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If You Want To Understand Brazil, You Should Check out Its Memes

The “confused” lady above is one of Brazil's well-known memes. She was actually a character from a 2004 soap opera who kidnapped a baby and killed some people who got in her way | Image: Twitter/Reproduction.

You have probably already stumbled upon a Brazilian meme on one of your internet searches and didn't even know it. Do you know the one with the confused blonde lady with complicated formulas in the background? That's a Brazilian meme.

Brazil ranks as the fourth country with the highest number of internet users in the world. Portuguese is Brazil's only official language and the majority of its population do not speak English. While most of the internet is decidedly anglophone, Brazilians have carved out a large Portuguese-speaking digital territory of their own. And they mainly use it to speak on their own terms — which means, a lot of memes.

The truth is, in order to understand anything about Brazil in 2017, from soap operas and daily news, to politics and the economy, you must take a look at its memes.

Brazil takes its memes so seriously that the country launched the 1st Meme World War against Portugal in 2016, after finding out that a Portuguese Twitter user had appropriated a dearly loved meme.

Even though memes from any culture can be difficult to explain to outsiders, Brazilian researcher Gabriela Lunardi embraced the challenge. She is a research student at QUT Digital Media Research Centre in Australia and is currently working on a project that, as she explains, “tries to understand why Brazilian memes are different from other memes, how they express specific aspects of Brazilian culture, and why they matter.”

“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 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”, Gabriela says in an essay about former Brazilian singer and dancer Gretchen — aka the queen of memes, in Brazil — who recently starred in Katy Perry's Swish, swish lyric video.

We talked to Gabriela to understand “why Brazil's memes matter”.

Global Voices: Why have you decided to study memes in your dissertation?

Gabriela: Meu TCC na graduação foi sobre o canal de YouTube Porta dos Fundos. Eu amei estudar sobre a internet brasileira, então quis investigar mais a fundo a relação entre humor e cultura brasileira online. Sempre achei os memes brasileiros maravilhosos. Eles dizem muito sobre o Brasil, e isso ficou ainda mais claro vim para a Austrália e vi que os australianos tinham um humor completamente diferente do nosso e não entendiam nossos memes.

Gabriela: My final paper for my undergrad studies was about a YouTube channel called “Porta dos Fundos” [“Backdoor”, a Brazilian comedy-sketch channel]. I loved studying the Brazilian internet, so I’ve decided to go deeper into the relationship between humor and online Brazilian culture. I’ve always thought that Brazilian memes were wonderful. They say so much about Brazil, and this became even clearer after I moved to Australia and found out that Australians have a completely different sense of humor and had trouble understanding ours.

GV: How do Brazilian memes differ from other countries’ memes?

Gabriela: Cada país ou região tem memes diferentes, que refletem suas culturas. Os memes brasileiros retratam quem é o brasileiro e como ele lida com a cultura popular, política, e realidade social. Eles são incrivelmente difíceis de entender para quem vê de fora porque temos esse aspecto único que é falar dos nossos problemas através do humor. Uma frase que eu gosto muito de falar para quem não é brasileiro é que “nós rimos pra não chorar”, porque acho que ela descreve perfeitamente esse nosso jeito singular de fazer humor.

Gabriela: Each country or region has different memes that reflect their own culture. Brazilian memes portray the Brazilian people and how we deal with popular culture, politics and social reality. They are amazingly difficult to understand, for those seeing them from the outside, because we have this unique way of talking about our problems through humor. A saying that I really like to mention to those who are not Brazilian is that “we laugh so we don’t cry”. I think it perfectly describes our unique way of making humor.

Cuca is an anthropomorphic alligator villain from the Brazilian children’s television show Sitio do Picapau Amarelo. In 2017, GIFs of the alligator were circulated on Twitter, with some claiming she had replaced The Babadook as the new “gay icon.”

GV: How do you describe this unique Brazilian language?

