All Your Meme Are Belong To Us

Megan Figueroa: Hi and welcome to the Vocal Fries podcast, the podcast about linguistic discrimination.

Carrie Gillon: I’m Carrie Gillon.

Megan Figueroa: And I’m Megan Figueroa and I’m upright and happy to be doing an intro.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah.

Megan Figueroa: I’ve been so sick. It’s like my immune system wasn’t ready because I’ve been like, you know, it’s usually I’d be like touching dirty things all the time out in the world, but,

Carrie Gillon: and breathing in lots of air.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah. And lots of air you know, from my fellow disgusting human beings. And yeah. So, I might be a little bit hoarse.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah, a little bit.

You’re a little hoarse, but you’re not that bad, actually. I was expecting you to be worse. Yeah. Anyway, you were going to tell me something.

Megan Figueroa: I was-

Carrie Gillon: -Oh, I know. Surnames.

Megan Figueroa: Yes, this is really cool. So, I feel like sometimes I’m mad at the Atlantic and then sometimes they do good things.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah. They’re very mixed.

Megan Figueroa: So mixed last week on the 27th of October, they posted an article called “A Patriarchal Tradition That Just Won’t Budge: Straight Married Couples in the US Still, Almost Always Give Kids the Father’s Last Name. Why?” And they interview Dr. Christine Mallinson, who’s fantastic. She talks about how their two children, her and her husband’s two children, actually have her last name and they talked about this and they decided that they would do this. And so, it’s just about why do we still see so many people just automatically giving children the father’s name.

And at one point she says that she thinks it’s just something that’s kind of automatic and people don’t actually have this conversation, just don’t even stop to really reflect or think about it. And actually, that would have been my guess too, is that a lot of people are just like, well, that’s just how you do it. Why disrupt that? I know there are so many issues when it comes to legal things.

Carrie Gillon: And also, it’s still the case that most women are taking their husband’s last name.

Megan Figueroa: Yes, exactly. 2002. There’s this research paper, but they found that 97% of married couples passed down the father’s name. So, like, this is just almost like a given and this is going to happen

Carrie Gillon: well, I’m wondering how

many of the women have taken the husband’s last names because of course they’re going to pass on the father’s name. What’s interesting is where they don’t change their names.

Megan Figueroa: Right. So, in 1975, only 3% of women kept their last name. So, of course that’s grown,

Carrie Gillon: but I think it’s no more than 20% now.

Megan Figueroa: It’s literally about 20%. In 1975 when it was 3% there were still laws on the books were like, women couldn’t get shit done, like credit cards or whatever, unless they had their husband’s surname. So again, like all these legal issues that are like restricting women’s choices. Tale as old as time. So even within this 20% of women who keep their last names, it’s still like the majority will pass down the father’s last name.

And then I’m just thinking about this like cross-culturally. So, like my dad, his middle name is his mom’s last name. And this is very traditional. So sometimes it’s hyphenated, but his is just it’s not hyphenated and it’s appears to be his middle name. And then of course his dad’s last name is, you know, the last name that he has.

And so, I think that this is- I don’t know if this is just like a Spanish speaking world type of thing, but I’m sure there are other kinds of traditions of, of having last names, both last names included.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah, certainly. Mostly in the Spanish speaking world, there’s two last names. One’s from the mother one’s from the father, but the father wins.


Megan Figueroa: the latter one,

Carrie Gillon: the last one.

 So, it is the most important one

in Quebec, women tend not to take their husband’s last name. This has been true for decades. You have to go out of your way to like, well, you have to go to you’re ready to change it anyway, but like, it’s just not an expected thing. But I don’t know what the children, what they do with the children’s last names like that. It’s probably still the case that it’s the husband’s name most of the time. And then, in wealthier families in the UK, there’s a tradition of keeping both names, hyphenating the names, because this often happens when the, the woman’s family is richer or more powerful. So, you want the children to be like, oh, you’re part of that family. And so, you have to have them hyphenated.

Megan Figueroa: Ah, Interesting.

Carrie Gillon: And then there’s lots of cultures that don’t have

last names at all, but

Megan Figueroa: of course, yes. Or like place names, right? Like, or where you’re from, or the village would be where, what your last name is like.

Carrie Gillon: That could be the

case, but there’s some

that don’t have any last names at all

Megan Figueroa: at all. It wouldn’t be. Okay. So, talking about hyphenated, this article talks to a woman named Alicia Hernandez Grande, who, when she wanted to get her driver’s license as a teenager, back in 2004, the DMV tried to split her last name because she does not have a hyphen between Hernandez and Grande, but she wanted Hernandez Grande as her last name, even though there was no hyphen. This is such a problem that New York actually passed a law in 2019 that allows people to choose to have two last names, separated by a space on a legal documents like that. So, like, that’s something that I’ve never thought of. It makes me kind of wonder sometimes, like for example, people like my dad, if he would have wanted to have like Chacon Figueroa as, you know, the whole thing. Like those choices that he can’t really make because the law prevents and how that would change things for people.

Carrie Gillon: Right. And I know that the opposite has happened in at least some Spanish speaking countries. Like one of my friends was in some Spanish speaking country. I don’t even remember where and they thought his middle name was his first last name and so they were like constantly looking for him under John. You know, cause they were expecting two last names. Anyway. It’s interesting. Yeah. Like how important culture is to these kinds of decisions and like you just can’t imagine not having a second last name or you can’t imagine having more than one last name or.

