Nowadays, memes go through the internet like excrement through the titular character of the The Untitled Goose Game. As we’re rocketing through this information superhighway like fish in a tube (remember when the people of Twitter longed to be salmon?), clasping onto bits of digital detritus just long enough to see if they spark joy before discarding them, trying to remember even last week’s best meme can feel hilariously futile. (You know, like a woman yelling at a cat.) Once you start scrolling back through the year in memes, though, it’s a bit like trying kombucha for the first time—by turns, disorienting and potentially gross, then rather pleasing.
The year 2019 has been a difficult and uneven one. Online, political memes flew back and forth like spitballs, and even some of the most innocent ones (like that fish tube) took on a sense of ecstatic nihilism. People also had fun this year, finding joy in the mundanely bizarre—like watching hundreds of gummy bears appear to be singing along with Adele. Here are some of the year’s most important memes, great and gross alike.
30 to 50 Feral Hogs
In early August, the nation was grieving two back-to-back mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas, and country musician Jason Isbell tweeted in support of banning assault weapons. In response, Arkansas dad Willie McNabb authored a now-famous tweet: “Legit question for rural Americans,” he wrote. “How do I kill the 30-50 feral hogs that run into my yard within 3-5 mins while my small kids play?” The phrase “30 to 50 feral hogs” swiftly became a meme, a kind of latter-day “thoughts and prayers,” a way to express frustration with America’s gun-control laws in the face of preventable violence. As I wrote at the time, “The banality of mass shootings and politicians’ callous response is brain-breaking, and so is the diversity of experience in America. It’s hard to find consensus when one person’s absurdist image is another person’s backyard.”
If the internet had a favorite child in 2019, it was the Child: the breakout star of The Mandalorian, the tiniest, greenest, most lovably bat-eared Force user in the Star Wars universe, Baby Yoda. Without a word (and with some very cute sips of soup), Baby Yoda conquered the internet with memes. People Photoshopped the little cherub into every situation you can imagine, went mad captioning screenshots, professed undying love, and then—as things hit Peak Weird—people started admitting that they wanted to breastfeed it. Baby Yoda is still a young meme and the The Mandalorian isn’t over, so this internet culture moment’s future is hard to see. One thing remains clear: Love Baby Yoda, you must.
Epstein Didn’t Kill Himself
Disgraced financier and convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein took his own life in prison last August while awaiting trial for trafficking minors. Because Epstein was connected with powerful figures, and because the guards outside his door were asleep and the cell contained no cameras, his death sparked conspiracy theories repeated by journalists and politicians alike. The theories (which suppose anyone from President Donald Trump and the Clintons to “the deep state” might have wanted the guy dead) are united by a single sentence that has become a meme: “Epstein didn’t kill himself.” It’s appeared in news clips, on sweatshirts, and most recently, defacing a piece of art valued at $120,000 that happens to be a banana duct-taped to a wall. “It’s like a billboard for disillusionment and mistrust,” I wrote this November. “And it’s everywhere.”
Storm Area 51
When Matty Roberts created a Facebook event this June proposing that the American people storm Area 51, notorious fount of alien-related conspiracy theories, because “they can’t stop us all,” he was joking. Then 2 million people said they were “going,” and 1.5 million more were “interested.” The flurry generated media attention, stern warnings from the US military, and so many alien memes you hoped somebody would beam you up to get away from it all. When the scheduled date for the event arrived this September, only 134 people showed up and none made it inside, though about 1,500 more attended Storm Area 51 meme-themed music festivals that day. No aliens were discovered, but it was a lesson in the power—and at times, strange pretendness—of internet culture.
If you’re over 40 and have displeased a teen this year, you may have even heard this meme aloud. After years of stuffy, out-of-touch articles about how millennials (and now Gen Z) are killing off industries from diamonds and real estate to napkins with their frivolous ways and politics-infused complaints, younger generations came up with this blunt dismissal of their own. It’s intergenerational tension boiled down to a single phrase: “OK boomer.” It’s been used to protest racism and climate change denialism almost as often as it’s been a snippy response to an uncle. Each time, though, it hits the mark.
Hot Girl Summer
Everyone—men and women, young and old, from the Kardashians to Tom Hanks—had a “hot girl summer” this year thanks to Houston rapper Megan Thee Stallion. The MC’s catchphrase became a go-to Instagram caption, YouTube video title, tweet, headline, IRL quip, and marketing slogan. It was a chance for everyone to embrace their own sexy in a season often filled with potential body shaming, and for Megan Thee Stallion, it was a business opportunity. Embracing a trend among meme creators (and meme creators of color in particular), she quickly trademarked the phrase, avoiding the all-too-common fate her predecessors have faced: a corporation something you created and monetizing the crap out of it by selling merchandise without offering you a cent. Her fans were thrilled.
Sorry to This Man
The setup sounds like internet culture Mad Libs: Hustlers star Keke Palmer was taking a lie detector test as part of a Vanity Fair interview when she was asked if her character True Jackson from True Jackson, VP was a better vice president than Dick Cheney, and then was shown a photo of Cheney. Palmer genuinely had no idea who the former vice president was. “I don’t know who this man is,” she said. “I mean, he could be walking down the street, I wouldn’t know a thing. Sorry to this man.” The phrase became a meme, used as a stock reply to anything confusing or worthy of dismissal, a wholly unapologetic sort of apology often with a feminist bent. It’s easy to see why it went viral: “Sometimes,” I wrote this September, “ignorance is diss.”
The Game of Thrones Cup
Of all the many memes that accompanied the final season of Game of Thrones, none was quite so emblematic of the experience of watching the show as the very anachronistic white coffee cup viewers spotted on a table beside Daenerys Targaryen. It was a crowning embarrassment for HBO in an already poorly received season, and a bitter disappointment for fans who felt that a story they had been invested in for a decade was being given a slapdash finish. It was also Photoshopped into oblivion and sparked a great many jokes: Was it a flat wight, or perhaps a Lord of the Light roast? At the time, the only winner I saw was Starbucks, who many assumed were the purveyors of the cup: “They’ve gotten an estimated $2.3 billion in free advertising, and the cup isn’t even theirs.” As for the rest of us, our watch is over.
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