IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The 'yassification' of the internet, feminine urges and feeling cheugy: Here are the best memes of 2021

In 2021, we "yassified" artwork, told our enemies to "touch grass" and let out the best "sheesh" we could muster. Here are our other top memes of the year.
Illustration of memes including Sen. Bernie Sanders wearing mittens, a Yassified "Girl with the Pearl Earring," and Spider-Man's pointing at one another.
NBC News

In 2021, it felt like memes were being made at a breakneck pace.

Somehow, they seemed stranger than ever.

Meme-makers used photo-editing apps to modernize classical works of art, brought two films from 2002 back to present pop culture and revitalized insults that told people to go outside.

TikTok's influence on memes was most noteworthy this year, experts said, adding that the app not only had a profound impact on the number of memes made but also the kind of memes that were popularized, namely slang terms.

"It was a big year for slang," said Don Caldwell, editor-in-chief of the meme database Know Your Meme. While Caldwell said he wouldn't classify 2021 as the biggest year on record for slang, he noted that many of the memes this year were born out of TikTok.

"TikTok has grown exponentially. It's just unreal," Caldwell said. "TikTok's influence on culture in general, but especially slang, has grown so much this year, and it's undeniable."

Phrases like the drawn out cry of "sh-e-e-e-esh" to mean something complimentary or calling someone "cheugy" when they're just slightly out of style are two recent examples of how TikTok has shifted social media linguistics.

Here's NBC News' roundup of the best memes of 2021.

12. Spider-Man memes

As "Spider-Man: No Way Home" burst into movie theaters and accumulated more than $1 billion at the box office, the internet was obligated to also produce a score of memes around the superhero, some going back all the way to the original film.

One that went massively viral ahead of the new film's release was a still image from the 2002 movie "Spider-Man," which showed Mary Jane Watson, played by Kirsten Dunst, looking over her shoulder in the foreground with Peter Parker, played by Tobey Maguire, in the background.

The meme was used to describe a situation in which Dunst's character defends Maguire against someone making a mistake.

One of the first incarnations was a tweet in which Dunst is allegedly saying Maguire wanted “no pickles,” a reference to another meme with a similar format. Another showed Dunst saying Maguire isn’t “unemployed,” but rather he’s a “Twitch streamer.”

11. ‘For the better, right?’

Another movie from 2002 had a meme moment in 2021, as an image from "Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones" went viral.

The four-panel meme shows Anakin Skywalker, played by Hayden Christensen, and Padmé, played by Natalie Portman, having a picnic.

The first panel is usually a statement that could be interpreted in myriad ways. For example, one version shows Anakin saying, “I’m going to change the world.” Padmé then asks, “For the better, right?” and after another panel of silence, again, asks more anxiously, “For the better, right?”

The meme became popular around April but continued to pop up throughout the year, with others using the panels to ask questions they were anxiously awaiting an answer to.

In another example, Anakin asks if Padmé if she has health insurance. She happily states that having health insurance means her health care is covered, before anxiously repeating the statement as a more frantic question.

10. Cinnamon Toast Crunch shrimp

The year was big for men who told stories about food on social media and then received an onslaught of backlash.

One instance was the saga of "Cinnamon Toast Crunch shrimp," which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. In March, television writer, podcaster and former rapper Jensen Karp claimed he found shrimp tails in his Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal, leading the internet to demand answers from the General Mills brand.

First, the company claimed the tails were an "accumulation of the cinnamon sugar." Later, after investigating, the company said it had determined the tails were not from its facility.

General Mills asked Karp to send it the product in which he had discovered the shrimp. That's when Karp's account went dark. He still hasn't tweeted since March. It's unclear if he had further discussions with General Mills around the alleged shrimp in his cereal.

But the bizarre interaction led to a host of shrimp-inspired photo-edit memes, including shrimp-flavored Oreos and a new design for the Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal box with shrimp tails.

Others memed what they, too, had jokingly found in their cereal.

9. Touch grass

One thing is for sure: In 2021, many of us spent way too much time on social media.

And with too much social media comes conflict. One extremely social media-y insult that hit its stride this year was telling someone to “touch grass.”

