The 50 Best Memes of 2021, Explained
This year’s funniest, weirdest and most chaotic viral internet videos, images and jokes
2021 was surely a year of highs and lows. Besides that little insurrection at the Capitol to start us off, the New Year looked promising: vaccines were coming and some semblance of normalcy seemed to be in reach. And it was, for a while, before the Delta and Omicron variants pushed us back into uncertainty.
Frankly, no one has any idea what exactly is going on at the moment, and you might be feeling anxious, worried and overwhelmingly exhausted by our current timeline — at least I am.
It’s why I — InsideHook’s resident meme expert — compiled a list of the year’s best memes in hopes to take our minds off the current hellish state of affairs and laugh at the funniest, weirdest and most chaotic viral internet videos, images and jokes that saw us through a tumultuous 2021.
Bernie Sanders at the Inauguration
2021 kicked off with one of the best yet. It is of course Senator Bernie Sanders attending Joe Biden’s inauguration in a hilariously practical fit. While many attendees were sporting designer, Sanders opted for a casual look that included his iconic mittens. The look, paired with Sanders’ unenthused body language, inspired so many memes and superimposed photos of the senator in various settings, like riding the NYC subway and hanging out inside famous works of art.
The Meghan Markle and Prince Harry Oprah Interview
Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s bombshell interview with Oprah Winfrey exposed many shocking truths about the royal family including an unnamed member of the family expressing concerns over baby Archie’s skin color, Tyler Perry housing the Duke and Duchess in one of his California homes, and that Prince Charles stopped taking Harry’s calls. Apparently, Oprah was just as shocked as we were because she gave us so many meme-worthy reactions.
For the Better, Right? (Anakin and Padme)
This four-panel meme comes from a scene in the 2002 film Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, where Anakin and Padme are on a picnic discussing the Galactic Republic’s system of governance and their differing opinions on how it should run. The first variation of the meme was posted by Twitter user @starwarsposting with invented subtitles, not the actual film’s dialogue. Still, the subtitles align with Anakin’s progression to becoming an evil Sith and you get the gist of what the meme and its many variations are trying to convey, right?
Agnes Harkness Winking
Kathyrn Kahn as Agatha Harkness in Marvel’s television series WandaVision gave plenty of iconic moments throughout the show, but her exaggerated wink inspired a plethora of memes used to indicate an obvious lie.
The CDC says …
When the CDC made an unexpected (and arguably premature) announcement that fully vaccinated people no longer have to wear masks indoors or outdoors, the internet reacted to the news by coming up with even more guidelines for those fully vaccinated.
The ship that got stuck in the Suez Canal
Poor Ever Given somehow wedged herself into an unfortunate position in Egypt’s Suez Canal, blocking hundreds of other ships from passing and stoking fears of economic fallout. But despite the concern worldwide, the massive container ship’s immobility inspired countless memes for the six days she was trapped. Some devised plans for how they’d rescue the ship, while many saw Ever Given as a metaphor for trying your best even with the odds heavily stacked against you.
The Weeknd’s Super Bowl Performance
The Weeknd’s Super Bowl halftime performance had everything: million-watt lights, backup dancers in eerie face bandages, songs about cocaine and a dizzying shot of the singer, who got up close and personal with the camera and took it for a spin. The sequence was turned into a gif and meme’d approximately a million times.
Tana Mongeau’s Strange Interaction with the Paparazzi
Infamous YouTuber and social media star Tana Mongeau had an incredibly strange interaction with the paparazzi prior to the big YouTubers vs. Tiktokers boxing event that took place in June. You can read an entire breakdown of the bizarre interaction from In the Know’s Kelsey Weekman, but here’s a short summary. In the video, Mongeau is presumably asked about the upcoming fight and tells the pap: “Fuck Austin McBroom … It’s not my beef, but we’re team Bryce out here. Even the paparazzi Team Bryce, on god.” Everything from the way Mongeau is standing to her interesting arm sleeves to her saying “on god” perplexed many viewers and inspired loads of recreations of the video, all of which are extremely hilarious … on god.
