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How a photo of a woman yelling in a guy’s ear became a viral meme

Denise Sanchez was singing along at a 2018 music festival when she landed in the back of someone else’s photo

(Matt Rourke/AP)

Over the past week, Denise Sanchez received a flood of texts letting her know her photo was all over Twitter. An image taken in 2018 of her seemingly talking passionately into the ear of her rather unamused ex-boyfriend had gone viral — again.

Enter the “Girl Explaining” meme.

What started as a fleeting moment at a New Year’s Eve music festival in Argentina has suddenly gained added meaning through each new post — the photo has since become a template to shout about pop culture moments, air grievances about the ending of “Titanic,” share takes on the Marvel Universe and even push for action against climate change.

Though the meme first gained traction across Sanchez’s native Argentina back in 2019, seeing her face splashed across social media in 2022 — and having other people project their ideas onto it — came as a surprise to her. She said she never imagined the meme making the global crossover it has since mid-August.

To set the record straight: No, Sanchez wasn’t shouting into a void. She was actually singing a cumbia song, one of the most popular music genres in Argentina. That explains her arm gesturing off into the horizon.

“We dance cumbias that way,” Sanchez said. Unfortunately, she doesn’t quite remember which song was being played because “it just happened so long ago.”

As it too often happens, Sanchez was unsuspectingly caught in the background of someone else’s photo. About two months later, the photo’s actual subject uploaded it to Twitter and “captioned it something like, ‘When strangers mess up your photos,’ ” Sanchez recalled. Another person zoomed into the funny sight of Sanchez seemingly talking loudly to a guy with an utterly blank expression. And boom, a meme was born.

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A local nutrition-focused account posted it in 2019 with a call to not trust detox juices and crash diets. Soccer teams and their rivals then weighed in. It made it to several Spanish-language meme pages.

“It was hilarious seeing it go around,” Sanchez said. “The music festival even gave us free tickets for the next year. But I thought Argentina and other Latino countries would be as far as the meme went.”

Then came 2022.

In the nearly four years since the photo was taken, a lot has changed in Sanchez’s life. She added several tattoos to her body and dyed her then-blond hair dark. She started studying nutrition — a little irony considering the meme’s beginnings. The guy she was pictured with? They’ve long parted ways.

But to the rest of the world, she’s frozen in time as the “Girl Explaining” or “Bro Girl.” The resurgence happened Aug. 15, when a Twitter user shared her photo with a message about the incompatibility between Geminis and Scorpios, according to Know Your Meme. Soon, celebrities, politicians and brands started piling on.

An old meme, with a twist

What makes the photo so shareable and meme-worthy is that it’s essentially a new twist on an old, recognizable format, said Hannah Barton, a U.K.-based researcher of the cultural history of memes and member of the international Meme Studies Research Network. Viral memes often follow the same structure: having a “fixed element,” meaning an already-played-out aesthetic or tone, and a “novel spin.”

Since at least the early 2010s, there have been different iterations of “Bro Explaining,” or a man talking to a woman who looks like she’d rather be anywhere else. But Sanchez’s photo is one of the earliest — if not the first — examples of the reverse situation, Barton said. The trope is well known; however, the inversion opened the floor for people to take a jab at the dynamic or to joke about a meme format that has already gone stale.

“We know what that format is kind of expressing,” Barton said. “And … it’s really kind of a useful format to get a variety of different points across. It’s the kind of media artifact that’s really useful for mass participation because everyone can put their own kind of spin on it.”

While “Bro Explaining” often jokes about the “bro-y” things men say, “Girl Explaining” is mainly an “esoteric explainer meme” — a more complex item dealing with people’s very niche, but passionately held, interests, said Jamie Cohen, an assistant professor of media studies at CUNY Queens College.

“This young woman is yelling, but everything she’s yelling about is extremely esoteric and cute and very detail-oriented. It says a lot about how people want to express speech,” he said. “And also a lot about us wanting space to write specific information and having no container to put that out there.”

The search for authentic spaces explains not only the current trends in memes, but also the rise of Gen Z-favored apps TikTok and BeReal, Cohen said. Users — especially younger demographics — are pushing against filters and curated feeds. “Girl Explaining” may well be another version of that discontent.

“This becomes a pushback against the inability to use spaces like Facebook or Twitter properly and genuinely,” he said. “Like, you might want to express this emotion, or this feeling or this thought, but where do you put it? You wouldn’t post passionate thoughts like these there. But this meme offers an opportunity to express a very interesting and niche thought.”

For Sanchez, it’s been surreal to see celebrities she follows — such as Hailey Bieber — suddenly post her picture. It’s also a little weird to see an old photo with her ex stick around for perpetuity, she said, but it’s been fun to see the different takes people have had on the moment.

If she were to make her own version of the meme, Sanchez said it would be to raise awareness about gender-based violence. After all, she said, “the point of the meme is to talk about these things that we all know are true, but somehow we don’t listen to enough.”

@larompebich0 y asi fue como accidentalmente termine en la historia de hailey bieber #meme #brogirlmeme #brogirls ♬ original sound - Steven & Archie

But she also knows the meme will probably die down soon. According to Barton and Cohen, after a meme reaches max saturation, its use begins stagnating. Its death is destined once it starts getting posted on Instagram (and, by the looks of it, the meme has already reached that point). By the time it reaches Facebook, it’s essentially a ghost.

Sanchez is ready for the meme to die down, but she knows it’s only a matter of time until another person is unwittingly thrust into the same situation. Somewhere, someday, someone will make another facial expression that the internet will find common ground with — and then dump on.

In that case, Sanchez has a piece of advice: “Take it easy and laugh about it.”

And maybe don’t look too hard into the comment sections, she added.