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The feminist meme creator who is playfully subverting Instagram

Mar. 20, 2018
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@swoon_scream February 14, 2018

With 25,000 followers and counting, Gabriella, aka @swoon_scream,  has rose to popularity with her unique take on meme-making. Whether she is picking apart a familiar character in line at Whole Foods or exploring the eternal duality of existence, her memes reign with honesty and intention. I was immediately drawn to her page, finding a sense of solace in scrolling through her work during a vigorous semester. As a Gender and Women’s Studies major, I found @swoon_scream and other accounts similar to not only be therapeutic but also a valid source of research.

After scoring an internship in Los Angeles, I was compelled to interview Gabriella. I was set to leave my hometown of Kelowna, Canada for four months. After some back-and-forth DMs on Instagram, we made plans to meet at Deus Ex Machina on Venice & Lincoln Blvd. Functioning as a retail space, an event space, a cafe, and a hotspot for Los Angeles hotties, Gabriella suggested this location because, in her words, “hanging out at Deus made me want to make memes, honestly. There are all these hot specific people there... they don’t have vanilla lattes, but it’s great, it’s so much fun to people-watch.”

I arrive at the scene in a white pleated skirt and a sheer blouse and see Gabriella sitting alone in a thick wool sweater. The blazing sun is coupled with a harsh, chilly wind that steadily grazes the backyard-style outdoor cafe. This is considered cold for Los Angeles, freezing even. Gabriella greets me with a hug and a sweet, thrilling energy is present between both of us. Together we process the bizarre and exciting rush of meeting up with a stranger by way of Instagram, and our exchange is filled with laughs. I open up my laptop, causing me to automatically join forces with the assembly line of silver Apple laptops that line the communal table we all share. We get to talking.

How did you begin to create memes?  Was it more out of boredom or your own personal diary?

It was both. It’s kinda funny because where we’re at right now, like this café, was where I found inspiration to make the page. I lived down the street and would come here so often and there were so many specific caricatures of people, and I just wanted to poke fun at it. In LA, everyone is such a caricature of themselves, and it can be so entertaining. My first memes were about making fun of Los Angeles and mostly Venice. It was a lot of starter packs. Soon enough, I started getting really existential and personal. (laughs) I started discovering all those feminist, inclusive meme pages and thinking, “Wow, imagine if when I went to my explore page I wasn’t seeing negative memes about, like, cheating and being terrible.” Imagine if [Instagram] was just [feminist meme] pages and I could help contribute to that by making positive, thoughtful memes. I wanted to make positive content and make people feel good.

Based off of your memes, I gathered that you began this page as an outlet to discuss life in Los Angeles. You created content about Abbot Kinney, feeling overwhelmed by flavor testings at Salt and Straw, art collectives, and the Venice skatepark—among many other topics. I noticed this shift where you began discussing really personal topics about pain, relationships, vulnerability, and self-reflection. They remained funny and silly but seemed to get more intimate. Was this a conscious effort? Or did it gradually come about with time?

It happened pretty naturally. I would notice a pattern or get annoyed by something, open Photoshop, create a silly meme about it, post it, sit back, and see what would happen. I realized that through the medium of memes I could organize my observations, address my problems, and explore my obsessions in a way that felt light, humorous, and most importantly, accessible. My memes began as silly social commentaries then grew more existential, political, and personal. The pleasure of posting something highly specific to my experience and having strangers all around the world relate to it, or even completely disagree with it, was rewarding and insightful.  It felt like therapy and a social experiment at the same time. I loved the conversation. So, I just kept on.

I noticed that many of your memes grapple with your identity. How do you identify? How does your identity affect the way you create memes?
My father is a Brazilian immigrant from Goiania, and my mother was brought to Los Angeles from Vienna, Austria when she was sixteen. Growing up in a first-generation American household often made me feel disconnected from my predominantly white, upper-class peers at school, but this fact also forced me to be creative, independent, and resilient. There are parts of me that are so Americanized and parts of me that feel so true to my dad’s culture. I always feel like I’m on a seesaw between cultures, and the only way to not get dizzy is to embrace it all and not analyze it too much. This mindset has driven my entire life. As for the meme-making, I think this need to be inclusive and globally-minded drives the content I create. I try to look at things from all angles through a positive lens,  because I’ve always had to, and this tone is apparent in my memes.