Megan Figueroa: So very cool article. I thought it was really cool that Dr. Mallinson shared that because I’ll be happy to see more people that name, their kids with the mother’s surname.

Carrie Gillon: So when I was younger and I was still on the fence about whether it’s going to have kids or not, I was like I’m if I have a daughter, my last name. Son, his last name.

Megan Figueroa: Oh, interesting. Yeah. I’m like, oh my last name because. I guess going back to like where I’m from or who I am is like a Figueroa. It’s something that I want to be able to pass on because like, you know, my partner’s a white dude. Come on.

But yeah, no, it’s really cool. And I want to see more articles like this and The Atlantic and other places. Just more talking about language

Carrie Gillon: and less talking about cancel culture and

Megan Figueroa: yes.

Carrie Gillon: Anyway, yes. Episode, we talk all about memes and collecting data from friends and all kinds of interesting stuff.

Megan Figueroa: And it’s another interview about a book, which I’m really enjoying these days.

Carrie Gillon: Yes, we’re always happy to interview people, about their books.

Megan Figueroa: Yes. We love books. Anyway. We hope you enjoy

Carrie Gillon: Alright. Today, we have Dr. Sylvia Sierra, who is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication and Rhetorical Studies at Syracuse University. She’s a discourse analyst, interested in language and social interaction who takes an interactional sociolinguistic approach to exploring knowledge management and identity construction in everyday communication in both face-to-face and online contexts. Her research interests include identity, epistemics, intertextuality, globalization, popular culture slash media, Mexican Spanish, social media, multimodal methods slash embodied interaction and discourse level sociolinguistic variation. And the reason why we’re having our own today is because her new book is about to come out on November 9th, Millennials Talking Media, Creating Intertextual Identities in Everyday Conversation. So welcome sylvia.

Megan Figueroa: Welcome.

Sylvia Sierra: Thanks. Thank you. Thank you so much for having me on here. I’m so happy to get to nerd out about my book.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah. I love talking about millennials because what the millennials love most is talking about themselves and just destroying things. Right?

Carrie Gillon: Well, you finally won, everything’s broken.

Megan Figueroa: Yes!

Carrie Gillon: We were just talking before, before we started recording that all the supply chains are broken. And so the book might be not coming out on November ninth. So fingers crossed November ninth.

Sylvia Sierra: Yeah. Yeah, fingers crossed. Millennials killed the global supply chain.

Carrie Gillon: Okay. So why did you want to write this book?

Sylvia Sierra: Well, it helps in my department to write a book when you’re in a tenure track position, it’s kind of helpful to write a book, but really, you know, when I was writing my dissertation, I had several mentors who had turned their dissertations into books. So it seemed like a reasonable goal. And I kind of used theirs as models when I was writing my dissertation. So like I used Cynthia Gordon’s book and her dissertation as a model. So even as I was writing the dissertation, I was thinking about it like a book and I thought it would have kind of a broader appeal than a lot of academic books. And actually, you know, it wasn’t even about millennials to start with. It was really just about quoting media and everyday talk. Later on when I realized, you know what? Everyone I recorded for this book, they’re millennials. And it seemed like that actually was kind of a key piece of the media they were quoting. So I decided to kind of go with that when I revised it for the book and, you know, there’s been academic articles and a couple edited volumes and dissertations on media references, but there’s no real book about how and why we reference media in our everyday conversation. So I really wanted to show kind of the why and how people do this.

So the why is like, you know, how do we in, in face-to-face spoken conversation, which is what I analyze how do we phonetically signal media references? How are we able to hear when someone’s making one and kind of get it? So that’s a piece of the why or, sorry, the how, and then also, how do we show that we got it? Like, do we laugh? We repeat. Do we engage with it somehow?

So, and then kind of like the bigger piece of it is why do we do it? How do these function? And what I found is they seem to happen at these really interesting awkward moments in conversation. Oftentimes when not all people share the same access to participate in the conversation. And someone will use a media reference to kind of smooth over that awkwardness and get everyone back on the same page and get everyone to laugh. So, for example, in the book it starts out actually with a really awkward and horrible camping trip. I went on with some of my friends and in one of the examples we’re talking about this and one of the other friends wasn’t there. But he becomes involved in talking about this trip that involved like a head injury and vomiting in a tent and all kinds of crazy stuff. And he says, sounds like a bad Oregon Trail trip. So he connects it to this video game and that’s how he gets involved in everyone laughs. And he’s able to become part of this experience. And so I found that they often function to like fill these awkward spaces and ultimately kind of bond people together through their shared media knowledge.

So that’s, that’s kind of why I wanted to write the book in a way. It was just to show really like why we use these so much.

Megan Figueroa: Carrie is Oregon Trail a reference that you get?

Carrie Gillon: of course, I’m not 50 million years old.

Megan Figueroa: did you play the games?

Carrie Gillon: Of course. Yes, so most media crosses the border. And so video games definitely cross the border and yeah, we played that game for sure.

So there’s, you know, the, you know, the Oregon Trail generation is supposed to like, be like this the youngest Gen X and the oldest millennials. And technically I’m still too old to be in that category, according to the numbers that they have. It’s weird. Cause I definitely grew up with

Sylvia Sierra: those numbers are all,

Carrie Gillon: they’re all made up. So here’s another way it’s made up. So when I was still a teenager, I was technically my Gen Y and then that got shifted to much later recategorized as millennial. So I’ve always been in this liminal space. I can’t believe I’m actually using that word. I’ve never used that before. So yeah. Anyway. Yes, I do know. And I did play it.

