The 32 Most Defining Memes Of 2021
The feminine urge to document the most influential memes of the year.
On March 23, the container ship Ever Given was just makin’ its way downtown when strong winds wafted it off course, lodging it sideways in the Suez Canal. The vessel, bigger than the Empire State Building, blocked the global trade route for days, preventing billions of dollars of goods from reaching their destinations.
So, yeah, global trade disaster, the economy, sure, it wasn’t great. But over on the Good Ship The Internet, people spiraled it into a huge and undeniably delightful meme on Twitter symbolizing all of life’s most daunting obstacles. Ever Given wiggled free nearly a week later (because of THE MOON!!!), but I, for one, support the stuck ship getting stuck again sometime.
2. Sea Shanties
Speaking of nautical memes, sea shanties had a huge moment in early January, searing them into history as one of the first major memes of 2021. Scottish singer Nathan Evans posted a rendition of “The Wellerman” on TikTok in the last week of 2020. In the following weeks, it blew up with people duetting it, layering their own vocals and instrumentation until it turned into a gradually growing viral chorus.
A number of other 19th-century maritime folk songs also became hugely viral after that. Their popularity might’ve had something to do with the timing; between a pandemic winter and a deadly insurrection, things were feeling pretty bleak. These simple, catchy earworms — and the creative camaraderie they sparked — were a wholesome reprieve.
Chevron print. Mugs emblazoned with #girlboss (see #8) or “but first, coffee.” Posting a picture of your significant other on Instagram and captioning it “my forever wedding date😍.” These highly specific things, and many others, are what one might label as “cheugy.” The term (pronounced chew-ghee) entered the public consciousness in a TikTok on March 30, but the woman who posted it told the New York Times that she and her friends had been using it since she coined it in 2013 to describe the basic millennial aesthetic.
Though the TikTok had gotten pretty big on its own, it was only after Yahoo and the New York Times published articles about it that “cheugy” blew up across social platforms and received tons of media coverage and freakouts by 30-somethings. In reality, the backlash far outweighed the prevalence of anyone actually using the term, but the culture was already primed for some millennial-versus–Gen Z warfare; in the preceding months, discourse had been percolating that zoomers had “canceled” skinny jeans and side parts. And while there had been a handful of anti–skinny jean TikToks that set it in motion, they were vastly outweighed by millennials’ anti–anti–skinny jeans/pro–side part TikToks (including a few in the form of musical parody, which, of course, is the most cheugy form of comedy). Basically, no one’s actually calling anyone cheugy, and in fact, calling someone cheugy would be pretty cheugy. (Except BuzzFeed, which is def cheugy.)
4. Bernie Sanders’ Mittens
It’s hard to believe President Biden was inaugurated this year, but he was, which was also how we wound up with easily the biggest political meme of 2021. Outside the Capitol on Jan. 20, Sen. Sanders was photographed wearing an extremely practical parka and mittens while carrying a manila envelope in a look that can best be described as “Vermont dad popping out for a quick errand.” The image instantly became a massive meme, with people inserting the photo into various images like a sort of Where’s Waldo? puzzle. (This was, as returning readers of this series know, Bernie’s second year in a row making it into the annual meme compendium.)
In an interview on Late Night With Seth Meyers days later, Sanders said he’d seen the memes, explaining he had just “sitting there, trying to keep warm.” He gave a shoutout to the second-grade teacher who handknit the mittens for him after he lost his bid for president in 2016.
5. Noodle the Pug
Bones or no bones? This was the question that determined our days, and the answer came from Noodle, a 13-year-old pug who became one of TikTok’s biggest stars this year. Each morning, Noodle’s owner, Jonathan Graziano, hoists the senior dog out of bed to see if he’ll stand up. When he succeeds, it is declared a “Bones Day,” and when he instead slumps back into bed as if he has not a single bone in his body — you guessed it — that’s a “No Bones Day.” Graziano started posting these videos in August, but they began getting millions of views in October, and the concept of “Bones Days” became a pervasive part of the online lexicon. Like reading tea leaves, but with an adorably floppy pup.