Your memes are thoughtful . . . It seems like you don’t create solely to create but that you create with an intention. Is this true? And if so, what are your intentions and overarching goals with your memes?
It started out as just a playful, entertaining outlet and I believe it still is for me. I try to make sure all my memes are in a positive, somewhat constructive tone because I love offering solutions and positive affirmations for myself and others. My personal goal is to just express myself and have fun and see what happens. The goal for my audience . . . well, I hope they feel inspired. Or learn something. Or find ways to make light of their challenges the same way that I have through the meme medium. Oh, and most importantly, feel seen! One of the best feelings is when I share a personal issue or observation and get a sea of responses from people who go through the exact same thing. It’s so cosmic! Relating to people from all over the word and getting that validation. It’s incredible.

@swoon_scream September 6, 2017

I think your choice in anonymity was a smart move to protect yourself from potential harm that can arise on Instagram. Now, you have started to show your face. Could you tell me more about these choices?

I was anonymous for so long because I was skeptical of internet personas and didn’t want to get caught up in allowing my physical image to be a point of discussion. Only last week, after a year of anonymity, did I take off the ski mask. I wanted to explore the content 100% without having a face attached to it, which I felt made the content pure and lacking of identity. I was far more interested in sharing my innermost thoughts [than] my face. The abundance of people on Instagram posting photos of themselves doing the same exact poses over and over was just so damn boring to me, and I didn’t want to contribute to this echo of self-image. As the page grew, I naturally began to share more of myself. I would go live and just show my mouth or eyes. Someone would send me earrings and I would post my ear and hair. To show off a cute outfit, I’d snap a shot of my whole body cut off at the neck. I was like this little puzzle person. Eventually, everyone who knew me personally was aware it was me, and the anonymity was just a gimmick. Going off anonymous has been amazing—I’ve formed more relationships with real-life people, like meeting up with you for example, and it’s just easier and more exciting. Ski masks are hard to breathe in and pretty spooky anyways.
Is there anything you have learned from making memes?
Absolutely. Making memes has reminded me to make light of all of my problems. When life feels overwhelming, I can open Photoshop and make some silly caricature of it, then discuss it with the whole world, and it’s so healing. I also feel that I have finally found a way to enjoy social media the way it is meant to be enjoyed: [as] a platform for sharing ideas, learning, and relieving stress.
You also create paintings. Could you tell me about how memes fit into your creative practice?

Ah, yes. My painting style consists of many flat images, clean lines, and solid colors. The paintings end up appearing super graphic and similar to the aesthetic experience on the internet and on the screen. I have recently been playing with layering different images on one canvas, offering a similar feeling that one gets being online with multiple windows open, or arranging text and images. I use the same aids to make memes as I do paintings— I Google images to paste into Photoshop to make a meme. And for paintings, I will often plan paintings in Photoshop, and use Google Images for reference photos. I used to claim that my painting and meme work were different forces, but they are truly intertwined. As someone who has interacted with the internet since the age of six by way of Neopets and Barbie Dress-Up Games, the way in which I organize images and ideas is completely a result of existing in the digital age.

Could you tell me more about things you are looking forward to?

Something I wrote just got published in a magazine for the first time! I’m so excited to see something I wrote online [on the meme page] published [as] a tangible object. It’s called Muff Magazine, and it’s this brand new publication. Check it out. I’m also planning a group art show set for April that is highly influenced by my experience with the meme page and the internet in general. The show will be an exploration of the intangible connections made online and in daily life, an attempt to address everything that we can’t touch but still feels like it’s taking up space . . . an invisible physical form. You know? I’ve been scheming it for months. Yes. Wow. So excited for that. 

What would you like to send our readers off with?

We are so lucky to be alive right now, in the digital age, with all this information and images and opinions at our fingertips. You can look up an image of literally anything, and it pops up in seconds, like magic. You can plan an entire road trip from your phone and then bring it to life. You can open a TedTALK and listen to incredible people speak to you while you cook a meal for yourself with a recipe you got from some food blogger! We have all the tools we need to explore the fuck out of life and create endlessly. Use the internet as a positive tool to drive your life. Oh, and look at GOOD memes, too, and share good memes. Positive ones. Wholesome ones. Politically-correct ones. Laugh and feel lighter. Learn and feel good.

After our conversation, Gabriella invited me back to her place. She offered me green tea and corn tortilla quesadillas and showed me the work she’s been creating for her upcoming art show, set for April 2018 and entitled A Distant Castle with Your Name on It.
On my way out, Gabriella expressed concern over my mini skirt and bare legs in the harsh wind and handed me a pair of black high-waisted American Apparel skinny jeans. “I was getting rid of these, but they are in perfect condition. And they’re American Apparel! Nuts. Those stores all went out of business one by one. Now there is just that big warehouse downtown. So spooky. I love it. It’ll be so cool if they fit.”

The pants fit me perfectly.