fb-pixel Skip to main content

2019: A year of unstable memes for unstable times

“Woman Yelling at Cat” was the dominant (and least stable) meme of 2019.
“Woman Yelling at Cat” was the dominant (and least stable) meme of 2019.

It seems odd to attempt a fond look back on a year I’m simultaneously pushing mounds of dirt over with my bare hands in a hasty and unceremonious midnight burial, but who am I to resist That Time of Year?

Not gonna lie, people. This was a tough year on the Internet. Yes, the memes were dank. I lol’d, frequently. The Internet’s general capability to find something funny in just about any circumstance was put to the test repeatedly, and it routinely did the work of maintaining the absurd as a fitting stand-in for the normal.

But it sure seemed like the memes had to work harder this year to mask the mounting darkness I started to pick up on with my 2018 look-back, when I perceived memes at large as doing “more than their usual silly busywork": “They captured slippery subjective slopes, charted the erosion of meaning, and attempted to contain the wildfires of online discourse that keep burning hotter (and that no one seems able to extinguish).”

In 2019, memes seemed to surrender to these various currents. Rather than resist the instability of our times, the best memes reflected it; they enacted the collapse of meaning, played among its ruins, threw its ashes like confetti.


Take “Kombucha Girl,” for instance. Brittany Broski’s extremely public journey on TikTok which led viewers through the experience of sipping a beverage that “smells like a pubic restroom." The clip was a runaway hit, its delightful parade of pained facial expressions launching a thousand GIFs. But Broski’s charming toggle between repulsion and delight also felt like a sinister caricature of the deep gray area of our cultural moment, where pleasure and pain seem immutably blurred. Or maybe I just need lunch.

Or how about “Sorry to this man,” a meme sprung from “Hustlers” actress Keke Palmer’s appearance in a “Vanity Fair” video that had her hooked up to a lie detector and identifying various cultural figures. Or not identifying them, as it were. Palmer stared blankly at a photo of former Vice President Dick Cheney before following up with a confession that was inspiring in its needle-steadying candor: “I hate to say it, I hope I don’t sound ridiculous,” Palmer said. “I don’t know who this man is. I mean, he could be walking down the street, I wouldn’t know a thing. Sorry to this man.”


From there, “Sorry to this man” ascended to its place in the Internet lexicon as a way to publicly consign someone to the realm of your perma-past — a savage non-apologia issued in the grand, catty tradition of “I Don’t Know Her” and “Sorry Not Sorry.” But “sorry to this man” has also evolved into an Ozymandian axiom pointing to the merciless swallow of time, the fickleness of fame, the nothing-scrolled-can-stay non-reality of Internet culture, which spills through the filters of history. Or maybe I just need a hot shower.

Or what about the viral sensation/great debacle of “30 to 50 feral hogs”? A question posted by a fan to songwriter and gun control advocate Jason Isbell ("How do I kill the 30-50 feral hogs that run into my yard within 3-5 mins while my small kids play?”) inspired an outbreak of memes. And at the time, I read them as exemplary of the efficacy of mockery in service of laughing bad ideas out of the room — as opposed to, say, mowing them down with an assault rifle as one might a gang of feral hogs. (Green Shirt Guy was also a fitting mascot of this notion.)


But over time, those feral hogs continued their unabated stampede through my mind as harbingers of just how vulnerable Internet discourse (i.e. our front yard full of small kids) is to invasion, mayhem, and absurdity (i.e. 30 to 50 feral hogs), and how easy it is for good intentions online to derail into smoldering train wrecks. Could it be that I just need to go for a walk?

Or lastly, what about this year’s official Thing of the Year, “Woman Yelling at Cat,” the most dominant meme of 2019, and far and away the least stable. The best memes have a way of starting out as tight, perfect, and crystalline as a diamond — providing a crudely beautiful lens through which to peer at the world online. And so it was when this mash-up of mid-meltdown “Real Housewives” star Taylor Armstrong and viral vegetable-hating cat Smudge first made their debut as an oddly Photoshopped couple.

“These photos together is making me lose it,” read the tweet that started it all. From there, the whole Internet lost it, employing the versatile vision of Taylor and Smudge’s imagined dinner table squabble as a one-size-fits-all template for seven consecutive months of decreasingly funny variations and mutations, puns and wordplays, zings and whiffs. (Entire groups exist on Facebook dedicated to “Smudgeposting.”)


For someone who has had lunch, a shower, and gone for a leisurely walk outside, the versatility and virality of “Woman Yelling at Cat” could signify the perpetual spring of creativity channeled each day through the Internet — and the resolve of its users to engage with and repurpose culture to new, entertaining ends. It could signify our collective desire to make each other smile, even amidst all the ugliness.

But for someone who thinks he accidentally got decaf this morning, and who already spends way too much time on the Internet, something about “Woman Yelling at Cat” captures the downward spiral of it all — the endless fill-in-the-blanks screaming match of social media; the mutability and malleability of meaning; the forsaken sanctity of form; and the Internet’s slow but steady trudge from a place where anything goes to a void where everything’s gone.

Oh, memes. For so long you tried so hard to help; but now I don’t really know what to do with you. Or maybe I just need to log off for a few days. Sorry from this man.

Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at mbrodeur@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MBrodeur.

Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at mbrodeur@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.