Words by Tania Peralta.
The evolution of meme culture on social media has given the creators behind such images, and the consumers that make them go viral, a new way to express some often rather dark aspects of everyday life. With memes, we can all have these “haha I feel like dying” moments with other people that feel the exact same way. It’s an easy way to showcase a version of ourselves that we otherwise would feel uncomfortable showing, or with one image, say the things we need to say without having to.
Though shared by many, these viral memes at some point were derived from a specific person’s experience, but with the luxury of online anonymity and the viral capacity of a good meme, they become experiences owned by pop culture, just like the many-times modified Arthur meme.
For Dre, the woman behind the Goth Shakira (@gothshakira) memes and editor for the Girl’s Club, these images have been an artistic way to heal from and express the dark moments she experiences offline. Her memes are primarily based off Jennifer Lopez and Selena Gomez facial expressions and reactions, and though they contain the quality of humor and relatable content necessary to go viral, they’re still very much a direct version of what makes up who she is.
TANIA PERALTA: What made you start creating your own memes?
GOTH SHAKIRA: It began when I started consuming really large quantities of memes. I was just obsessed with them. I loved how absurd and informal they could be and how there are no rules. There are certain conventions, of course, but it’s like people [meme makers] want to one up each other. So then it’s like, okay, I’m going to play off of this and that. I loved the sharing aspect of it. I loved the informal nature of it. I loved the freedom that comes with it, and I loved the accessibility, most of all.
At the time, I was unpacking a lot of stuff that had happened to me in my life. I was dealing with a lot of pain and that cold Montreal winter. It was somehow cathartic for me to turn my very real life and the dark things that I was going through into memes; it made it less serious and less scary. Memes made what I was going through less intimidating and it helped me laugh at myself too. I’ve always dealt with things by writing. I’ve kept a journal since I was a kid. Writing has always been how I process my emotions and doing that in a humorous way really resonated with me, and I found that I could be myself. It sounds so cheesy, but things would happen to me and I’d react with, “I’m gonna make a meme about it,” and it didn’t have to be perfect.
Memes made what I was going through less intimidating and it helped me laugh at myself too.
Do people in your real life look for themselves in your work?
Sometimes, yeah. Especially guys. I’ll get genuine text messages like, “hey, was that meme about me?” It’s really funny when I’m like “aw, it’s not about you,” but it’s even funnier when it is about them. I try to be sensitive, kind of, but at the same time, these are my experiences. I’d never use someone’s real name or slander somebody but I’ll definitely allude to it. I make memes about my girlfriends, my family, my friends, [and] guys that I’m dating. If you look at my Instagram for just 30 seconds you’ll realize that that’s what it is. You’ve been warned. My friends know that I love them, they trust me to be tactful in what I post. But it’s definitely been interesting and funny along the way.
Why did you choose the handle @gothshakira?
A few years ago, I wore a lot of black lipstick one summer. I went out with a friend one night and she said, “Wow, you look like a goth JLO on the weekends.” I thought it was so clever, so my Instagram handle was @gothjlo for a bit. Back in the day, that was also kind of my thing; I would change my handle often. I wanted to keep that going. When I got blonde highlights I was @gothsofiavergara and then I bleached my hair so I was @gothshakira. I did change it to other things a few times after that but when I started making memes and getting a bigger following, a friend of mine who works in social media suggested, “You should have a more concise theme since you’re building up your brand.” That’s when I decided that I should just be @gothshakira. It was funny and it was me.
What made you decide to use Selena Gomez and JLO as the base of the majority of your memes?
When I first started making memes, a lot of memes were using black people in images and reactions and I thought that’s cool if you’re a black person making a meme. But you know, how many of those people [creating the memes] are black? They’re a part of the meme community where you have your page, but you don’t show your face or show any details about your life, which [this approach] gives you the license to post whatever you want. I thought that was a little problematic, because if I’m making a meme about my life why would I post a photo of a black person? That seems disrespectful to me so I thought, I’ll just use a funny celebrity. Again, I’ve always had this joke among friends that I’m Yung JLO (or gothjlo), so I thought it would be funny if I used her. I started using JLO and Selena Gomez [in memes] because they’re really expressive and there’s a lot of photos of them. It then became my thing. I would love to be able to use more Shakira [photos] to be honest, but the level of expression and the range isn’t as there as it is with JLO and Selena.
Do you think it affected the mixture of people that resonate with your memes?
I think it’s a mix of people for sure, but I know that there are definitely a lot of Latinxs who follow me. I recently posted a meme about voting, the U.S. election, and how a lot of people who are undocumented and aren’t able to vote probably wish that they could because this election is going to decide a lot of things about immigration. A lot of people in the comments who were like, “Oh yeah, absolutely.” Every time I post something geared specifically towards Latinxs we all come out of the woodwork which is really awesome.
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While building the Goth Shakira brand is there a specific version of yourself you’re trying to create online?
It’s me. Goth Shakira combines various facets, but not all, of a real life person named Dre. Obviously, through social media you don’t see everything about my life, but it’s me. It’s a side of me. When I started making memes, they were so specific to my life that I thought it’d be dumb to pretend to be anonymous. It’s me and I’m not gonna try to hide. This is the only account I’ve ever had. When this first started, it was just my 200-something real life friends following me.
We are all not exactly who we appear to be online because it’s never the full story.
Did you think choosing Goth Shakira as your brand would go this far?
My intention was never to start a brand. This whole thing for me really stemmed from being really depressed during the winter, breaking up with someone, working at a shitty job, feeling like a loser, and just sitting in my studio apartment thinking about my life. It was supposed to be funny in a really dark kind of way. My intention was never to be this person. It’s really funny that people think I wanted to be internet famous because that’s such a common thing. A lot of people do want that, and that’s fine, but the ironic thing is that that has never been me.
I prefer to observe. I’m not the kind of person who’s a “performer,” but it’s kind of what I am now. Some days I love it, some days I hate it, and other days I get through it like anything else. We’ll see where it goes. I’m still surprised that so many people follow me.
What do the people in your life have to say about the version of you that exists online?
I think it depends on the person you’re talking to because I’ve talked to people who say, “You’re actually so much more gentle, calm, and more conservative in person than you are online.” That’s funny to me because it’s kind of true, but isn’t that the same for a lot people? I’m still trying to unpack it. I think we are all not exactly who we appear to be online because it’s never the full story. Goth Shakira is me. It’s a version of me, but it’s not the whole truth. It’s not the same as sitting down with me and having a full conversation; that experience is going to be different than reading my memes. I’m still figuring it out but I’ve always been a pretty open and honest person, so anyone can ask me anything. I’m not trying to be mysterious or keep secrets. This is me.
We don’t usually see the words “goth” and “Shakira” together. Is it symbolic to the person behind the account?
Another reason why I kept the Goth Shakira [handle], and why it resonated with me so much, is because I feel that it represented a lot of parts of who I actually am–Shakira being half Colombian, which I am, and her being from different places. “Goth” comes from the nature of my work which is dark and invasive. The elements of the two together are me.