Telling someone to "touch grass" is essentially a way to tell a person they need to log off of social media because their take on a certain topic is too bizarre or misses the mark.

Know Your Meme dated telling someone to "touch grass" to as early as 2015 and said it started to resurface in 2020. But 2021 is when it entered the mainstream lexicon.

A recent Twitter feud, in which fans of Taylor Swift got upset with Justin Bieber for liking a meme that compared Swift's dress to a bowl of rice, caused a wave of people to tell the Swifties they needed to go outside and "touch grass."

Although it is typically used as an insult, occasionally someone will direct the phrase at themselves, saying they've been online so long that they need to sign off and touch grass.

8. Sheesh

Like Caldwell described, TikTok was a hotbed for new language and slang, and arguably one of the most significant examples of this was the term "sheesh."

To understand "sheesh," one must divorce themselves from the original meaning of the term as an exclamation to express shock or disbelief.

Gen Zers have reclaimed "sheesh" to be a term of admiration or a form of braggadocio. When exclaiming "sheesh," the "sheesh-er" must let out a long, emphasized "she-e-e-e-e-e-esh" usually while pointing to the crook of their elbow — a signifier of having ice in the "sheesh-er's" veins.

This incarnation of "sheesh" is attributed to a TikTok by user @meetjulio, according to Know Your Meme, posted in February, in which a frog is visible while, around the amphibian, voices can be heard saying “she-e-e-e-e-e-esh.”

The audio from @meetjulio's video was then reused in thousands of others posted to TikTok.

7. Vaccine rivalries/hot vaxxed summer

Vaccines were a major breakthrough in 2021 as the world continued to battle Covid-19. With the relief that some experienced after getting vaccinated came a slew of vaccine memes.

As people began getting vaccinated in the spring, many said they were preparing for "hot vaxxed summer," a play on rapper Megan Thee Stallion's song "Hot Girl Summer."

The promise of a "hot vaxxed summer" meant people who had spent a year inside awaiting the end of the pandemic rejoiced with the notion that they'd finally be able to let loose, ditch their masks and have a somewhat normal summertime. However, the delta variant soon squashed the dream of returning to normal life.

Another meme that came from people in the United States receiving one of the three available vaccines — Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson — was "vaccine rivalries."

On TikTok, some declared they were Team Pfizer, deemed the "hot girl" vaccine by some. Others bragged about being part of the Moderna Gang. However, for those who received the single dose of Johnson & Johnson, there was little bragging to be done as TikTok deemed it the "Walmart vaccine." (Many clarified that dunking on Johnson & Johnson's single-dose vaccine was simply a joke and getting any vaccine was something to celebrate.)

6. Gorilla Glue girl

Not only did TikTok gift the internet language memes, but it also brought social media face to face with Gorilla Glue girl, aka Tessica Brown.

Social media was riveted by the ordeal, waiting with bated breath for updates, after Brown said she accidentally slicked down her hair with the adhesive.

The tale began after she posted a TikTok in February claiming that she meant to use Got2b Glued hair gel but accidentally used the polyurethane adhesive Gorilla Glue instead.

The video went ultra-viral, with Brown eventually being gifted a procedure to surgically remove the adhesive from her hair, but the bizarreness of the ordeal led to a series of memes on Twitter and TikTok lampooning the situation.

5. Bean Dad

Rather than kicking off the year with a bang, what was likely the first meme of the year started 2021 off with a lot of Twitter users face-palming.

Bead Dad, real name John Roderick, is a musician and podcaster who, on Jan. 2, posted a long-winded Twitter thread about an unorthodox lesson he gave his daughter on how to open a can of beans.

Roderick described how his hungry 9-year-old didn't know how to use a can opener, and, rather than showing her, he let her spend six frustrating hours trying to figure it out on her own.

Although Roderick later released a statement clarifying that his daughter had fun learning to open the can and that she had eaten just prior to starting the ordeal, his original portrayal of the story described his daughter as hungry, crying and unable to open the can as he somewhat smugly waited on the sidelines for her to figure it out, according to Know Your Meme.

Roderick published an apology shortly after his thread went viral. He also temporarily left Twitter before returning to promote a podcast.

