From the deadliest pandemic in the last century, to some of the worst wildfires of all time, to violent political polarization, to the loss of several of our most beloved celebrities—not to mention, those pesky murder hornets!—2020 has been a difficult year, to say the very least. Still, in a shockingly impressive show of optimism and solidarity, people around the world continued to locate the silver linings among all of those very dark storm clouds, in the form of new virtual friendships, stronger social and political participation, and, of course, an abundance of memes.
The nonstop arrival of news that swung from the bizarre to the devastating from one minute to the next, plus the "new normal" of that aforementioned pandemic (maybe you've heard of it?), created something of a perfect storm for meme makers and lovers alike: While all but confined to their homes, people had plenty of time to create, retweet, and appreciate memes, and even more meme-able content pouring in each day. As we finally prepare to leave this exhausting year behind, take a look back at the 26 memes (and meme-able events) that defined 2020, arranged as chronologically as possible.
"I am once again asking..."
Bernie Sanders posted a video shortly before the end of 2019 urging his fans and followers to contribute to his presidential campaign and, within a few weeks, it had been thoroughly repurposed for a multitude of other uses. This one works on multiple levels, because while there are plenty of things you can swap in to ask for once again, the original quote, "I am once again asking for your financial support," is also very useful for anyone who isn't above begging their parents for coldbrew money.
Which is the best seat?
Another early 2020 meme that found its source material in the final hours of 2019, this one was sparked by a tweeter asking which seat on an older New York City subway car is the best (it's number four, don't @ me). The first week of January was then flooded with other seating position polls, with commenters weighing in on the best seat in a doomsday bunker, a Subway, an NYPD drunk tank, the Golden Globes, and the Seinfeld apartment. And yes, there's a correct answer to all of these.
"I just got impeached for making a perfect phone call."
Lest we forget, Donald Trump's Senate impeachment trial was just this year (yes, really). It kicked off on Jan. 16, at which point he took to Twitter to proclaim, with his usual subtlety, "I JUST GOT IMPEACHED FOR MAKING A PERFECT PHONE CALL!" The internet proceeded to identify many other iconic phone calls that were just as "perfect" as Trump's conversation with the president of Ukraine—like when you drunk dial your ex or when you're being quizzed about horror movies by a raging psychopath named Ghostface.
The Dolly Parton challenge
Dolly Parton didn't invent this concept—sharing photos of yourself that capture the specific vibes of LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, and Tinder—but she absolutely smashed it out of the park, sending it straight to the 2020 meme hall of fame. "Get you a woman who can do it all," wrote the woman who can put out a new Christmas album and movie, help cure COVID, and craft a flawless meme all in a matter of months.
Bong Joon Ho's Oscars
Another thing you probably forgot happened just this year? The 92nd Academy Awards and all the Parasite hype. After raking in four much-deserved Oscars, the film's director, Bong Joon Ho, spent the rest of the evening hamming it up by delivering hilarious interviews, "apologizing" for having too many awards, and, of course, making his statuettes kiss. And thus, a meme was born.
No one has this range.
It's a question for the ages: Does she have the range? According to this particular meme, which kicked off in February with a celebration of Margot Robbie's unquestionably vast abilities, those who do, indeed, have the range include Helena Bonham Carter, yeast, and Samantha the American Girl doll.
As we finally began to understand the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic, in early March, suddenly the hottest new trend for spring was thorough hand-washing. Those dissatisfied with the monotony of singing "Happy Birthday" twice to ensure they were scrubbing for long enough instead went searching for other 20-second snippets of songs, which could then be entered into a hand-washing diagram on the handy-dandy #WashYourLyrics site. We love an educational meme.
Almost immediately upon its March 20 release, Tiger King became the bonafide theme of what we might call season one of the quarantine. The Netflix docuseries shook viewers to their very cores and, as such, spawned an entire cottage industry of Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin memes. For a while there, you couldn't open a single social media app without being bombarded with cries of "Hey, all you cool cats and kittens." Many memories of 2020 may soon fade but, as I believe they say in Casablanca, we'll always have Tiger King.
