15. Hello Kitty
What does it mean to be human? It’s a question philosophers have debated for millennia—and the Internet debated this year, thanks to Hello Kitty (who turned 40 this year). According to her official bio, which went viral in August, the iconic toon is not actually a cat; she’s a human girl who lives with her family in suburban London. That revelation made waves on social media, forcing parent company Sanrio to clarify that Hello Kitty is actually an anthropomorphized animal, like Mickey Mouse.
14. “The Mother,” a.k.a. Tracy McConnell
After almost a decade of speculation, How I Met Your Mother fans were thrilled about the debut of said mother (played by Cristin Milioti). But the twist ending—that she had (spoiler alert!) died of an unnamed illness before the story of how Ted met her got told—prompted massive outrage on social media and, then, a spirited debate over what, if anything, show creators owe their fans.
13. Amy Dunne
12. Mr. Poo
In an effort to thwart public defecation—a huge problem in India, where roughly half the population doesn’t use toilets—UNICEF released a surprisingly charming public service video. Its star: Mr. Poo, an anthropomorphized piece of poop that dances around and sings about using toilets. It may sound bizarre, but it seems to be working: more than 1 million people have already pledged to, as the ad puts it, “take the poo to the loo.”
11. Rust Cohle
The True Detective lead (played by Matthew McConaughey) delivered some of the Internet’s most-quoted pearls of wisdom this year (see: “Time is a flat circle”) and his references to the work of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert W. Chambers sent obscure books, such as The King in Yellow, rocketing up Amazon’s charts.
Sure, the big-screen version (played by Chris Hemsworth) has raked in more than $1 billion at the global box office. But this year, it was Marvel’s printed comic that made waves—after it relaunched with a woman wielding the hammer. It’s not the first Thor recast; in fact, a frog once held the role. But putting a woman at the center of a comic franchise that’s not explicitly about femininity or sexual wiles sent a powerful message about the need for superhero diversity, amplified by the debut of a black Captain America.
9. Annalise Keating
How to Get Away With Murder‘s no-nonsense defense attorney and law professor (played by Viola Davis) kickstarted a charged debate about race and television, after a New York Times TV critic likened her—alongside Shonda Rhimes, the show’s executive producer—to “an angry black woman.” “I’m going to need to put down the internet and go dance this one out,” Rhimes tweeted in response. “Because ish is getting real.”
8. Hatsune Miku
The computer-generated Japanese musician, whose “singing” comprises many short samples of actual human voices, not only launched a debate about the nature of artistry and performance (Hatsune Miku means “first sound of the future” in Japanese), but also performed via holograph at Madison Square Garden on Lady Gaga’s tour and on The Late Show With David Letterman—all without having a body.
7. Katniss Everdeen
The Hunger Games heroine (played by Jennifer Lawrence) has already secured her status as a feminist role model and a box-office powerhouse. But Katniss is more than a movie icon now: Her three-fingered salute, used in Mockingjay as a signal of rebellion against the Capitol, has become a rallying symbol among pro-democracy protesters in Thailand and Hong Kong.
6. Maura Pfefferman
The transgender matriarch (played by Jeffrey Tambor) did for Amazon’s streaming service what Frank Underwood did in 2013 for Netflix: Prove that a compelling personal journey can singlehandedly shore up the fortunes of a new network. But Maura’s story, on the show Transparent, was meaningful in other ways, too: She is the first transgender person to headline a TV show, capping a landmark year for trans visibility.
5. King Joffrey
The mad boy-king (played by Jack Gleeson) was the defining character on Game of Thrones this season, first for his sadism and then (spoiler!) for his absence. That ongoing drama cemented Thrones‘ status as HBO’s most popular show of all time—with some 18.4 million viewers on all platforms each week—and may have helped prompt the network to spin off its HBO Go service for non-cable subscribers. If only the power-mad tot were here to enjoy his reign.
4. Stephen Colbert
In March, “Colbert,” the fictional conservative blowhard created by comic and talk-show host Stephen Colbert, sparked a national conversation about prejudice with a joke about the Washington Redskins’ team name and Asian stereotypes. (It spawned the #CancelColbert campaign.) But his most impressive achievement, of course, was getting his real-life counterpart hired to replace David Letterman as host of The Late Show on CBS.
The self-deprecating space captain (played by Chris Pratt) didn’t just help Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy avert an intergalactic disaster. He also saved the summer box-office here on Earth, which had been sluggish until Guardians debuted with a massive $94 million in the U.S. (on its way to a $771 million global haul), and launched Pratt into superstar status. The Guardians soundtrack—modeled after a “mixtape” of oldies left to Star-Lord (real name: Peter Quill) by his mother—also reached the top of the Billboard 200.
2. Kim Kardashian
Real-life Kim Kardashian owes a good deal to her animated avatar—more than $200 million, to be exact. That’s how much industry analysts estimate the blockbuster mobile game Kim Kardashian Hollywood convinced users to spend on fake clothes, jewelry and more, all in an effort to climb the A-list and become best friends with a fictional version of Kim herself, who spouts lines like “You’re a natural in front of the camera. You should get a ‘momager.’”
Hollywood’s reigning ice royal (played by Idina Menzel) first charmed audiences in 2013—leading Frozen to a massive $1.27 billion worldwide gross—but this year, she became a bona-fide icon. Elsa’s Oscar-winning anthem about liberation and self-acceptance, “Let It Go,” dominated the Billboard Hot 100 this spring; her debut on ABC’s Once Upon a Time (played by Georgina Haig) led to a 31 percent ratings increase; and her singing figurine just outpaced Barbie as the best-selling toy in America. Next up: a Frozen attraction at Epcot, where Elsa will greet young fans—and a likely Frozen sequel.
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Read next: Top 10 of Everything 2014