuous format then I’d be able to see myself more as who I actually am – someone who is strong and beautiful and powerful, and that’s exactly what has happened. Every day I’m learning to love myself more and take care of myself more. I’m also really getting into cooking for myself more, and I’m not really a big cooking person. But I’m really getting into the ritual of preparing a meal and nourishing my body. And letting myself feel things.

“It’s always been really close to my heart to represent the voices of people who aren’t otherwise heard, because I’ve felt like that person at a lot of points in my life.”

— gothshakira

MD: You’ve mentioned the kind of stages that you’ve gone through. What stage would you say you’re at right now?
GS: “Ethnic aunt!” When I first moved here, I was in my early 20s and I was still a kid. Now, I just feel like I’m slowly coming to this stage of my life where I’m like: “I wear loose pants, and cook to Erykah Badu, and I found that I’ve accumulated children.” I always happen upon people who are like 18, 19, 20, who’ve just moved to Montreal. They’ve started to call me “mom,” or “auntie,” which I think is really cute. There’s so many amazing, young, artists of colour who are just killing it! I feel like I’m transitioning into a more mothering, nurturing role which is really new to me but really exciting. Though I still try to live life like a teenage girl, which I think is the secret to life.

“I see that people like me have gone through the same feelings of being an outcast, and I do it for them.”

— gothshakira

MD: Memes are supposed to be silly but have become increasingly politicized. Can we analyze them in a serious way?
GS: I think that’s what’s most important and powerful about memes. They’re pretty light in a lot of ways, but there’s always some social commentary within them. I do think that memes should be open to analysis, just like pop lyrics should be open to analysis, just like the Kardashians should be open to discursive interpretation. These fast things that we consume for immediate gratification – they constitute a big part of what entertains us. And the lowest common denominator of what entertains the generation – that, I believe, is indicative of the culture as a whole. In that sense, if a meme can make people discuss, “hey, how are we portraying certain communities of people?” then that’s incredible. And in that case, I’m so happy to be alive in 2016.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.