6. Couch Guy
Long-distance relationships can be tough, but they’re probably a lot tougher if half the internet bands together to accuse you of cheating on your girlfriend. That’s what happened to Robert McCoy in September after his girlfriend, Lauren Zarras, posted a TikTok of her surprising him at his college. Presumably, she thought viewers would find it heartwarming, but it backfired immensely. Comments poured in insisting McCoy’s demeanor “was not excited at all” and that they could “feel the awkward tension.”
People speculated he was cheating with one of the other women on the couch. The couple denied anything was wrong. Zarras defended him in the comments, and McCoy (who by now was better known as “Couch Guy”) posted his own TikTok, saying, “don’t be a creep,” under which commenters accused him of gaslighting. Some people even broke the video down frame by frame to “prove” McCoy was disloyal and that the couple would soon split.
Zarras and McCoy beat the odds and are still together — but even months later, her TikTok comments remain a mess; people are obsessively checking in to see if they’ve broken up and picking apart everything she posts to theorize on the state of their relationship. In an essay for Slate in December, McCoy said the ordeal was reminiscent of True Crime TikTok’s history of people going too far with their sleuthing, like what happened with the Gabby Petito case and how Sabrina Prater, a trans woman who posts dancing TikToks, was targeted by a baseless conspiracy theory that she was a serial killer.
“There will inevitably be more Couch Guys or Praters in the future,” McCoy wrote. “When they appear on your For You page, I implore you to remember that they are people, not mysteries for you to solve.”
7. Astronaut in the Ocean
🎶 Whatchu know about rollin’ down in the deep? 🎶 I apologize to everyone who spent all of 2021 on TikTok for getting this stuck in your head again. “Astronaut in the Ocean” by Australian rapper Masked Wolf came out in 2019 but went hugely viral this year until it felt like it was in almost every other TikTok. People got preeeetty sick of it. As part of the backlash, the song became a sort of rickroll, with people mashing it up into other songs. “Bro I felt nauseous for a second,” one person commented on a mashup of the song with Katy Perry’s “Roar.”
8. Gatekeep, Gaslight, Girlboss
The mythical “girlboss” jumped the millennial pink shark before the year even began. Women founders of chic, statusy companies — including the Wing, Away, and Reformation — faced accusations of toxic and even racist workplaces and not living up to the progressive ethos so outwardly key to their brands. Girlbosses, it turned out, didn’t lead the revolution (and were, in fact, kinda cringe).
Though the ironic usage of “girlboss” was already common by 2020 to highlight the emptiness of corporate feminism, this year gave us the ultimate catchphrase for aspiring she-EOs everywhere: “gatekeep, gaslight, girlboss.” The phrase first appeared on Tumblr in January, according to Know Your Meme, and quickly took internet culture by storm (particularly in TikTok comments). Another phrase, “girlbossed a bit too close to the sun,” also became a meme on TikTok. (Honorable mention goes to being “a woman in STEM.”
9. The Backyardigans
The Backyardigans, a musical children’s show that aired on Nickelodeon from 2004 to 2013, had a major nostalgic resurgence on TikTok this spring, starting when TikToker Merlysha Pierre posted in April about the program’s numerous “supersonic bops.” Several of the show’s original songs, including “Into the Thick of It,” and “International Super Spy,” went viral, and “Castaways” became so popular it reached the top of Spotify’s global viral chart.
The show’s voice actors, as well as lyricists and composers behind the music, told BuzzFeed News in June they were moved and amazed to see their work being celebrated so widely years later.
“I’m still floored at how many years have gone by and people are making this a big thing, but I also understand, because I smile every time I think of The Backyardigans,” said Jamia Simone Nash, the singing voice behind Uniqua. “Being a part of everyone’s childhood, that’s been the best part of my career.”
10. Kathryn Hahn Winking
2021 was all about embracing your femininity when it came to this meme. Starting in October, tweets about ones’ highly specific “feminine urges” — “to hunt and gather (steal),” “to hold your boob when you’re bored,” “to die for Harry Styles” — were everywhere on the site, and they quickly spread to Instagram and TikTok. Despite the chokehold it had across platforms, the meme actually originated months earlier on Tumblr (a common genesis with these kinds of text-based memes), according to Know Your Meme.
12. “No Children” by the Mountain Goats
A 2002 indie-folk song about divorce may not scream viral TikTok challenge contender, but 2021 finds a way. The depressing tune started taking off on the platform in October and wound up spiraling into a whole dance trend (featuring a lot of cats).
