Kristen Cochrane—aka Instagram’s @ripannanicolesmith—has become Insta-famous for making feminist memes that star Paris Hilton. Here, we discuss why pink is powerful, why there’s no such thing as ‘low culture,’ and general meme enlightenment. By Karley Sciortino.
If you’re an active reader of this site then you’re familiar with Kristen Cochrane—aka Instagram’s @ripannanicolesmith—the Slutever writer and feminist meme-artiste. Kristen, 26, has become Insta-famous for combining the iconic faces of people like Spencer Pratt and Paris Hilton (who follows her by the way, and sometimes comments “loves it” under Kristen’s memes) with hilarious niche-academic references to critical theory by the likes of Spivak, Benjamin and Zizek—all in the name of “ontological crisis and chill.”
When Kristen’s not making meta feminist Marxist memes, she spends her energy being a graduate researcher at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, researching queer Latin American cinema, and also writing for places like Vice, Teen Vogue and Amuse/i-D. If you want to be able to intellectualize your pink sparkly iPhone case, then please read on.
Karley: So where does your Instagram sub-head “ontological crisis and chill” come from?
Kristen: The term “existential crisis” is just so overused, and people confuse existentialism with nihilism. The word ontology confused me for so long, because it’s the study of being, but I’m like “What do you mean the study of being? Being what?” Now I use it in a kind of tongue-in-cheek way for thoughts like: What is my purpose in life? As someone who writes about movies, am I useful to society?! Would I have been in the same position if I didn’t have kind, supportive parents? So it’s just an all-encompassing crisis of What am I in this world? I just grapple with questions of being and existence and then I chill. And that implies sex too, so grappling with what I am and then I have sex.
Nice. I remember once you came over to my apartment, and obviously most of the stuff in my house is pink—my sheets and blankets, my clothes, etc—and you said that’s “strategic essentialism.” I’ve always known that I overuse the color pink as a tongue-in-cheek embrace of femininity, but I’d never heard someone frame it in the way you did. Can you explain what the term “strategic essentialism” means?
It comes from a postcolonial theorist and scholar named Gayatri Spivak. It’s used in studies of race to talk about using essentialism as a way to create solidarity and then subvert negative stereotypes. So strategic essentialism could be the Black Power movement, or Black Lives Matter, because what is “black,” right? Essentialism is basically what causes racism, sexism, homophobia. So strategic essentialism is reclaiming an identity, and saying, “Maybe I am those things that you say I am, but those things are not bad.”
What does “strategic” mean in this case?
When you do something strategically, it’s calculated. For example, in the past, I might not have wanted a pink phone case because pink is associated with femininity and inferiority, and I’m trying to reject that connotation of negativity that surrounds femininity. But now I’m like, Fuck it—pink is power. It can be tongue-in-cheek, it can be sardonic or sarcastic, and we’re using it to dismantle narratives that have been imposed on us by people who have had more privilege and power. That’s why I made that Paris Hilton meme, where she’s in her pink car, in a pink dress—she’s probably subconsciously engaging in strategic essentialism. Other people might look at a super high-femme pink clad woman and say, “You’re aligning with the male gaze, and now you look stupid.” But it’s up to you to say, “No, I own this.”
The use of strategic essentialism is something that’s big right now with the fourth wave movement of feminism, right?
Yes, absolutely. Artists Petra Collins and Molly Soda, for example, use these pink pastel aesthetics and girly iconography in a subversive way. It’s really spreading everywhere. And there’s already resistance to it. A lot of female artists are like, “Hey, let’s be careful about how we’re portraying ourselves”—which is good. There always needs to be a critique to keep things in check, and to remind people why pink—for example—might have been previously rejected by feminists.
Last year I wrote an article about “bimbo feminism,” which is a term I made up to define my own approach to feminism, which dealt with a lot of these same issues and questions. It was about how, for years, I would basically dress like a slutty Barbie as this vague inside joke with myself, like: “Get it? I’m smart, but I’m dressed like bimbo.” It was about embracing an aesthetic that we’ve defined as being vapid or stupid, in a way that’s satirical, but also sort of not—like I genuinely love wearing pink PVC dresses.
Cyberfeminist artist Signe Pierce said that even in your writing there’s a strategic essentialism at work, because you have this dialectic, these two competing ideas—intellectual writing with an Elle Woods vernacular. I love that.
Totally, I call it “stupid smart.” This is a vernacular that Andy Warhol also fully embraced. Today, it seems that the use of colloquialisms and girl-speak in writing is increasingly popular—the writer can make an interesting and complex argument, while also sounding “girly” and like a product of her environment.
Yeah. I think that way of writing is really interesting because it bridges three intersecting notions: classism, ageism, and sexism. People often say that girls are stupid because of this dialect. It’s the same with different subtypes of bros. One time I was hanging out with these bros, and they were talking about betting and gambling and girls, and they basically has their own language. I was fascinated. People make fun of bros now, because they’re kind of like the male version of ditzy girls. But then there’s classism at work, because not everyone can speak at an academic level—it costs money to have the time to sit around and read, or to go to university. And then ageism, because when you’re at a certain age, you don’t have time to read everything new; you’re of a different generation.
You memes are very specific, with a lot of references to philosophy and social theory. But to the people who get the joke, they’re hysterical. But at the same time, most of your memes feature people who everyone knows, like Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton. Why them?
It kind of ties in with my program at university. I’m doing cultural studies, and British cultural studies started because people were sick of class divisions in the UK. They were saying, “Why is there even a notion of high culture versus low culture?”
Today, my friends and I will watch things like Legally Blonde, Charlie’s Angels, The Nanny, Absolutely Fabulous. But if you’re dating a guy, even if he’s the most hipster of alt men with long hair who speaks softly, he’ll be like, “Ugh, I don’t want to watch Legally Blonde!” not realizing that claims of ‘low culture’ are shrouded in classism, racism, sexism, and homophobia. I have grad student colleagues, and probably professors too, who love the Kardashians, and they’ll just kind of intellectualize and rationalize why they watch it. People are embarrassed to say they watch The Bachelor. But I’m like, Why would you be embarrassed?
Camille Paglia used to compare Real Housewives to Shakespeare, like “this is drama!” “This is fashion!” And it’s true.
Someone commented on one of my Kardashian memes and she was like, “Keeping Up With The Kardashians is the biggest tragicomedy,” or something. And I was like, that’s brilliant!
I definitely feel that memes communicate something very specific about the world, but that no other form of communication or language before them was able to. It’s democratizing. It’s just like this little moment where you realize that everyone has the same life. Like, “that moment when you open your phone and you can see all your 6 chins.”
Yeah. I made a meme about when a condom gets stuck inside of you but you don’t realize it and then it falls out the next day. I made a joke about it, and how it also happens to Abbi on Broad City. It’s so important, because if Broad City hadn’t shown that, or maybe if I hadn’t posted that meme, someone with a condom stuck inside her would have felt like she had to go to the ER.
Or she would have just felt like a trashbag slut, but instead she felt like a goddess in harmony with her sex-power feminist peers.