Vin Diesel Talking About Family
In honor of the ninth (yes, ninth) installment of the Fast and Furious franchise F9, the internet is riffing on Dominic Toretto’s (Vin Diesel) undying love for family. If you’ve watched a few F&F films (or have seen this 2017 compilation video from Insider) you’ll know the characters are big on family. The memes are still ongoing, but so far Diesel has been superimposed into films like The Lion King, Home Alone, Jurassic Park and Disney’s Cars (to name a few) with his iconic catchline.
Adult Swim TikTok Trend
Perhaps the best free advertising ever. In June, TikTokers made impressively creative videos inspired by Adult Swim, the late-night adult programming block that runs after hours on Cartoon Network, and the block’s interstitial bumps. The videos would showcase the iconic [AS] symbol underscored by Vanoo 3000’s remix of “Time Moves Slow” by Canadian jazz group BADBADNOTGOOD. The TikToks evoked a sense of nostalgia for many, particularly for Gen-Zers who had hazy childhood memories of waking up on their living room couches, still half-asleep after dozing off during a Cartoon Network show, to an Adult Swim bump. We’d implore you to watch the TikToks listed in the thread above because, despite them being free labor, they’re quite brilliant.
Bill Gates Getting Divorced
A sad day for the Gates’ turned out to be a very funny day for the internet. After news broke that Bill and Melinda Gates were legally separating after 27 years, the reaction tweets were just too good.
Matt LeBlanc Is Everyone’s Favorite Irish Uncle
Irish Twitter had a field day with this screenshot of actor Matt LeBlanc from HBO’s Friends Reunion, unanimously deciding the photo resembled a particular family relative — your favorite Irish uncle. “Every Irish family has at least one of those uncles or great uncles — extreme salt-of-the-Earth characters, full of dry wit and just a drop of cynicism. Matt looks like a typical Irish uncle in the photos from the reunion from his arms are folded, to his facial expressions,” Twitter user @noclarity74 explained to Buzzfeed News reporter Tanya Chan. Essentially, he looks like the well-meaning uncle who’s attempting to understand your unconventional lifestyle. He doesn’t get it, but he’s trying! And we love him for that.
The 2021 U.S. East Coast Gas Shortage
You might recall back in May when some folks on the East Coast were briefly in a COVID-19 toilet paper-esque frenzy over the gas shortage that occurred after a cyberattack crippled the Colonial Pipeline. While the government assured citizens there was enough fuel to go around and the pause in operation was only temporary, some drivers panicked and could be seen stockpiling gasoline in the backs of their trunks, only worsening the issue (and appearing a little ludicrous). The event, and the subsequent hysteria, prompted tons of hilarious jokes and memes.
Gulf Of Mexico Ocean Fire
At the beginning of July, a ruptured oil pipeline in the Gulf of Mexico caused an underwater fire to rage for hours. Video footage of the incident showed ships spraying the flames with nitrogen, creating a comically futile (but still horrific) image that many on the internet used to convey the serious effects of climate change.
You Can Be A Different Person After The Pandemic
After a New York Times Op-Ed was published in April titled “You Can Be a Different Person After the Pandemic” with a sub-headline telling readers that “personalities are not set in stone,” Twitter users began conflating the intended inspirational message with funny pop culture references.
The Cinnamon Toast Shrimp Tails Saga
You can read the full breakdown of this late March Twitter saga here, but a quick recap: Twitter user, podcaster and husband of “Boy Meets World” star Danielle Fishel (Topanga) Jensen Karp tweeted Cinnamon Toast Crunch’s official Twitter account a photo of two shrimp tails covered in cinnamon dust he had found in his box of cereal. (Gross, we know.) Almost all of Twitter had Karp’s back in his fight against CTC until multiple women who identified themselves as Karp’s exes began sharing similar, damaging information about Karp, including accusations of him being selfish, controlling and manipulative. After hearing these harrowing accusations of abuse, Karp was swiftly canceled by the internet, turning him and this entire Cinnamon Toast Crunch shrimp tails saga into a “Milkshake Duck,” a term and meme derived from a 2016 @pixelatedboat tweet describing a person who gains internet virality for something positive but is later revealed to have a questionable past.