Sylvia Sierra: Yeah, it was in my research, I found it was like popular across all of North America. Like in the, I guess, early nineties. But yeah, generations as a concept, a lot of it is a baloney, but it’s kind of a convenient concept for my book and people like talking about millennials. So

Carrie Gillon: Some way of sort of like carving out space so that we can talk about things, but it is, we should all remember it is still made up. Yeah.

Sylvia Sierra: It might be a little like even North America or Western centric. Like people from like China tell me that they think about these things differently or they use, you know, different terms and stuff.

Carrie Gillon: So, yeah, absolutely. We need to talk to someone about that. That’d be so fun.

Sylvia Sierra: It would be really cool.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah. Okay. So what are intertextual identities and how do we create them?

Sylvia Sierra: Good question. I think I made up that concept, just making up things here left and right. No, I think, cause I wanted the intertextual piece and identities in the title. So intertextuality is you can kind of simplify that to mean repetition of shared prior texts. It’s really, it can just be any kind of repetition of anything really. It can be considered intertextuality. And so in talking about media, in our textual identities in this sense are the kind of identities we create for ourselves when we reference prior texts. So like, you know, referencing the Oregon Trail that might index that you’re part of the Oregon Trail generation, that you’re someone who played that game. You know, when I look at conversations among my graduate students, they tend to quote or talk about a lot of like books and poetry and stuff. Right. And that’s kind of creating this inter-textual like graduate student identity. If I compare that with my undergraduates, they’re talking a lot about like sports and celebrities and things, and that’s, you know, another kind of identity that kind of speaks to the stage of life that they’re in right now and what they find interesting

Megan Figueroa: and texts is very broadly defined.

Sylvia Sierra: Yes. Yeah, that’s a good point. Cause you know, when we think of text, we might think of something written, but it can be, you know, a song, right. With, well with lyrics or without, just the tune, like you can sing you can hum a tune to a song, right. And that’s still inter-textual or you can maybe put new words to the tune of a song and that could be inter-textual and accents and dialects, you know, can be intertextual so yeah, it can be beyond, just like a written text, for sure.

Carrie Gillon: So here’s an example that has come up and you can tell me if it’s. So there’s a Gregorian like funeral chant and Dies Irae, I think. And it has four like the introductory four notes is used over and over again and including in Squid Game. And I figured I found this out from TikTok.

Sylvia Sierra: Yes. I saw that tape. See, we’re doing it right now. Intertextual TikTok identities.

Carrie Gillon: Oh boy.

Megan Figueroa: Wait, individual TikToks could be a text.

Sylvia Sierra: Yeah. I’ve, you know, since I’ve started using TikTok, I find myself referring to things I’ve seen on there in conversation, and I’m using that yeah, as a kind of intertextual reference point and yeah, the point that you just brought up about just those four notes from that Gregorian chant being repeated in all kinds of films and now in Squid Game to sort of create this ambiance of like death and dread. Yeah. That’s a great example.of intertextual texts that isn’t really what we might think of as a text. Yeah.

Carrie Gillon: So I find this very, your book really interesting. And it beginning, you know, you set up like how you did this. And I was just like, I actually got a knot in the pit of my stomach because I was like, oh God, you were using data from your friends.

Sylvia Sierra: Yeah,

Carrie Gillon: how complicated and difficult that must be. So yeah, I guess just talk about that. Like, why did you use, why did you decide to use that type of data and like, was it difficult?

Sylvia Sierra: Yeah. So it’s kind of an interesting journey with that. So in, in kind of my sub field of interactional sociolinguistics, it’s really common to draw on conversational data from your friends and family. And part of the reason for that is because in interactional sociolinguistics, we’re kind of obsessed with context and knowing a lot about the people involved in the setting and the prior relationship. So in that sense, you know, it’s helpful to record like your friends and your family, because as an analyst, you know, a lot about those people and their relationships and everything. So it’s really common in my field. It’s, it’s not, you know, uncommon and then, besides that you know, in grad school, I didn’t really have like a community I was interested in. It felt like a lot of people in my program and kind of like a year ahead of me, they were interested in like looking at like law students or I don’t know, math students, or some kind of, you know, beauty parlor salon talk or like some kind of community. And I didn’t really have that. I had these more theoretical interests in issues of identity and knowledge. And so it was actually linguist Deborah Tannen, who was at Georgetown and still is when I was there, she encouraged me to just start recording conversations I was a part of. And she had actually done that. A lot of people don’t realize for her classic Thanksgiving dinner conversation that she analyzed in her first book, Conversational Style. That was just one of many conversations she recorded for her dissertation and she ended up just using that one conversation. So it turned out to be great advice.

I just started recording stuff among my friends and, you know, conversations I was in with people and eventually I got this interest in looking at these media references and it started with video games and then it kind of grew from there. And, you know, it was, it was really fun starting out with my friends. They were very like willing to participate in this. We, they, they liked it. We had a lot of fun and it only got difficult later when I started looking at issues like stereotypes and ideologies that are embedded in this media that we then repeat when we quote it, with oftentimes, without having really any idea what’s going on there. And that is when things started getting, getting a little ethically difficult was when I started looking at things like racism and sexism in these conversations. So that piece came a little later and it definitely complicated things.

Carrie Gillon: Because I read it out of order. So I read the Chapter Four, which is the one you wanted us to talk about most. And then I went back to Chapter One and I think that’s why. Like you had these conversations with your friends too, about like, “okay. So yeah, that was kind of racist. So what are we going to do about it?” Yeah.

