You don’t need us to tell you that 2020 was a rollercoaster of intense emotions, from frustration to boredom to sadness to anger. You also don’t need us to tell you that memes helped many cope with this long, long year.
Memes were a force in 2020. A force to vent, a force to call for change, a force to find normalcy, a force for finding connection, more than ever, memes became a shared language that bridged gaps during lockdown, but also widened partisan splits. The Cheezburger Cat and Success Kid memes of a younger internet has matured into waves of jokes that betray a more biting, more cynical online community. The memes of 2020 reflected an internet that has become desensitized to the burning house around it and the phrase “this is fine” is more of a plea than a resignation. Memes, and the internet which spawns them, have been sharpened to a fine, sometimes desperate, point.
At the same time, memes continue to exist as they always have: inclusive inside jokes and an entertaining shorthand for life’s very specific experiences. They still spark recognition and even community, whether people connect over COVID-19’s impact on mental health or about waiting to order coffee.
They also continue to be joyfully, immeasurably dumb. Look no further than when a picture of a carp blanketed most of Twitter earlier this month.
Through group chats, social media, oversharing coworkers and so many other ways, memes brought many together, pushed many apart and brought levity to extended crisis after extended crisis. So as 2020 comes to a close, we’ve rounded up some of the memes that captured the true essence of this unprecedented year—and left an indelible impression on the internet in their wake.
Bernie Sanders is once again asking
It seems safe to say that no one on the Bernie 2020 campaign team could’ve predicted that a December 2019 video of the then-Democratic presidential candidate candidly requesting donations while strolling down a snowy street would result in the screengrab that launched a thousand memes. But that’s exactly what became of a still from a fundraising ad featuring Sanders bundled up against the cold, asking his supporters for financial aid.
So many people were left wanting this year. And a snug Bernie, chapped in the winter cold, provided the perfect avatar to ask for help.
Going full Sue Sylvester mode
Glee‘s six-season run may have ended in 2015, but you’d never know that from online memes. While it felt like someone was working to sabotage all our lives from behind the scenes, it’s easy to see why Sue Sylvester—McKinley High’s ultimate saboteur and played by the legendary Jane Lynch—enjoyed a resurgence in meme popularity.
The ruthless cheer coach striving to create the most toxic environment possible was a full 2020 mood in itself, but it wasn’t always an accusation. While many used Sue’s threat as a way to vilify those seeking destruction, the meme was also often used in the first person by those gleefully bringing a bit more chaos into the world.
Animal Crossing to the rescue
Weeks after New York City shut down, Nintendo released the perfect game to play in the middle of a pandemic. Animal Crossing is a game that relies on players to have ample time to spend collecting, decorating and personalizing things only to show them to other people who have collected, decorated and personalized their own life away. The game is a deeply relaxing, pleasant experience, full of cute characters and charming moments. Millions of people, many of whom claimed not to be regular video game players, dug into crafting their island and learned what it feels like to be deeply in debt to a tanuki.
Though there was no single meme that swept the internet, Animal Crossing inspired multiple riffs, one offs, subgenres and fandoms based around the game. This lovely game allowed an escape in the game and in the memes it helped create.
Pope Francis gives his blessing
On the internet, nothing is sacred. So it’s no surprise that the concept of Photoshopping the Pope offering up a communion wafer in religious reverence took off on Twitter. Even though people have been editing this particular picture since it first appeared online in 2013, Twitter users put a new spin on the meme by employing the social media site’s tiled image format to make it look like Pope Francis was holding everything from Simba to the Twilight DVDs to an Auntie Anne’s pretzel.
How it started vs. how it’s going
No matter what you thought 2020 would bring when the clock struck midnight on Jan. 1, it probably wasn’t a global pandemic that would send the world into lockdown for months on end. Of course, that’s why a meme format making fun of scenarios where things don’t quite work out how you expect was pretty much universally relatable this year—even if it did start out as a cutesy way to brag about your relationship.
Though this meme can be seen a riff on My Plans vs. 2020, it wasn’t only used to denounce the year. In a refreshingly positive twist, for many this meme became a way to showcase how far they had come in learning skills, achieving goals, sharing childhood pictures or even proudly showing off their identity.