The Mountain Goats’ lead singer John Darnielle told Vox it felt odd to learn of the virality of “No Children,” but he’s happy to see a new generation enjoying the band’s music. “There is a certain joy in sort of feeling like, well, the kids have got a thing going on that I’m not going to fully get. But I can just enjoy watching,” he said. “I think people fear getting older and fear that they’ll feel left out, but there’s a kind of buoyancy in that left-out quality sometimes, if you ride it the right way.”
13. Prince Harry, Meghan Markle, and Oprah
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s sitdown interview with Oprah Winfrey was undoubtedly one of the biggest TV events of 2021. The conversation was full of bombshells that left many stunned — including Winfrey herself, whose expression of shock wound up becoming a huge reaction meme on Twitter.
14. Bama Rush
One wild week in August, people suddenly found their TikTok feeds flooded with blonde women in Shein statement earrings, Steve Madden wedges, and brightly colored skirts and dresses from somewhere called “Pants Store.” We’re talking, of course, about sorority rush at the University of Alabama, with other Southern schools hopping in on the trend soon after. Videos of the potential new members (PNMs) showing off their outfits before each recruitment round went viral, catapulting some of them to TikTok stardom faster than you can say “jewelry is normal.” #BamaRush became such a sensation that people posted their predictions guessing what sorority each PNM would get into, and some dressed up for parody TikToks sharing their own “oh oh tee dees.”
15. Berries and Cream
If you spent any time on YouTube in the 2000s, you might remember this little lad and his love of berries and cream. The 2007 ad for Starburst was a viral hit at the time, but this summer, it had something of a renaissance and fully took over TikTok. You could hardly scroll through your feed without getting rickrolled by the jingle or seeing someone dancing the signature jig.
The original “little lad,” performance artist Jack Ferver, even got in on the fun, starting their own TikTok account where they dress up and perform as the iconic character. “What I found interesting was writing back to people who were commenting, and really getting into that zone of performing the Little Lad,” Ferver told the New York Times. “It’s another performance art piece.”
16. Here Comes the Boy
🎶 Here comes the boyyyy, hello boy, welcome, there he is, he is here… 🎶 This little ad-libbed jingle became one of TikTok’s most wholesome audio memes over the summer when user @june_banoon posted a video singing it to a neighbor’s cat (named Johnny, but who goes by the excellent nickname “Mashed Potatoes”).
Naturally, everyone loved it, and a ton of people made duets, accompanying it on pianos, guitars, violins, flutes, harps, and trumpets and layering on their own vocal harmonies until it was transformed into a gorgeous, cumulative symphony.
17. Mommy? Sorry. Mommy?
And now, clinching the elusive 2021 title of horniest meme of the year! “Mommy. Sorry? Mommy,” first originated in August, when TikTok user @roofjesus said it in a thirsty post about their girlfriend. The audio blew up, especially among queer women on the platform.
But the place the phrase became most ubiquitous was in comment sections; scroll through the comments on any thirst-trappy TikTok and you’re bound to find it. Some have criticized the trend, saying the comments sexualize people who didn’t ask to be.
18. People Kildren
This kicked off in a TikTok by @lawrinkydink from May where he attempts to sing the Black Eyed Peas’ classic “Where Is the Love?” and gets the lyrics totally wrong, making up words while attempting to remember them. His version goes “children peekle, people kildren.” Inspired by the commitment to continue even when clueless, people started making their own videos to it. Like in this one, a TikTok user counts how many times he uses the same wrong words in the video. In another, someone wrote out the entire lyrics and that eventually led to a really soothing cover.
19. Bean Dad
There’s an old adage that every day there is a main character of Twitter, and “the goal is to never be it.” That goal was promptly fumbled by podcaster John Roderick, or as you more likely know him, “Bean Dad,” who on Jan. 2 tweeted a thread about how, as a “teaching moment,” he made his 9-year-old daughter spend hours trying to figure out how to open a can of beans rather than just open it for her himself.