Sylvia Sierra: Yeah. We did those playback interviews. I would play back these things they said. And so, you know, what do you think is going on here? And you know, what is this referencing? And they would say things like, oh, that’s an Indian trope. And it’s like, Hmm, let’s unpack that you where’d you get that from, you know, and, but in the end, in a way it was good because we got to have those critical discussions. And I think it probably opened a lot of our eyes to things we just weren’t even thinking about before.

Megan Figueroa: So you think in the middle of those conversations, when you were recording. No one was as thoughtful as they were later. So these, these came later.

Sylvia Sierra: Yeah. Yeah, totally. Yeah, I mean, there’s kind of a spectrum, you know, some of these stereotypes are really embedded and insidious and I think it would really take an analyst to pick them apart. Some of them are more obvious. And so like there’s some cases where I think people might’ve had a sense when they were making the reference that it was somehow problematic, but there’s some theorizing around this. How, like when we make jokes or for humor, we kind of set aside our critical sensitivity and we’re willing to make these jokes for laughs. Especially if we’re in, for example, like an all white space, which a lot of those spaces I recorded were. So in some of those cases, people might’ve had a sense what they were doing was not so great. And then in other cases, I think it was totally like, they weren’t even aware really. So it varied, but yeah, in any case, the critical reflections didn’t come up until later, when I kind of prompted them.

Megan Figueroa: So this happened to me last night. And I wonder if this is an example of it, of how, like in the moment, perhaps, they’re not as thoughtful of it because of just how powerful stereotyping is. But someone told me about an Irish football player, football, a soccer player who destroyed his liver by drinking. And I like almost made a joke about the Irish and drinking. Like, I didn’t really almost, but like, that’s what came to my mind in my head. So I wonder if it’s kind of like that.

Sylvia Sierra: Yeah. I mean, we’re like bombarded with these stereotypes and just all kinds of ideologies.

They’re so pervasive. So, you know, we definitely, to some extent just like absorb them. And yeah, unless you really do some like intentional work to raise your, that critical sensitivity around it. You might not be so conscious of it, but I, I think like you both are used to thinking about these issues a lot in the work that you do in this podcast. So you’re probably more aware of it than a lot of people.

Carrie Gillon: I would hope most linguists are, but I know that’s not necessarily the case.

Sylvia Sierra: Well, keep, keep in mind that a lot of the people in my book were linguists and they still would make these jokes. And I thought that was interesting too, that you can be a linguist and know all the stuff that we know about language and stereotypes and all of this and still reproduce them. So I think that even just shows even more like how insidious they are.

Carrie Gillon: You’re absolutely right. And I I’m sure I know I’ve done it.

Sylvia Sierra: I think we all have, yeah. We’ve all been guilty of like, you know, language mocking or some kind of stereotyping at some point.

 Yeah, no one, no, one’s perfect. In that sense, I think.

Carrie Gillon: At what I was thinking about too, is another, it was a Twitter thread about like how white people are not -don’t know how to do real talk. And I had never thought about it before. It was a Black woman, I think. And just her talking about how you can’t -like white people just don’t know how to have these conversations. And so I think that’s another thing that was like contributing to my pit in my stomach, like the feeling my stomach was like, I don’t know how to have these conversations. This is like a thing it’s real like. So it’s, it’s, it’s really great that you actually were able to have these conversations.

Sylvia Sierra: It was difficult, but in the end, I hope it’ll somehow be beneficial.

Megan Figueroa: And you’re all still friends still.

Sylvia Sierra: Yes. Yes. Thankfully. Yeah. It didn’t have that detrimental of an effect on our relationships. Thank goodness. So

Carrie Gillon: did anyone ever say, “oh no, you can’t record this conversation.”

Sylvia Sierra: You know, not that I remember. The only people that have not let me record them are my parents. Yeah. They like, my mom has always had this blanket, like don’t record me policy. And then my dad, I’m like, one time he was open to it and I started recording, but maybe like a minute in or something, he was like, “this is weird. Like, can we stop this?” And I was like, “sure.” So I, I don’t think though, among my friends, I can’t remember anyone ever telling me not to record them. They were all pretty open to it and liked it. I would say. Actually, like a lot of them were even more like, I think performative, like a couple of my friends had like some improv comedy background and a standup comedy background. And so I think they almost saw this as like an occasion to practice some of those skills.

Megan Figueroa: I think a lot of people that that don’t do this kind of research. Wonder how you could possibly get authentic talk between people when there’s recording happening. Do you think that there’s a point where people just kind of forget and that’s where you get the authentic stuff? Or what kind of, how does that play out?

Sylvia Sierra: Yeah, that’s a good question. Always comes up, especially with my students. Cause I have them do this work too, recording conversations that they’re a part of. And yeah, I, I generally tell them, they’re always worried about this. And I usually say, you know, after a while the demands of the interaction are so much that people can’t remember really, that they’re being recorded. So after what, 10 minutes or something, people usually forget. And then you might get that more naturalistic talk. And at the same time, you know, like I said, I was recording these friends a lot, like this became a regular thing. So maybe to some extent, like they were just became very used to it.

And then, you know, the flip side of that is like some people have actually analyzed how that observer’s paradox is not necessarily a problem. You know, this, this problem of where we observe language, how can it ever really be natural when we stick a recorder there. But like Cynthia Gordon has a paper. And how you can actually look at moments where people orient to the recording device as moments for identity construction. And I saw that in my data, like some of the participants would say things like you know, “let the record show,” you know, like a “recorder” like they would talk to the device. So it’s not even a problem per se, when they do orient to it. You can also analyze that as something interesting in its own sake.