The trolley problem
It may be grim, but so is 2020. The trolley problem is a famous thought experiment that asks people to weigh in on the ethical dilemma of whether it’s better to let a runaway trolley take its course and kill a group of people, or divert the trolley and kill only one to save the others. Finding new ways to frame this problem, with the height of internet gallows humor, became a staple of online coronavirus discourse this year.
The meme was often used to highlight binary choices that many believed were not binary choices at all. Can the world’s richest country afford to help keep the economy afloat, or should businesses stay open even if hundreds of thousands of people die? Is wearing a face mask protecting people, those they love and their community, or is it a complete loss of personal liberty?
Trolly problem memes questioned the very nature of these choices, and are meant to highlight the absurdity of limited thinking.
Nature is healing
As carbon emissions dropped in the early part of the year as COVID-19 brought much of the world to a screeching halt, people began posting heartwarming photos and videos of animals supposedly returning to urban areas. Many of those viral posts turned out to be misleading. But on the bright side, they did set Twitter users up for one of the best parody-driven meme formats of the year: “nature is healing, we are the virus.”
D.W. through the fence
Where summer 2016 gave us the Arthur clenching his fist meme, spring 2020 gave us a resurgence in popularity of the D.W. peering longingly through a fence meme.
Scenes from the beloved ’90s PBS children’s show Arthur have long been fodder for relatable online jokes, but perhaps never more so than when people began missing the everyday outings—from getting their nails done to grabbing margs with friends—that make life enjoyable while staying home amid coronavirus. The FOMO is so, so real and, in the simplicity of the image, many immediately recognized their own yearning.
Everything is cake
In July, BuzzFeed’s food website Tasty shared a video compilation of a chef cutting into a number of hyper-realistic cakes decorated to look like everyday objects, including a Croc shoe, roll of toilet paper and potted plant. The internet quickly arrived at the conclusion that, in a year when nothing else made sense, it was entirely possible for anything at all to actually to turn out to be cake.
Collective “everything is cake” anxiety took over, and nothing has been the same online since. This post is probably cake.
Play how you feel
At the end of the summer, Nathan Apodaca reflected our own collective vibe with nothing but a skateboard, some cranberry juice and “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac. A short TikTok showed him skating down the street, taking a swig of juice and singing the words “it’s only right for you to play the way you feel.” It was one of the most beautiful moments in 2020.
On TikTok alone, the video received over 77 million views. It caught the attention of Fleetwood Mac co-founder Mick Fleetwood. It sent “Dreams” to the very top of iTunes. It spawned a “Dreams” challenge. And gave us all a few seconds to chill this year.
Four Seasons Total Landscaping
One of the most bizarre stories that played out on the national stage, which is saying something, happened on Nov. 7, the day most major news networks called Joe Biden the winner of the presidential election. That morning, Rudy Giuliani held a press conference in the parking lot of the Four Seasons Total Landscaping company, located in Northeast Philadelphia between a sex shop and a crematorium.
At 9:35 a.m. that day, President Trump tweeted that there would be a meeting held at the Four Seasons, which many took to be the hotel chain. Ten minutes later, he tweeted again, saying “Big press conference today in Philadelphia at Four Seasons Total Landscaping,” which, no offense to the business, many in the press had never heard of.
Thanks to a tweet from Philly’s Four Seasons hotel, it seemingly came to light that someone in the Trump camp had mistaken the family-owned landscaping business, for the luxury downtown hotel. While the Trump campaign denied there was a mistake, that stopped few people from assuming that the whole press conference, bafflingly held adjacent to a busy, noisy highway, was a huge self-own.
Don’t worry about what’s in the vaccine
As misinformation surrounding the recently introduced COVID-19 vaccines has ramped up—a development that’s led to increased vaccine hesitancy among Americans—some pro-vaxxers have turned to memes to comfort those afraid to get vaccinated.
One increasingly popular online bit asks people to reconsider their thoughts on the vaccine if they’ve ever participated in a number of common experiences that could potentially have more worrisome side effects.
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