Nature is healing!
Another early-COVID phenomenon saw people marveling at how nature reacted to humans' widespread quarantining. The Venice canals were clear again and a Welsh town was overrun by goats, apparently proving that—say it with me—we are the virus. Obviously, this concept was quickly stretched as far as possible, to delightful effect. Sending good vibes to all the Lime scooters finally returning to their rightful homes.
Gossip Girl anagrams
For all the memes this year that were directly inspired by some global event, perhaps just as many sprung up apropos of absolutely nothing. This was one such case, a particularly absurd trend in which the letters of Gossip Girl were rearranged to answer a random question posed by Blake Lively's Serena van der Woodsen to Leighton Meester's Blair Waldorf. Simultaneously mind-boggling and almost universally hilarious.
The Last Dance
The next docuseries to take the world by storm was ESPN's history of Michael Jordan's career. Like Tiger King, The Last Dance also spawned a plethora of memes, but perhaps the longest-lasting and most widely applicable was a snippet in which Jordan watched a video of Seattle player Gary Payton claiming he'd tired out the many-time MVP during the 1996 NBA Finals. Jordan's reaction is priceless—and endlessly meme-able.
The movie villain vs. the actual villain
Kylie Jenner promised that 2016 would be her year of "realizing stuff," but it seems that the rest of us only caught up this year. Case in point: This meme, in which we all finally admitted that certain characters—ahem, Sharpay Evans, Miranda Priestly, the East Compton Clovers—had been unfairly portrayed as the villains of their stories, when the real villains were much closer to the protagonists all along. Glad we cleared that up.
Sad Will Smith
In a shocking move, Jada Pinkett Smith brought herself to her Facebook show's titular Red Table in July to confess a 2015 "entanglement" with R&B singer August Alsina to her husband Will. Not only did the Red Table Talk offer a startlingly honest conversation between a husband and wife, but it also cemented the status of "entanglement" as the new "consciously uncoupled" in the realm of unnecessary celebrity euphemisms, and was instantly memed to death. Most widely used was a particularly sad shot of Will as he listened to his wife's confession—which was then applied to many other similarly soul-draining situations.
Is it cake?
Cakes that look like things other than cake are nothing new—Duff Goldman has been making them on Food Network since 2006—but there was a period in July when it felt like any video of any object on any social media platform might unexpectedly reveal that the object was not, in fact, a Croc, a roll of toilet paper, or a bottle of Pepto Bismol, but rather an expertly decorated cake. It was exhausting and terrifying, and the internet collectively revolted.
What ___ are you?
Another entry in the category of unpredictable and wholly absurd memes of 2020 is this one, which saw hundreds of Instagram accounts pop up overnight to helpfully inform you, based on your name, which chicken, cursed image, Kardashian, Real Housewife, or frog you are. Most kept their DMs open in case you couldn't find your name, though in this reporter's experience, making an earnest request often resulted in a particularly unflattering photo choice.
"I am going to create a ___ that is so ___."
Glee had a very bizarre resurgence this year, most notably in the form of unbridled hatred for Matthew Morrison and this meme, which alters Sue Sylvester's avowal to "create an environment that is so toxic" to meet any memer's needs. Interestingly, the meme has subtly changed forms over time: When it first appeared in June, Twitter users merely applied the original quote to new situations; within a few days, they began crossing out various words to create new sentences within the existing one. In its latest iteration, which seems to have started around the end of November, meme-makers have given up on finding any new words or sentences among the original quote and are simply slapping their own words and phrases over Sylvester's. That's what I call personal growth.
Us vs. 2020
Summertime was something of a breaking point for anyone who had been holding out hope since March that things would go back to "normal" anytime soon. Most of the new memes that arose around this time stemmed from some form of existential despair: There was the months of the year chart, made famous by Reese Witherspoon, the "me vs. 2020" trend that compared your naïve hopes for 2020 with what the year actually had in store for you, and the "how the email found me" posts, illustrating your actual response to the classic email opener. If there's a clearer indication that we were all extremely done with this year by about the halfway point, I have yet to find it.
Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams"
This one started and spread largely on TikTok and was less of a meme than a trend, but it brought a rare moment of joy to all of our lives and also got the actual members of Fleetwood Mac involved, so I'll allow it. Truly, is there anything more freeing than singing along to "Dreams" while skateboarding down a highway and chugging Ocean Spray straight from the bottle? No, no there is not.
How it started vs. how it's going
In a meta twist, this meme ended up going in several very different directions from the one in which it began. It started in late September with a tweeter showing off the results of sliding into her now-girlfriend's DMs, but the format was quickly recycled to apply to a whole host of situations, including breakups, aging, career trajectories, the effects of COVID, and, yes, the undeniable dumpster fire that is 2020. Resourceful!
You know, the fly that sat patiently on Mike Pence's head for two full minutes during the vice presidential debate in October and was promptly met with parody Twitter accounts, conspiracy theories, and designations as an American hero. The one that Lizzo dressed up as for Halloween. Need I say more?
Does COVID know to avoid private islands?
One thing that became abundantly clear this year is just how far removed from the real world some celebrities are. While many of us normies were losing jobs and struggling to pay rent, millionaire celebs tried to "relate" by complaining about being stuck inside their massive L.A. estates. They continued to staunchly avoid reading the room all year long, as was made abundantly clear when some stars chose not only to brazenly flout lockdown rules and travel restrictions, but also to assure their followers that their rule-breaking was completely safe because it took place on a private island—looking at you, Daniel Newman and Kim Kardashian.
The 2020 election
Joe Biden beat Donald Trump, and all I got was a deluge of memes! But actually—with the election dominating the news cycle for the better part of the year, the list of memes it spawned felt almost as interminable as the election itself. Highlights include Kamala Harris' overwhelmed "We did it, Joe," which has become a tongue-in-cheek rallying cry and pre-dinner prayer; jabs at Nevada's impossibly slow vote-counting; anything to do with Four Seasons Total Landscaping; and the "This claim is disputed" tag that Twitter finally started attaching to long strings of Trump's outbursts as he doubled down on his claims that the election was rigged (once again, for the record, it was not) and that people soon repurposed for their own favorite lies.
"Look who decided to come out of their room!"
The extremely rare meme that lives and dies within the span of just a few days, this one was pretty much confined to the long weekend of Thanksgiving. It perfectly encompasses the feeling of coming home for the holidays and immediately reverting to the most angsty phase of your teens, when your parents could never possibly understand you—often with a sprinkle of circa-2020 progressive politics. Aww, there's our little socialist!
They don't know
In a very eco-friendly twist, this meme was actually recycled from 2009, when the lo-fi drawing of the sad guy standing in the corner of a party was usually accompanied by a phrase that began with "I wish I was at home." In 2020, however, he seems to be more comfortable being out of the house—if no more engaged in the party—and prefers instead to spend his time ruminating on the secret talents, passions, and afflictions that his fellow partygoers can't see just by looking at him. Among these: preschool popularity, a septum piercing, low-key internet fame, COVID.
You've heard of Elf on a Shelf...
Somehow, no matter how many times nor in what format this meme resurfaces, it continues to be extremely charming. There's just something special about witnessing in real-time as celebrities discover all the pop culture icons that rhyme with their names. You've got Reese and Grease, (Mariah) Carey and (Jim) Carrey, Garcelle and Pharrell. This time around, at least, there's a bit of mystery involved, with the posters typically skipping over the punchline in their captions, forcing fans to use a little bit of brainpower to realize that, ah, it's Hanks on a Banks!
Should you worry about what's in the vaccine?
Not if you've ever done any of the following things, according to one of the last great memes of 2020: played in the ball pit at Chuck E. Cheese, used a straight man's towel, eaten at Burger King or Taco Bell, been to the Jersey Shore house, used three-in-one shower products, kissed your dog on the mouth, partied with Chelsea Handler in her 20s, lived in pretty much any college dorm, or dated an Aries or a Scorpio. See y'all in the vaccine line!