Megan Figueroa: And for you, you were a member of that group,

Sylvia Sierra: yeah, that helps too. Yeah, right. That I had already been spending a lot of time with these people and we had those relationships. I wasn’t like an outsider coming in doing this. Yeah. And you know, I guess I did have times where maybe people were “Oh, let’s stop this for a while.” you know, like they wanted to gossip or something. And so it’s like, “let’s pause this for a little bit and talk off the record” and then maybe we would turn it back on later. So that kind of stuff happened, but I don’t think anyone was ever like, “don’t record me or don’t use this.” Yeah.

Megan Figueroa: Can you walk us through some ways that we reference media in our language because I’m guessing almost all of us do this. I don’t know. Can you say something like that?

Sylvia Sierra: Yeah. So yeah, I think so. Yeah. I definitely think probably. I mean, yeah, I think it’d be kind of weird if you didn’t ever quote anything, right? Like even if the, the type of media might vary, like some people don’t play video games maybe they quote books or something, but yeah, I think it is something everyone does. So.

Yeah, there’s kind of two ways. I think media comes up in our conversations. And one, I don’t look at in this book, I’m kind of looking at this a little bit now in some newer work, but, you know, there’s when we just mentioned like, oh, I saw this on TikTok, right. We’re not quoting something from TikTok, we’re just mentioning it. So that’s one way, you know, you can reference media and your talk and, you know, I’m kind of looking at that now among my students and conversations they’ve recorded and it’s kind of interesting. Cause I think a lot of the ways they talk about media is actually very critical. They’re very critical of it. So that’s kind of interesting.

And in my book, I just looked at literal like kind of quotes references, right. To media. So that’s the other way that it comes up in our talk is quoting it. And even that can kind of look like two different ways. One is you quote something verbatim, right. Like, you can directly quote like Game of Thrones and say like “winter is coming,” you know, and you can do the voice and the pitch shift and all that too, if you want. So that’s like a direct quote.

But what I really had a lot of fun with is when people take something and they alter a piece of it to fit the current situation. So for example if, if y’all, being millennials. The Disney Beauty and the Beast. I actually, I guess either one, they have the same song in it. And part of that song is like, it’s about, it’s about Belle. It’s one of the introductory songs and like how weird she is. And yeah, basically, cause she’s a nerd. So one of the lines is like, “look, there, she goes, that girl is so peculiar.” And in my book, they use that in this one conversation to kind of playfully mock one of our friends for drinking, for making herself gin and tonic frequently. And they say like, “oh, there she goes. She’s drinking lots of liquor.” so people would do that kind of thing. You know, where you take the melody or you take the original text, but you tweak a part of it and you apply it to the current situation. And those are probably the most, some of the most fun examples.

Megan Figueroa: I love it. It, I mean, my verbatim thing I can think of right now is the Mandalorian. “This is the way.”

Carrie Gillon: “I want to see the baby”. is the one I think about the most, well, or “I would like to”

Megan Figueroa: yeah. Yeah. Well, I guess in Yoda too “there is no try. There is only do,” or there are other, other like Star Wars ones of course, because it’s like a huge thing. So does that mean that, I guess it doesn’t though, right? So it doesn’t have to be a huge thing for people to pick up on it. Like it doesn’t have to be a Star Wars, it could be a TikTok or, you know, whatever.

Sylvia Sierra: Yeah. It totally depends on the friend group or just who you’re talking to. You know, there’s some that are going to be more broadly known. Maybe some older texts too, that kind of transcend like generational boundaries. So like in the conversations I recorded, people are quoting like Moby Dick and like Nietsche at times. So those are like older, you know, long-standing texts. But it can be very niche and it’s almost like the more niche it is, the more fun. And the more enjoyment you get when it’s just you and that close friend, you know, who get the inside joke. So yeah, they can be very general or they can be super specific.

Megan Figueroa: I have a friends where- hi, Adam- we talk about like NBA type stuff, but at a very specific period, because we’re the same age. And so like 1993 or whatever, when we were young, These kinds of references to that, is that a text to like, is that way to reference media? When it’s sports?

Sylvia Sierra: Yeah, that’s a good question. And that, that has come up with looking at my undergraduates’ conversations, because as I mentioned earlier, a lot of their talk is about sports and it’s not something I personally know anything about or can relate to. But yeah, when I’ve had like some undergraduate research assistants, coding this data that has come up, like, do we code these mentions of like sports players or sports games? Is, and I’m like, yeah, why not. Capture everything, you know, and then we can get more specific later. But if it’s something especially that you engaged with through media, like TV or radio, right. Then it kind of makes sense.

Megan Figueroa: Wait, so if people are saying “don’t be an asshole” when they’re referencing like on Twitter, like yeah.

Sylvia Sierra: That is a great intertextual catch phrase. Yeah, no, I love that. Yeah. That’s so, you know, linkable to your show and it’s like your slogan in a way. And yeah, no, it’s really smart in a way. That’s something I’m interested in is almost like how can people even intentionally create these kinds of like catch phrases that are likely to be repeated. And that one, I think, you know, part of why it catches on is because it’s very broadly applicable, right? Like you can apply that to so many people and things that are said, so, yeah.

Carrie Gillon: And that was, yeah, that was my intention. I was like, this does need to be something that we can apply to ourselves as

well as anything,

Megan Figueroa: like not be offended by it, like ourselves. You know?