Being Vaccinated Does Not Mean …
As more and more Americans across the country received their first and second doses of the COVID-19 vaccine in early April, Twitter users began sharing all the wild shenanigans they planned to get up to this summer, like eating indoors, hosting intimate dinner parties and maybe even hugging their fully vaccinated loved ones. After what had been a long, horrendous year, thinking about how a somewhat normal summer was within close reach was almost therapeutic. But as we wrote back in April, the discourse around “going back to normal” had gotten intense, with some internet users cautioning those fully vaccinated to not go “buck wild” this summer. Well, those tweets inspired a phrasal meme, informing those fully vaccinated of what they can and cannot do, the guidelines hilariously similar to well-known movie plots.
A late hit, yassification memes, which consisted of heavily altered photos of celebrities and historical figures, quickly spread around late November and early December thanks to the popular Twitter account @YassifyBot. To “yassify” something is to apply an extreme amount of filters and edits to an image using popular photo editing apps like Facetune or FaceApp, dramatically changing the subject’s appearance. The photos share similar qualities: comically airbrushed skin, perfectly penciled eyebrows, dramatically contoured cheekbones and noses and plump, glossy lips. While the photos themselves are amusing, the memes might even be a commentary on modern-day beauty standards.
Two Guys On a Bus
A few weeks ago Twitter was bombarded by a cartoon of two guys sitting on a bus, one looking happy and another looking clearly distraught. Per Know Your Meme, the illustration was created by Brazilian cartoonist Genildo Ronchi and uploaded to his website in 2013 as an inspirational image. It’s taken on a new life, however, after a slew of internet users began superimposing their own text onto the image, conveying two opposing yet relatable scenarios.
A 13-year-old pug named Noodle became an internet sensation in late October after emerging as a horoscope of sorts for millions of people. On his TikTok, Jonathan Graziano (Noodles’ owner) would pick his adorably lazy pug up from his bed every morning to see if Noodles would stand up (Bones Day) or immediately plop right back down (No Bones Day.) If Noodles had bones, it would be a good, productive day. If not, a sign, instead, to take it easy and be extra kind to yourself.
The internet is crawling with alpha male/pick-up artist types disguising their tired, misogynistic vitriol as “unconventional” or “enlighted” advice about women, dating and male/female relationships. One alpha male in particular, TikTok user @hearbreaknino617, had the misfortune of his idiotic, anti-feminist blabberings going viral. The result? Internet users of all ages clowning the absolute shit out of him across nearly every social media platform, to the point that he supposedly deleted all his TikTok videos.
James Cordon Humping in the Mouse Suit
To promote Amazon’s Cinderella, the cast of the film decided to dress up in costume and flash-mob LA commuters, subsequently blocking traffic. James Corden, who played one of Cinderella’s mice in the live-action film, was seen dry humping cars while dressed as a rodent. It’s a scene no one should ever have to witness, but especially not during rush hour.
Milk Crate Challenge
The internet ended the summer with a dangerously stupid but admittedly super funny challenge dubbed the #MilkCrateChallenge. Tons of people filmed themselves attempting to walk across a staircase-like formation made of stacked, empty milk crates and typically failing. The trend grew tremendously, mainly on Twitter, where users were either posting videos of themselves/others attempting the challenge or creating memes that made fun of the trend itself.
My Fall Plans // The Delta Variant
Before Omicron there was (and still is) Delta. After we all declared it to be a hot vaxx summer, COVID-19 cases skyrocketed in August thanks to a lovely combination of the heavily transmissible Delta variant and low vaccination rates throughout the country that prompted mask mandates to be reinstated in a number of states. There was a scary sense we were sliding right back into last fall’s wave of the pandemic, and the internet was coping the only way it knows how: with memes. My Fall Plans // The Delta Variant” perfectly captured how the Delta variant was going to royally screw up our plans for the fall. Using pop culture and historical references, users posted an image, often of the protagonist, from a movie, TV show or real-life event to represent their “Fall Plans” alongside an image of the plot twist that derailed it, illustrating “The Delta Variant.”
The feminine urge
The feminine urge to round up 50 of the year’s best memes.
Submissive and Breedable
Gone are the days of blood-thirsty conquistadors, savage cavemen and Herculean heroes. Because according to large swaths of the internet, the hottest thing you, a man, can be is submissive and perhaps breedable. Users across Twitter, TikTok and Instagram were using the phrase “submissive and breedable” to compliment and thirst after men (often cis-men) they find attractive, to the degree that men were even co-opting it themselves, boasting about qualities like acquiescence and fertility to highlight their desirability.