Gabriela: Auto-ironia. Ao mesmo tempo que criticamos os nossos problemas como país e o nosso comportamento como sociedade, fazemos humor, como se rir fosse a única alternativa diante daquela realidade. Os nossos memes se apresentam como genuinamente brasileiros porque são paradoxais e complexos, como a nossa cultura. Quando rimos do Brasil é como se, ao mesmo tempo, a gente sentisse vergonha e orgulho de ser brasileiro.

Gabriela: Self-irony. While we criticize our problems as a country and our behavior as a society, we also make fun out of it, as if laughing were the only way to face such a reality. Our memes present themselves as genuinely Brazilian because they are paradoxical and complex, just like our own culture. When we laugh at Brazil’s expense, it is as if we were both ashamed and proud of being Brazilian.

GV: What are the challenges of translating Brazil’s memes to other contexts?

Gabriela: Um dos meus maiores desafios foi tentar “traduzir” nossos memes culturalmente. A grande dificuldade é que existem memes que só fazem sentido se você é brasileiro – e esses eram os que mais me interessavam. Então na minha tese eu resgatei um pouco da história do Brasil e tentei explicar um pouco da nossa cultura, antes mesmo de tentar explicar nossos memes. Eu também tentei achar comparações com a cultura australiana e optei por descartar aqueles que eram muito culturalmente específicos.

Gabriela: One of my greatest challenges was to try to “translate” our memes culturally. The biggest difficulty is that some memes only make sense if you are Brazilian – and those were the most interesting to me. So, in my dissertation, I delved into a little bit of Brazil’s history and tried to explain our culture before trying to explain our memes. I’ve also tried to find comparisons with Australian culture and chose to discard those that were too culturally specific.

GV: How did Brazil's meme culture begin?

Gabriela: Não há registros oficiais sobre “o primeiro meme de internet no Brasil”. Na verdade, não há um consenso na Academia sobre quando a palavra “meme” começou a ser efetivamente usada na internet, de modo geral. Originalmente, essa palavra vem da teoria do biólogo Richard Dawkins, de 1976, onde ele define “meme” como a transferência de ideias de pessoa para pessoa através da repetição. Na internet, um meme seria uma ideia, frase, imagem ou vídeo que vai se repetindo e se transformando. Por isso, muito antes da internet o Brasil já produzia memes, como cantigas de roda que foram se transformando através do tempo, ou bordões de novelas que foram usados em outros contextos, por exemplo. Um dos primeiros memes brasileiros na internet de grande sucesso foi o vídeo “Tapa na Pantera”, de 2006, que ganhou paródias, versão em funk e trechos do vídeo viraram bordões.

Gabriela: There are no official records of “Brazil’s first internet meme”. Actually, scholars do not have a general consensus for when the word “meme” began to be used on the web. Originally, this word comes from a 1976 theory by biologist Richard Dawkins in which he defines “meme” as a transference of ideas from person to person, through repetition. On the internet, a meme is an idea, phrase, image or video that keeps repeating and changing itself. That's why Brazil was already a meme producer way before the internet, with popular rhymes that kept changing over time or catch phrases from soap operas that are used in real life in different contexts. One of the first successful Brazilian memes online was “Tapa na Pantera” [“slap on the panther”, meaning taking a hit off a joint], from 2006, that had several parodies, a funk version and excerpts that turned into punch lines.

GV: How do memes drive change in the overall Brazilian culture?

Gabriela: Os memes estão nos ajudando a construir a nossa identidade cultural, que é extremamente complexa e abstrata. Os memes que ironizam os escândalos políticos dos últimos anos, por exemplo, ilustram a forma como o brasileiro encara os problemas do país e suas visões políticas. Quando “rimos da desgraça” estamos nos expressando de uma forma extremamente brasileira. Esse jeito de encarar os problemas pode não ser de hoje, mas a comunicação em rede consegue transformá-lo em um retrato da cultura brasileira, como se determinada linguagem, uso do humor e comportamento determinasse o que é ser brasileiro na internet. Isso faz com que os internautas brasileiros se vejam como pertencentes a uma mesma cultura, por mais que seja composta por diferentes visões políticas e sociais.