Sylvia Sierra: No, it’s true. It’s, you know, I’ve thought about it with like TV shows and all kinds of media. Like why did these things catch on, you know? And oftentimes they’re kind of like, they’re marked in some way, they’re a little unusual. And oftentimes they’re very broadly applicable, so you can easily map them onto a lot of different real life scenarios. So, yeah, it’s really interesting.

Carrie Gillon: So let’s talk about memes. I mean, basically that’s a lot of what your book is about. So what are memes and what are internet memes?

Sylvia Sierra: Memes, you know, can be understood really broadly as just any kind of idea that gets repeated. So that could be like fashion, for example, you know, like when a fashion trend spreads, that could be a meme or it could be like an architectural style that comes into vogue. I like Art Deco or something in Brutalism. I don’t know. Like, you know, that’s like a meme that you see it and you like it and you repeat it. But usually, you know, nowadays when we talk about memes, we’re thinking of internet memes specifically, and I think, you know, initially we probably thought of these mostly as like an image with texts maybe, or maybe just texts something that spreads virally, right. That gets picked up and repeated on kind of a massive scale and it carries some kind of cultural, like meaning with it. So yeah, that’s kind of the gist of how we’re using memes nowadays and how I use it in my book.

Megan Figueroa: Can a gif be a meme?

Sylvia Sierra: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think so. Yeah, I would say so. The lines can get kind of blurry in delineating these things. Like actually one of my graduate students asked me why don’t I just call everything in the book, all the media that gets repeated meme references, right? Cause if anything that gets repeated, technically, is a meme. So yeah, I think gifs, yeah, that can definitely also count as a meme.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about things like these emojis that are getting repeated, like the chair emoji was this inside kind of joke on TikTok standing in for laughter. So it’s like, well, I guess that’s a meme, you know, I guess emojis can be memes now. And there’s probably precedents before that. And now the red flag meme is happening and thus, you know, just repeating a bunch of red flags on Twitter, wherever. So. Yeah, it can be very broad. I guess the concept is pretty flexible.

Megan Figueroa: I’ve seen in media that people are using like meme or knowing what a meme is as some sort of generational age thing, but it sounds like memes have always been a thing. So why are they using this as kind of like a shibboleth for being young,

Carrie Gillon: young? Middle aged. I’m sorry.

Sylvia Sierra: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think probably cause they’re thinking of it too narrowly, you know, they are just thinking of internet memes and yeah, maybe my dad, especially my grandmother, I mean, would have no idea, you know, really what a meme is or how to describe it or define it. But again, if you talk about it on a broader scale, like fashion, right, something that just gets replicated then yeah. It’s, you know, it’s really not that new of a concept, or artistic style or something, right? Like impressionism, for example, all of these are essentially examples of memes.

Carrie Gillon: I think some people have the idea that, a meme is, is a static image with Futura

font on it.

Sylvia Sierra: Yeah.

Carrie Gillon: I will say Boomers use those just as much as,

Sylvia Sierra: yeah.

Carrie Gillon: And it leads perfectly into the next question, which is why do we post memes online?

Sylvia Sierra: Yeah. Well, why do we, why do we do anything online? Yeah, that’s a good question. It’s kind of philosophical in a way, you know, I think like, kind of essentially, it’s just, it’s fun, you know, it’s fun. It’s creative. It makes you feel like you’re part of something bigger or part of this like community, that you get the joke, right. Or you get whatever’s current and usually, you know, if, if you create, if you’re creating a meme, then there’s really that creative component where you feel like, oh, I’m, I’m, you know, maybe not like I’m smart, I’m witty, I’m cool. You know, like you’re really getting that benefit out of it. And then, you know, maybe you’re getting likes or reposts or whatever. So you’re getting that like internet street cred. You know, or if you’re just sharing something someone else made it, it can be part of the same process. I think. So I think fundamentally, like it’s just fun. And part of that is we like to feel like we’re part of a community that like we share things, you know,

Carrie Gillon: So speaking of, you know, like what some people think means are the static image. I, after the 2016 election and I just stopped posting them altogether because I associated them so strongly with the alt-right.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah.

Sylvia Sierra: Yeah. Some of them. Well, a lot of memes I did start in places like 4chan and I’ve had some students interested in that. One of my graduate students wrote their dissertation on 4chan. Well, initially, yeah, initially they were interested in memes and then it turned into something different. But yeah, and actually Whitney Phillips, she’s one of my colleagues at Syracuse University, she’s looked at this a lot, like how these spaces were where a lot of like meme culture came from these like far right spaces, even though, maybe at the time they weren’t like called far right. But now that’s what we’ve come to call them or see them as.

Carrie Gillon: Well, so what they became maybe over time. Cause I don’t think they started that way at all.

Sylvia Sierra: Yeah. I don’t know enough about it really. Yeah, at least. Yeah. Yeah. Maybe you’re right. I guess like one of my graduate students was telling me, like in the early days, it wasn’t seen as a place that was necessarily like a hateful or bigoted space, but it’s yeah, it become seen as that now. Now, like people don’t want to be associated with it at all.

 So yeah, like Whitney Phillips’ work is interesting because it looks at how those spaces were very like generative and created all this like internet culture, but they were also like destructive and that kind of ambivalence and how the internet is really a place where that kind of ambivalence is sort of like fostered and all the intricacies of that.