In May, a new term purportedly coined by Gen-Z to describe someone trying too hard or who’s out of touch with the current trends (think basic white millennial woman whose home is filled with items from Rae Dunn) and regrettably, spurred a bunch of intergenerational discourse we even weighed in on. We still stand by the opinion that Cheugy was a word invented by the New York Times and then used predominantly by millennials to complain about how Gen Z was being mean to them, but we digress. Hopefully, this word stays in 2021.
Check on Jake Gyllenhaal
Taylor Swift fans finally got the singer’s long-awaited 10-minute version of “All Too Well,” plus a very intense music video that hit a little too close to home for some. Nearly everyone knows the devastating breakup anthem is about actor Jake Gyllenhaal. Between the new heart-wrenching lyrics and the music video’s epic fight scene, Gyllenhaal looked like a real douchebag. The memes then swiftly ensued.
Maybe the biggest meme of the year, “Bing Bong” refers to audio snippets from an NYC street show called Sidetallk that recently went viral on TikTok. The audio trend has become so ubiquitous that Lil Nas X and Olivia Rodrigo, among other celebs, made a TikTok lip-syncing to the audio (that then also went viral.) If you somehow haven’t yet heard a bunch of New Yorkers aggressively yell “bing bong,” please watch the video above and you’ll quickly understand why everyone is saying it.
Spotify Wrapped always brings the memes, but this year the memes centered less around users’ specific music tastes and more around the cringe copywriting and horrible design that Spotify chose to use when presenting users with their yearly listening data.
The COVD-19 Vaccine Hierarchy
When vaccines became widely available, a hierarchy formed. Obviously, the vaccine pecking order (which declared Pfizer the vaxx hot people get) was completely unserious and the memes about “the best vaccine” were just another reaction to a collective pandemic experience and likely an attempt at garnering that human connection we’d all been missing.
Mary Jane Defending Peter Parker
A scene from the 2002 movie Spider-Man of Kristen Dunst and Tobey Maguire was used mainly on Twitter as a reaction image. Users used the screenshot in conjunction with funny lines that make it seem as if Dunst is yelling at someone and defending Maguire who’s behind her.
Burger King International Women’s Day tweet
On International Women’s Day this year, Burger King made a colossal blunder. The burger chain’s UK Twitter account tweeted: “Women belong in the kitchen.” But surprise! They weren’t actually using the misogynistic phrase in its typical misogynistic usage on a day to celebrate women, it was just an attention-grabbing slogan to unveil a new initiative created to get more female chefs in restaurant kitchens (get it?) It can be assumed the tweet and campaign were meant to garner much more praise from the internet for being so clever and witty, and Burger King did in fact go viral, just for all the wrong reasons.
RIP to ___ they would have loved/hated ___
This copypasta hypothesizes which modern-day trends or cultural phenomena dead historical figures would’ve adored or despised.
The Beach That Makes You Old
A slew of memes referencing M. Night Shyamalan’s film Old circulated Twitter following the movie’s debut in late July. While Old is a thriller, the jokes really highlighted how laughable the film’s premise — a beach that made you old — truly was.
Sea shanties had a major moment earlier this year after growing insanely popular on TikTok. Spurred by Scottish postman and aspiring musician Nathan Evans who posted a video of himself singing a sea shanty called “Soon May the Wellerman Come.” Users on the app then began duetting Evans and singing along to the chorus, creating a boisterous chain of strangers chanting along to the old-timey shanty in wholesome harmony.
Nicki Minaj’s Cousin’s Friend’s Balls
On the night of this year’s (postponed) Met Gala, rapper Nicki Minaj took to Twitter to explain why she wouldn’t be in attendance on fashion’s biggest night. The event required all attendees to be vaccinated and she was still without her first shot, Minaj explained, sharing she didn’t feel she did “enough research” yet. Things got real strange real fast though after the rapper followed up with an anecdote about her “cousin’s friend in Trinidad,” who she claimed received the vaccine and “became impotent”: “His testicles became swollen. His friend was weeks away from getting married, now the girl called off the wedding,” she wrote.
First, the COVID-19 vaccine doesn’t cause impotence. Actually, the virus itself has been linked to male infertility, and doctors suggested Minaj’s cousin’s friend’s balls are likely swollen due to an STD. But the sheer absurdity of this blatantly false story was really what sent Twitter spiraling.
