Honorable Mention: Becky with the Good Hair
Depending on how much you read into the lyrics on Lemonade, “Becky With the Good Hair” was either a fictional character created for the song “Sorry,” or a real-life woman with whom Jay Z cheated on Beyoncé. Either way, fans and the media spent weeks speculating about her identity, at one point naming both designer Rachel Roy, who had worked with Jay Z (she denied the charges) and then, by accident, chef Rachael Ray, whose name is similar to Roy’s. Katy Perry eventually included herself in the narrative, as well, arriving to the Met Gala wearing a “Not Becky” pin.
People loved Rio’s cartoon Olympic mascot—until a real jaguar was subbed in and then killed after exhibiting threatening behavior during a torch-relay event. The incident fueled a debate over the ethics of keeping animals in captivity.
9. Elena Ferrante
The reveal of the author’s putative “real” identity as Anita Raja—which happened a month before the release of a major collection of her writing—raised urgent questions about authorship and privacy rights of the famous.
8. Joanne the Scammer
The popularity of Branden Miller’s drag alter ego—who garnered legions of fans and a fair share of controversy by bragging on Twitter and Instagram about faux exploits such as “robbery” and “fraud”—showed the power of the Internet to elevate niche comedy, especially from nonwhite and queer creators.
7. Daenerys Targaryen
As she charged toward Westeros, the oppressed but resilient star of Game of Thrones (played by Emilia Clarke) felt like a heroine worth rooting for—and her revolutionary style of destroying the patriarchy drew comparisons to a real-life would-be ruler: Hillary Clinton.
The hit mobile game Pokémon Go used augmented reality to fill city streets and suburban cul-de-sacs with these virtual monsters (including Pikachu), which players could “catch” for perks. Although detractors called the game dangerous and distracting, it became a global phenomenon.
5. Harley Quinn
Margot Robbie’s twisted ringleader helped bring Suicide Squad $325 million at the box office—and her vexed coupling with the Joker (Jared Leto) catalyzed a debate over abuse and trauma in relationships. Also influential was her look, as Harley Quinn was the year’s top Halloween costume.
4. Barb from Stranger Things
The surprise star of Netflix’s Stranger Things (played by Shannon Purser) was a dowdy dork in her brief onscreen life, but after a supernatural demise became a symbol for misfits everywhere, inspiring countless memes and hashtags like #WeAreBarb.
Ryan Reynolds’ obscene superhero brought flair, irony and rudeness to the corny, earnest world of comic-book movies, breathing new life into a tired genre. Audiences were clearly ready: Deadpool helped Deadpool become the highest-grossing R-rated film ever worldwide.
The 57-year-old doll, long identified by her impossibly lithe physique, reinvented herself in 2016, when Mattel introduced several new body types (including curvy and petite) in an effort to boost sales—and to set a more inclusive beauty standard for Barbie’s millions of young female fans. The shift helped boost global sales of the Barbie Fashionista brand.
1. Pepe the Frog
The fringe comic character, created by artist Matt Furie in 2005, was best known for being a popular Internet meme with no political subtext—until this year, when he was co-opted by the so-called “alt-right.” After supporters of the movement, which has been associated with white supremacism, antifeminism and more, started altering Pepe's face for profane social-media posts, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) officially declared him a “hate symbol.” The news was widely covered as a turning point for Pepe, and for Internet culture in general. But Furie believes there’s hope for his “once-peaceful frog dude.” “In the end, Pepe is whatever you say he is,” he wrote in October, “and I, the creator, say that Pepe is love.”