Carrie Gillon: All right. Let’s talk about some of the particular mediums that you talk about in your book. So the strong independent black woman meme, which I did not know, I was like, whoa, this is a totally new one to me, but maybe you can explain it and explain like what the stereotypes are around it.

Sylvia Sierra: Sure. So I think that was one of the earliest ones I looked at in the light of stereotypes, because it was so obvious, you know, like first I was just looking at everything under this, you know, either it’s it was fun or it was filling that awkward space and doing that interactional work. I talked about earlier smoothing over like awkwardness and knowledge and balances. So that one does function that way in the conversations I looked at. But speaking to the stereotypes within it. I think there’s at least like two stereotypes in there. So, so the meme that the friends are referencing, it’s like this image of a Black woman kind of wagging her finger and then there’s text that accompanies it. And it says something like “I’m a strong independent Black woman who don’t need no man.” So, if you unpack this, it goes back to this kind of trope of like the sassy Black woman character in TV and film. So you have this Black woman being sassy, that’s a stereotype and a trope right there. And then you have the linguistic stereotype of that, you know, the double negation ” “don’t need no man.” right? And that’s sort of that’s African-American English, but there’s that stereotype there that. Black people speak this way. Right? So there’s those stereotypes. There’s also like a, even more maybe embedded ideology of like heteronormativity within that, right. That just women and men like pair together, basically. So I guess there’s like at least three different, you know, stereotypes that I can think of very quickly regarding that particular meme.

Megan Figueroa: So I think that a lot of people that are not good linguists, like we are, will see that this conversation is happening. Like we’re talking about how there’s stereotypes playing out in the way, the way that they, they wrote the text. And think, why are you so obsessed with this? Why is this even important to note? What, what do I mean, I think we all, as linguists who care about context and human beings that are creating, creating the language care about this. How do you deal with that kind of idea that there are people out there who just don’t understand why we keep pointing it out?

Sylvia Sierra: That’s a really good question. Maybe I’m in such a bubble, I don’t even encounter that too much, maybe. I mean, yeah. Maybe like, you know, certain family members might come to mind that it takes some explaining and it can be frustrating, but, yeah, I don’t know. It’s just, it’s such like a circular problem, you know, where it’s like we as humans create media, we have these stereotypes and biases that we embed into the media, and then that media gets repeated and quoted. And it’s just like this vicious cycle. So. And, you know, I guess it all comes down to representation in a way, right. And the idea that representation matters and that like the images we see in the text, we read about people really inform the way we think about those people and, you know, that’s important and none of us are immune from that kind of almost, I guess you could call it like propaganda or maybe like a lighter term, you know, would be rhetoric or something. But none of us are immune to that. And, you know, so I think it’s important to be aware of how these things can shape just how we view other individuals and other groups, especially when you don’t have any contact with those groups, except through the media you’re consuming. That’s when I really see it being the most damaging is, you know, people who have never actually had like a friend from Mexico, a close friend, all they see are these images of like Mexico on TV and in the news. And they form these like really, you know, bad associations and opinions

Carrie Gillon: with this yellow, all the sky is always yellow,

Megan Figueroa: smog or something like what is that? I don’t know. But I think this is why I hate the word. Any words associated with laziness, probably because Mexico and Mexicans are very much portrayed as they’re taking siestas again, look at all of these things. Yeah. Thank you. I’m just realizing now that this is like probably a media thing. Cause like I, obviously

Carrie Gillon: it is.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah. I don’t have any or my idea of Mexico luckily is also from family and just being there. So I have like something playing against it, but to think about people that don’t. Yeah, it makes sense to think that siestas are like, I mean, why they always napping

Carrie Gillon: Siestas are a good idea.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah.

Sylvia Sierra: I mean, I have a siesta, at least one every day.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah. I still think it’s a good idea.

Sylvia Sierra: That’s always like, yeah. When I think of certain people that are like bigoted in that way or racist, I just, I was like realized they probably never met anyone or maybe never really formed like a relationship. Maybe not like interacted, but never had close relationships with people from these other cultures.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah. Cause, cause I’m from small town BC. And let me tell you, every white person has met many First Nations people, and yet they have very stereotypical ideas about them because they don’t. Yeah. They never formed a close relationship. That’s the key,

Megan Figueroa: oh, so how are memes invoking stereotypes? Like, is it purposeful? Like what’s how, what is it doing as the user and as someone who is receiving them.

Sylvia Sierra: Yeah. So I don’t think it’s necessarily purposeful, obviously, like it can be. In my data, I don’t think it ever really was. It’s just, as we’ve been saying, like this stuff is so embedded and sometimes you wouldn’t even notice it unless you really stare hard at it and pick it apart and think about it. And, you know, it’s just like any media, right? I think memes are a little worse. Like when I was coding, all of my data for stereotypes memes were consistently the ones that- like all of the memes had stereotypes. Yeah. And I think, I mean, my theory would be that’s because they’re like very contained, right? Like it’s like an image. It’s texts. It’s just like one shot. And you have that one shot to make your point. Whereas like in TV show or something or movie, you have time to like explore the stereotype and maybe you end up subverting it somehow and getting like a different message across. But with a meme there there’s no time for that. You know, you just, it’s just an effective way to get a message across just stereotype, you know, some group of people or some package up some kind of ideology that everyone will recognize and just go with. And of course, a lot of those can be traced back to older forms of media, but.