"I want to acknowledge and make amends for the injuries I caused," he wrote. "I have many things to atone for. My parenting story’s insensitivity and the legacy of hurtful language in my past are both profound failures. I want to confront them directly."

The preposterous story was ideal meme fodder, and soon, Twitter users were tripping over themselves to create the most viral parody of the situation.

4. Bernie Sanders' mittens

Shortly after Bean Dad took over the national discourse, President Joe Biden was inaugurated.

Through all the pomp and circumstance of the day — the glamour of former presidents and first ladies, pop stars and celebrities in the crowd — one star shined brighter than the rest: Sen. Bernie Sanders' mittens.

The Vermont senator was photographed sitting cross-armed and cross-legged, wearing a forest green-gray parka and large mittens, and looking, generally, like he couldn't wait for the event to finish.

The now-iconic mittens on Sanders' hands were later reported to be made by a Vermont teacher, Jen Ellis, who created them from recycled materials and gave them to Sanders roughly two years before the inauguration.

The image became an instant meme, with some turning the mittens into merchandise like tote bags and earrings while meme-makers seized on the photo, editing Sanders into a plethora of settings.

3. Cheugy

Easily one of the most-discussed words added to mainstream vocabulary in 2021 was "cheugy," a term that was first uttered years prior to its viral takeoff in the spring.

The term was conceptualized in 2013 by a group of teens in California. Then the word was used in a TikTok in March, and the following month, The New York Times reported on the word and its origin.

Defining cheugy is difficult. The term is a somewhat nebulous way to describe someone who is mildly out of touch or just a hair behind in the times.

Although the article said the word was not widely used at the time, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, the coverage led to "cheugy" being pushed into the mainstream and used more than ever.

Now, it is often ascribed to attributes typically thought of as being part of millennial culture. Some examples of "cheugy" include Minion memes, infinity scarves and Disney adults.

2. 'The feminine urge'

A meme that entered the general consciousness late in 2021 was a format called "The feminine urge." This meme satirized traits that are stereotypically female. It has also been used to satirize some not-so-stereotypical traits.

The meme, often used in TikToks and in text memes on Twitter, is typically a short sentence describing something feminine-presenting people do, with a parenthetical to clarify what the urge actually means.

Although the meme debuted early in 2021, it became more widespread toward the end of the year.

Sometimes, the format is used to describe something that many people feel they are obligated to do despite knowing they're not required to perform the action.

Some examples: "The feminine urge to put exclamation points at the end of every sentence so my boss knows I'm not angry," or, "The feminine urge to ask 'Does that make sense?' even when I know what I said made sense."

By late 2021, the meme had evolved to include "the masculine urge" to sardonically describe stereotypically male actions.

1. The yassification of the internet

The meme that perhaps best embodies 2021 is the "yassification" of the internet.

"Yassifying" refers to beautifying something, typically something that is unappealing or heteronormative. The meme can take the form of a straight text meme — writing that something has been "yassified." It is also formatted as the extreme Facetune editing (a type of automated photo editing) of a subject, most notably a stoic or classical figure.

Know Your Meme described the yassification of something as making it more LGBTQ-adjacent. The term "yass" has long been an exclamation that signifies positive encouragement in the LGBTQ community.

While the term first appeared on social media as early as August 2020, according to Know Your Meme, it went massively viral in November.

In March, "yassification" was added to Urban Dictionary, but it wasn't until November that yassifying images began to go viral.

The first instance of a major viral moment for yassifying a photo was when a Twitter user used the face-modifying app FaceApp to transform the late royal Prince Philip from an older man into an attractive woman.

Around this time, a Twitter account called Yassify Bot was created, turning stoic and classical images into modern-looking, attractive women. Know Your Meme credited Yassify Bot with bringing the phrase into the mainstream and helping the term gain traction with a wider audience.

Yassified photos have racked up hundreds of thousands of likes and retweets on Twitter, and on TikTok, the term has proliferated in comment sections.

As another difficult year of the pandemic draws to a close, the concept of slapping a façade over a sober image is perhaps the most appropriate meme to wrap up 2021.