If after watching Katy Perry’s new video clip “Swish Swish” you were left wondering who the woman starring in it was, well, you’re not alone — but you are also most definitely not Brazilian. In Brazil, Gretchen is a household name, and on the Brazilian internet, she reigns supreme as its “Meme Queen”. Nobody would expect Gretchen to go global — she seems too unique, too culturally specific, too…inexplicable.
So as a Brazilian living overseas, I experienced a moment of shock and confusion when I turned on my TV on July 5 and saw Gretchen on an Australian channel, as the presenters on a mainstream television morning chat show fumbled to make sense of her glorious moment in the shared spotlight of Katy Perry’s fame.
I’m a research student in the QUT Digital Media Research Centre, working with Jean Burgess and Stephen Harrington on a project about the role of internet memes in the changing culture of Brazil. In a nutshell, I try to explain why Brazilian memes are different from the other memes, how they express specific aspects of Brazilian culture, and why they matter. Gretchen is one of my case studies.
Maria Odete Brito de Miranda, a.k.a Gretchen, was a pop-singer and dancer in the 1970s and 1980s. Her songs (sung variously in English, French and Spanish) were a huge success at the time, selling more than 15 million records. She performed sexy dances moves, and soon became known as the “Rainha do Bumbum” (“The ‘Butt’ Queen”).
After this early success, though, she had a troubled career. During the 1990s, Gretchen briefly tried her hand as a Gospel singer, before experiencing a media blackout. Trying to get her popularity back, in the 2000s she starred in several porn movies, and shortly after that she decided to run as a mayor for a small town in Brazil.
From sexy singer to mayoral candidate, she became a bizarre figure in Brazilian pop culture. As years went by, she became more famous for her exaggerated quantity of plastic surgeries and marriages (she got married 17 times) than for her talent. In the past few years, Gretchen's appearance on TV was limited to very low rating shows. For example, she recently appeared on the reality TV show “A Fazenda” ("The farm"), which features D-list celebrities living together in a farm away from the outside world. Nowadays Gretchen also has a YouTube channel, but she was definitely away from the spotlight… until the internet embraced her.
The exact date when Gretchen's GIFs and images started to circulate on the internet as memes (images, videos, GIFs or texts which are created and replicated on the internet to argue points) is unknown. But around 2012, when Gretchen was participating of "The Farm", her scenes started to appear more and more frequently online.
Brazilian internet users started to appropriate and share footage of her, not only as memes about Gretchen herself, but also as a base for the creation of other memes, about different subjects. She became more than "just" a meme, her image became a character, a theme which could be use for almost any topic: Gretchen became a “meme canvas”.
Today, Brazil is the country with the fourth highest number of internet users . Brazil is very active on the internet, not only because of the number of users, but also because Brazilians have a very specific way of behaving online. Brazilians netizens like to "speak their own language" on the internet, and I'm not only talking about Brazilian-Portuguese, but also about their inside jokes and memes. Brazilians don't care if you don't understand their language and their jokes, they will talk to you — or Katy Perry, or Nicki Minaj — as if you were Brazilian.
So, as the Brazilian internet meets the English-speaking internet, things like this are starting to happen: The singer Nicki Minaj asked on Twitter if someone knew who Gretchen was, because lots of people were sending Gretchen’s GIFs to her. People all over the world started to recognise Gretchen's image, before even understanding who she was, and they started to react (not always kindly). And what happened when someone said bad things about Brazil on the internet? Well, Brazilians replied with worse things about their own country. The singer Azealia Banks called Brazilians “third world freaks”, so Brazilians started to report her account on Facebook. Trying to make them stop, she commented she didn’t know that Brazilian favelas had internet, and the answer was “Azealia Banks, here we have internet even in prison, honey”, in (informal) Portuguese.
Brazil is a complex and paradoxical nation, and so is its internet culture. John Perry Barlow described Brazil as a “big inside joke” and “the internet before the internet existed” because Brazilian netizens consider this platform perfect to express their opinions about the country and get together as a nation. As the Brazilian idiom says, “we laugh so we don’t cry”, so we transformed Brazilian problems into funny memes, as both a “relief laugh” and a cultural mirror.
This behaviour of making fun of Brazil's problems and culture is what makes Brazilian netizens (and their memes) unique. Brazilians sent Gretchen’s GIFs to Nicki Minaj to make fun of Brazilian popular culture, as they were ironically saying “don’t you know who Gretchen is? Everybody knows Gretchen!”, as Brazilian popular culture was “so good” that “everybody should know” (said with irony). Writing messages in Portuguese, sending Gretchen’s memes to “gringos” (a slang for “foreigners” in Brazilian-Portuguese) and making fun of our own problems means, at the same time, recognising ourselves as a nation and criticising our problems through humour.
So, this year Katy Perry was receiving so many Gretchen GIFs on the internet from mischievous Brazilian fans that she decided to find out who this woman was. In an interview for a Brazilian TV show Gretchen said: "when Katy Perry discovered the huge success I was in Brazil, she decided to invite me to star in her video". Gretchen wasn't completely wrong. Katy Perry herself explained why she chose Gretchen to be in her video: “She is amazing, she is iconic, she is the internet”:
According to Limor Shifman in her book “Memes in Digital Culture” there are a few characteristics which make content memetic — that is, prone to become a meme. Among them there is one which I believe is the main feature for Gretchen (the singer) to become Gretchen (Meme Queen): humour. Gretchen is a meme (or a “meme-canvas”) because her very existence and her ongoing persistence as a celebrity are funny.
Paradoxically, Brazilians mock and praise her. They make fun of how she sold millions of records without much in the way of musical talent, how people valued her just because of her body, and how she wants to keep being considered sexy and popular; but also praise her as the "Meme Queen", because she is a portrait of Brazil, a part of our cultural identity, and that is why Brazilians netizens share her memes with international celebrities. Brazilians do that because they are "proud of the oddness" of their country, because, at the end, Gretchen is only a product of a grotesque (but real) Brazil.
Gretchen is Brazil because her figure represents a "big inside joke" that is at once a self-criticism and bursting with pride. Gretchen is the Brazilian internet because her figure is grotesque, bizarre and unconventional just like that country’s distinctive internet culture.
So, we may not yet know how the international career of the "Meme Queen" is going to look after her star turn in Katy Perry’s video, or if she will truly become a “meme canvas” for the global internet, but now we do know how Gretchen conquered the Brazilian internet — and why the Brazilian internet is coming to a GIF near you.