What transpired was a backlash so fierce that “milkshake ducking” could ostensibly be renamed “bean dadding.” People piled on Roderick, criticizing his parenting and accusing him of child abuse (he later said a few even reported him to Child Protective Services). Roderick deleted his account after offensive tweets he’d posted years prior were resurfaced, and he wound up apologizing (both for those tweets, as well as the thread) in a lengthy blog post.
20. White Girl Dancing
Whilst the observation that white girls dance just slightly offbeat with their hands in the air has been long noted by historians, this year it really took off as a meme. Videos of people dancing with their hands in the air, typically to the Calvin Harris song “How Deep Is Your Love,” became a meme in early summer this year. Black people on TikTok then started lifting their White Claws in the air to do the dance too. One Black TikToker told Mashable he found the white girl dance to be “freeing.”
21. Two Guys on the Bus
The meme of the two people on opposite sides of a bus, where one of the passengers gets a view and the other does not, really took off in mid-November. The way it works in meme form is by associating something negative with the sad-faced passenger looking out at the hill and something positive with the lucky fellow looking out at the view. According to Know Your Meme, the meme was first used by Brazilian Twitter users and then it made its way to Reddit and eventually back to the English-speaking side of Twitter. Now lots of people have filled in their own texts, such as sad boy’s “people remembering their childhoods” sitting across from smiling “their moms being like ‘that’s not how I remember it’” guy.
“Naur” is a play on how Australians pronounce the word “no” with stan Twitter really turning it into a ~cool~ way of disagreeing with something. It also became popular through the TikTok meme based on the Australian TV show H2O where people would remake a scene and say “Oh naur Cleo.” For those of you who know about the speaking in italics meme, “naur” is pronounced like the italic version of “no.” Or, if you’re Aussie, it’s just pronounced correctly.
BuzzFeed News senior culture writer (and noted Australian) Estelle Tang explained in her story that “naur”’ took off after a viral TikTok where someone screamed it and the comments of that video ended up filled only with the word. People didn’t only say “naur” with the Aussie twang; they also started making memes about its pronunciation, such as this Normani tweet that has us wheezing into our Vegemite toast.
23. The Omarion Variant
The announcement of the Omicron variant of coronavirus was met with the same exhausted but frenzied energy as Delta: memes. However, this time, thanks to the variant’s name’s similarity to that of the musician and former lead singer of B2K, the meme potential was even wilder. The internet renamed it “the Omarion variant,” posting videos and photos of the Californian singer (he even joined in himself on the tweets). Omarion dancing in the music video for the song aptly named “Touch” was the perfect meme, as was this one riffing off the lyrics from his song “Post to Be.” This moment made the “my plans vs. the Delta variant” tweets feel like a lifetime ago.
24. Immortal Snail
Imagine this: You are offered millions of dollars and the chance to become immortal. The catch? A giant snail — whose mere touch will kill you instantly — also becomes immortal and will hunt you down for eternity. This hypothetical scenario originated in 2014 on the podcast Rooster Teeth but resurfaced in August in a TikTok from @benjhandy. By October, the immortal snail had became a meme in its own right, with tons of people making TikToks about it (usually paired with John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” for inexplicable reasons) depicting their eternal hell evading the slimy menace’s slow but unrelenting pursuit.
25. Waking Up in the Morning
🎶Waking up in the morning, thinking about so many things…🎶 Easily one of the biggest musical memes of the year, this song could most often be found in TikToks of people revealing their most embarrassing moments. It comes from a 2011 episode of Real Housewives of New Jersey, during which a then–10-year-old Gia Giudice performed an emotional rendition of her made-up song in an effort to convince her mom and uncle to stop fighting.
The now–20-year-old took her belated viral fame in stride, posting her own TikTok in March lip-synching to it. In an interview with Andy Cohen on Watch What Happens Live, Giudice said she never imagined her song would blow up a decade later, “but honestly, I think it’s so funny and I’m just owning it at this point.”