Facebook and Instagram Outage
On Monday, October 4, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp went down for about six hours due to a change in Facebook’s server configuration, leaving millions of users locked out of their accounts for a significant period of time — the first time it had happened since 2019. Of course, platforms like Twitter and Reddit were up and running, so there was still mindless scrolling, discourse and lots of memes to be had (much of it, of course, centered around the strange outage).
Olympics TikTok (but Mainly the Cardboard Beds)
Lots of great content and memes came from the 2020 Olympics, but the hubbub surrounding the Olympic Village’s cardboard beds had to take the gold. The beds were made almost entirely out of renewable materials and were recycled into paper products after the Games. While they were built for sustainability, the cardboard beds became an internet fixation for other reasons. Are they comfortable? Are they sturdy? Can you fuck on them? The beds were even the subject of a viral social media theory that claimed the beds were designed to deter Olympians from having sex.
That rumor was put to rest by multiple news outlets as well as the Olympians themselves, who posted reviews of their beds on TikTok. Olympic bed content on the video-sharing app became so prevalent the hashtag #cardboardbed has amassed more than eight million views. Various Olympians can be seen testing the beds’ durability, forcefully jumping on them, in some instances to the point of breakage.
Kim K at the Met Gala
We’re sure Kim Kardashian’s Met Gala look was some sort of commentary on her cultural relevance and the fact that she doesn’t even have to show her face for people to know who she is. But she also just straight up looked like a dementor.
We broke down GameStop’s stock explosion that occurred in late January and its aftermath, but here’s the TLDR version: Reddit users from the group r/WallStreetBets planned to short squeeze GameStop stock after learning hedge funders were trying to short the stock. The Redditors prevailed, causing major financial damages for certain hedge funds, specifically Melvin Capital. The incident prompted restrictions on trading the stock and even conversations over whether the stock market should be government regulated. The idea that a bunch of Redditors successfully trolled Wall Street tycoons was stellar meme fodder.
March 2020 vs March 2021
We passed the one-year mark of the pandemic this March and it sparked lots of reflection and comparison. But most of all, we learned none of us have fully processed March 2020.
The French Dispatch
A photo of The French Dispatch cast in Cannes was full of meme potential. The star-studded image featured Timothée Chalamet, Wes Anderson, Tilda Swinton and Bill Murray (from left to right) all rocking distinctive outfits that evoked a certain personality.
If you’ve seen one of the year’s biggest TV shows, you know the contents of the South Korean drama are no laughing matter. But because Squid Game was possibly the most-watched show of 2021, it inevitably produced countless memes.
When the trailer for A24’s Zola dropped in April, many viewers (including myself) began reminiscing about the first time they encountered the viral 148-tweet thread that inspired the stripper drama. The film’s semi-fictional protagonist Zola is based on Aziah “Zola” Wells, who took to Twitter on October 27, 2015, to deliver a story that opened with the now-iconic line: “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out???????? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.” After the release of the film’s trailer, Twitter users began using that line in combination with other images of real-world or fictional duos with their own storied feuds.
In March, $1,400 direct payments were sent to qualifying households as part of the Biden administration’s COVID relief bill. The measly amount, which could maybe cover one month of rent, inspired many users to fantasize about all kinds of extravagant activities they could spend their newfound wealth on.
At one point in October, your social feeds were likely drowning in a sea of red flags. Everyone from Dolly Parton to Burger King was going ham with the red flag emoji, using the icon to jokingly signal a problem or concern with something or someone.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s Close Encounter with Jeff Bezos’ Girlfriend
A video of Leonardo DiCaprio, Jeff Bezos and the billionaire’s girlfriend, news anchor Lauren Sánchez attending the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s 10th Art + Film gala went completely viral in November. In the clip, the couple can be seen chatting with DiCaprio while Sánchez nearly falls over backward, looking up, laughing and smiling at the dazzling actor. It clearly looks as if she’s flirting with him right in front of Bezos, so enchanted by the actor she completely forgot her gazillionaire boyfriend was standing right next to her. Obviously, we can’t fault the woman. I would ditch my man in a heartbeat for a six-second interaction with Leonardo DiCaprio without a second thought. But my boyfriend also isn’t the world’s wealthiest person, which is why the internet had such a field day with the video.
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