And then like, as for, you know, the effect they have I just think. You know, like I said, a lot of times people aren’t doing it intentionally, they’re making the references for these other interactional purposes that they serve. But I do think, especially in certain spaces, like white spaces where racial stereotypes are being repeated, it just reinforces that idea of otherness, you know. And that like, oh, well, like we’re not Black women or Black people. And like, we don’t speak that way. You know, it just kind of like reinforces that and it also reinforces the norms within the group. And whatever that behavior is. So I think that’s kinda like the effect. It’s sort of this, I, you know, Jane Hill talks about like covert racism, I think. And it’s just another form of covert racism, where it kind of goes under the radar and it’s kind of more subtle, but it is a form of.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah, absolutely. So are there, like, is there a way to use memes that’s not like upholding stereotypes, like, should we just stop? I mean, I’m, I’m mostly meaning the maybe the textual ones. Cause I do think everything is a meme. So not everything is obviously racial, like Brutalism, whatever, but like these types of memes, should we just stop using them?

Sylvia Sierra: That’s a good question. I think, you know, we should be more conscious of the ones where we’re using if and when possible to be so. You know, there’s probably some that, like, don’t have stereotypes, like when we’re talking about like the chair emoji or whatever. Right. I can’t really think of a stereotype in that. There’s some that are, you know, much more obvious, like the strong black woman meme. Like that one a pretty much anyone, if you show that to, and if they look at it for a while, they’re going to start and you ask them, you know, a couple of basic questions they’re going to be like, okay, yeah, there’s something wrong with this meme. So some of them are more obvious like that.

And then, you know, some people try to like intentionally do memes that are subverting stereotypes, like especially gender stereotypes, which are super prevalent. And actually that was probably the one that’s most prevalent and just gender stereotyping and ideologies of heteronormativity and how men and women behave. So sometimes people try to subvert those in their meme. So I guess that’s another thing you can look for. But overall, I think it’s just a matter of trying to become a little more conscientious of this and a little more aware of it and yeah, just don’t be an asshole, I guess.

Megan Figueroa: Yes. It’s the idea of being a conscientious consumer of media, right.

Sylvia Sierra: Exactly.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah. You know, I have noticed the shift in myself when I watch TV or whatever, now that I try to be conscientious consumer. I think some people think that it’s going to make that media not as fun, but I don’t think that’s true. And of course, some of the media is actually, you know, harmful and I’m like, oh, I don’t want to watch this anymore because I they’re playing into the stereotype in a very disgusting way or, you know, that kind of stuff. But like for the most part, it, you know, it just makes me feel like a more thoughtful person.

And I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all.

Sylvia Sierra: Yeah. It’s like, you can just appreciate the different layers, you know, of like you can enjoy something and also be critical of it. No problem. I do it all the time. You know, even Squid Game, I’m thinking about, you know, racial stereotypes and maybe they could have written the women characters a little bit better and different things, but it’s like, I still enjoy it overall and, you know, recommend that show. So, yeah.

Carrie Gillon: Oh, I not done it yet. So no spoilers.

Megan Figueroa: I probably going to do it tonight because SNL did this country song parody about it with Pete Davidson and Rami Malek

Sylvia Sierra: missing. Yeah. You’re missing the inner textual.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah. And I was like, I was like, okay, this is just funny because I like Pete Davidson as a country singer right now. But Squird Game references are happening.


Carrie Gillon: I was a really great conversation. Thank you for coming on. Is there anything like one last message you want to leave with our listeners?

Sylvia Sierra: Well, I, one thing you know, that I did want to say about my, my friends and just recording them, I’m just so grateful to them that they let me record them, that they were part of the study. Even when we get into all these critical issues that we’ve discussed on this show, you know, I just wanted to give them a big shout out. And you know, it really made me appreciate them a lot more like their intellects, their sense of humor, how they were able to make these intertextual connections so quickly. And, you know, we have artwork from one of the participants actually on the cover. She had created this mural of the housemates in my study as video game characters. Before I even did my study, like that mural was a thing. So it was just perfect for that. Cover art and I’m so glad she let us use it. And another friend in the book, like was a photographer and took the picture. So I kind of just want to give them all a big shout out and then.

For the listeners, you know, if you’re interested the book is out in November ninth, fingers crossed pending any, you know, Suez Canal, blockages, or whatever else it might be. And then we have some social media accounts that my undergraduate RAs have been awesome in helping me run. So we have we’re on Instagram, Twitter, and even TikTok. So if you just search like Millennials Talking Media on any of those platforms will come up. If people want to see what we’re posting and have some fun with


Megan Figueroa: because ultimately this is, I mean, this is it’s important.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah. Yeah, that’s true.

Sylvia Sierra: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, we try to, it’s a mix of, you know, having fun with media and like we said, being critical of it at the same time, so yeah. Thank you so much for having me this was a lot of fun,

Megan Figueroa: absolutely. I’m sorry that I’m just like, Hey, is this a meme.

Carrie Gillon: Don’t be an asshole.

Megan Figueroa: Don’t be an asshole.

Carrie Gillon: this month we would like to thank Randy Carson.

Megan Figueroa: Yay.

Carrie Gillon: And anyone who would like to join us can do so at And we have mugs and we have bonus episodes and we have stickers.

Megan Figueroa: Yes. And our bonus episode for December is really exciting. So yeah,

Carrie Gillon: that is true.

Megan Figueroa: Yup. Yup. Yup.

Carrie Gillon: The Vocal Fries podcast is produced by me, Carrie Gillon for Halftone Audio, the music by Nick Granum. You can find us on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @vocalfriespod. You can email us at And our website is

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