Gabriela: Memes are helping us build our cultural identity, which is extremely complex and abstract. Memes that satirize political scandals of the past few years illustrate how Brazilians face their country’s problems and their own political views. When “we laugh at the disgrace”, we are expressing ourselves in the most Brazilian way possible. This way of facing problems may not be new, but network communication can turn it into a portrait of Brazilian reality. It's as if specific language, use of humor and behaviour define what it is to be a Brazilian on the internet. This also makes Brazilian internet users recognize themselves as being part of the same culture, no matter how different their political and social opinions are.

GV: In your article about Gretchen, you mentioned how some international pop stars have embraced Brazilian memes. Is this common to observe with other countries’ memes or are Brazilians are masters of the internet I’m-messing-with-you kind of thing?

Gabriela: O Brasil está ganhando espaço na internet, sim. Hoje, somos o quarto país com maior presença online e, mais do que ter um alto número de usuários, nós somos MUITO ativos online, principalmente nas redes sociais. Há, inegavelmente, um orgulho dos memes nacionais por parte dos internautas brasileiros, que fazem questão de compartilhá-los com os “gringos”, atitude que também faz parte da construção da identidade cultural que citei anteriormente. Cada vez mais os brasileiros estão sendo vistos como parte de uma internet intensamente dominada pelos EUA. Isso acontece principalmente quando memes brasileiros são “validados” pela cultura norte-americana, como foi o caso da presença da Gretchen no videoclipe da Katy Perry.

Gabriela: Yes, Brazil is conquering more space online. Today, we are the fourth country in the world with the largest online presence and — more than having a high number of users — we are VERY active online, especially in social media. Our memes are, undoubtedly, a source of national pride. Brazilians insist on sharing them with the “gringos” (slang for foreigners), an attitude that is also part of our cultural identity. Brazilians are increasingly being perceived as part of an internet that is intensely dominated by the United States. This happens, mainly, when Brazilian memes are validated by US culture, such as the case with Gretchen performing in the Katy Perry music video.

 

This is a scene from early 2000s Brazilian soap opera Mulheres Apaixonadas, where actress Vera Holtz played a school teacher struggling with alcoholism. Holtz’ soap opera characters are a popular source of memes in Brazil, and she herself has become an online cult figure for her surrealist/nonsense self-portraits of her social media accounts.

GV: If you could define Brazil with one meme, which one would you choose?

Gabriela: Missão impossível! Acho que nem se eu fizesse um catálogo de memes eu conseguiria definir esse país tão único e complexo. Mas existe um comentário (não um meme especificamente) que eu acho que diz muito sobre como usamos o humor para criticar os problemas brasileiros ao mesmo tempo em que construímos nossa identidade cultural. Acho que ele representa muito bem esse paradoxo de termos vergonha e orgulho do Brasil ao mesmo tempo, algo que está no DNA dos nossos memes. Estou falando da resposta de uma internauta à cantora Azealia Banks que, incomodada com o bombardeio de comentários em português recebidos após criticar o Brasil, disse: “eu não sabia que tinha internet na favela”. A resposta da Débora não poderia ser mais brasileira, e por isso gosto muito dessa imagem:

Gabriela: Mission impossible! Not even if I organize a meme catalog, would I be able to define such a unique and complex country. But there is a comment (not a meme specifically) that I think says a lot about how we use humor to criticize Brazilian issues while, at the same time, building our cultural identity. I think it perfectly shows this paradox of having shame and pride at the same time, something that is in our meme  DNA. It’s the reply of a Brazilian girl to Azealia Banks, who was so annoyed by the bombing of replies in Portuguese she received after criticizing Brazil. Azealia wrote: “I didn’t know they had internet in the favela”. Débora’s answer couldn’t have been more Brazilian than this.

Singer Azaelia Banks got into a fight with Brazilians on Facebook (and allegedly had her account suspended) after calling them “third world freaks”. This was Débora Oliveira's reply: “Here we have internet even in prison, my love”. Image: screenshot

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