If you’ve seen Lin-Manuel Miranda with a full contour, the Quaker Oats guy with platinum blonde hair extensions, or all four members of Weezer with lip fillers and a smoky eye, you probably already know this one. One of the biggest LGBTQ memes of the year, “yassification” consisted of editing images of famous figures in FaceApp to transform them into the Instagram Face version of themselves. The word “yassification” (derived from “yaaas queen,” the term that originated with queer people of color in 1980s ball culture but went mainstream in the mid-2010s thanks to Broad City and a Lady Gaga fan’s video) first appeared on Twitter in 2020, according to Know Your Meme, but it wasn’t until this November that it fully took off. “Yassified” images started bubbling up all over Twitter and TikTok, particularly on the account @YassifyBot. Denver Adams, the 22-year-old art student behind the account, told BuzzFeed News in November that they hope their creations make people consider how apps like FaceApp can contribute to unhealthy beauty standards.
“The bottom line is it’s a satire of this ageist technology and insane beauty standards through these artificial intelligence apps,” Adams said.
27. Gorgeous Gorgeous Girls
Hot girl summer may have come and gone, but 2021 was all about being a gorgeous, gorgeous girl. The phrase comes from an August TikTok, in which user @fishdress professed that “gorgeous, gorgeous girls love soup.” It went massively viral, and tons of people posted their own versions, with the expression becoming ubiquitous on Twitter as well.
The markers of a gorgeous, gorgeous girl vary widely, but may include loving pickles, taking the train because they can’t drive, listening to Simple Plan, having stomach problems, adopting pit bulls, getting their booster shot, and pretending “to be Beth March dying of scarlet fever every time they’re near the sea.” Really, anyone can be a gorgeous, gorgeous girl if they decide they are one.
28. Milk Crate Challenge
This is a challenge that probably shouldn’t have taken off the way it did. The Milk Crate Challenge involved stacking crates into a pyramid and scaling it — often to disastrous results. Doctors advised against it, with some telling the Washington Post they had treated patients who’d taken part.
People would film themselves walking up the crates like stairs, but because of the lack of stability, many wound up brutally wiping out. Even so, people continued to attempt the challenge, and one woman even completed it in high heels.
The internet did its bit to warn people of the danger, with the best meme PSA being, of course, the edit of “Jason Derulo” tumbling down the crates.
29. I Know It Ain’t the Stallion
This meme comes from none other than the queen Keke Palmer, who was the red carpet presenter for Vogue at this year’s Met Gala. When Megan Thee Stallion walked up, she said, “Oh oh oh, I know it ain’t… I know it ain’t the staaallion… You know it's your girl!” and the rest was history.
That audio really took off on TikTok when a user remixed it with a keyboard. The sound went viral, and users made their own versions in the same format. For example, “I know it ain’t the consequences of my actions,” which JoJo Siwa used.
Palmer later addressed the meme in an interview with Entertainment Tonight. “Why am I at my job doing that?” she said. “I don’t know what it is with me.”
30. Red Flags
The red flag meme is one of the few memes from this year that will definitely make it long term: It’s short, simple, and memorable. First started on Black Twitter with people naming obvious negative traits someone could have, it quickly escalated from actual red flags about a person to just straight-up jokes. Obviously brand accounts jumped on it like they would any good meme, with MTV getting ratioed hard for their own red flag attempt.
31. The Girls That Get It, Get It
This came from a TikTok user by the name of @khaenotbae from a video she posted in November. In a comment underneath, she explained she was mimicking Flavor of Love’s Tiffany Pollard.
People have used the sound in TikToks about little inside jokes or life hacks they swear by, such as tips for makeup or filming TikToks. Though her audio went viral, TikTok somehow removed her original video but the sound remained up.
In case the voice sounds familiar to you, the TikTok user responsible for this sound is also the mastermind behind: “And by the way, I have a question and don’t fight me because I know how you girls like to tussle.”
32. Good Soup
“Good soup,” a meme for when the soup is good (shoutout to my gorgeous, gorgeous girls). The simple audio clip comes from one of the final episodes of Girls, in which Adam Driver and Lena Dunham decide to part ways. Punctuating the emotional conversation held in a diner booth, Driver eats a spoonful of soup, throws up the “OK” hand sign, and says “good soup.” Though the episode aired in 2017, it wasn’t until August that it made its way to TikTok, and it quickly became a huge meme used to all sorts of wacky ends.
In an interview with Screenrant, Driver said he was aware of the meme but didn’t really get it. “I mean, like I understand what memes are, I guess, but it’s not something I keep track of or am tracking,” he said.
No worries, Adam, that’s what we’re here for.