The Memes That Carried Us Through 2023

Us explaining to our moms what a 2023 meme looks like (edit Valentina Di Liscia/Rhea Nayyar/Hyperallergic)

As we close the books on 2023, with its political absurdities, unfathomable atrocities, and aura of mounting pessimism, now is as good a time as ever to page through the months and remember what brought us together for moments of laughter. To acknowledge the ridiculousness of personhood is to embrace humanity, whether it be through connecting over ✧Girl Dinner✧ or learning about each other’s “Roman Empires.”

So let us take a moment to remember what brought a smile to our faces, a stitch in our sides, and the flashes of harmless but karmic justice upon those who went searching for it.

Barbie and Barbenheimer

Barbenheimer … IDK I never watched Oppenheimer (2023) lol (screenshot Rhea Nayyar/Hyperallergic via X)

I guess it’s not surprising considering the movie grossed over $1 billion internationally in under three months, but the hold that Barbie memes had on social media months before it even premiered needs to be studied. And when the initial meme stream dried out, the dam broke again from a cascade of “Barbenheimer” content sparked by the news that Greta Gerwig’s film release would coincide with that of Oppenheimer (2023). Despite the fun and games, the “Barbenheimer” marketing did receive criticism from Japanese media for trivializing nuclear warfare. All I can say is that I had “Kenough” of all of it by the end of summer …

Orca Attacks and the Imploded Submersible

Someone cooked here … (screenshot Rhea Nayyar/Hyperallergic via X)

So who remembers that June–July moment when the organized orca attacks on yachts suspiciously coincided with the “implosion” of that Titan submersible? You know, the one carrying those billionaires that was maneuvered by a PlayStation controller? I’m not saying that one was responsible for the other, but I’m not not saying that, either. The timing of the separate (until proven otherwise) incidents invited conspiracy theorists and anti-capitalists alike to make their own connections between the two. I mean … orcas are pretty smart and have been shown to have a chip on their shoulder.

“The Embrace” Martin Luther King Jr. Sculpture

No arguments here … (screenshot Rhea Nayyar/Hyperallergic via X)

One of few worthy art-related memes this year, and dating all the way back to January at that, was when the people of then-Twitter weighed in on photographs of Hank Willis Thomas’s “The Embrace” (2023), a bronze public sculpture honoring Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King in Boston, Massachusetts — and good lord, they did not hold back. Many pointed out the unintentional sexual imagery that’s impossible to unsee, perhaps causing Thomas himself to trip up with his own Freudian Slip about the criticism of the work on live TV.

“Dope” Francis

One of the four Midjourney-generated images of Pope Francis in a white puffer jacket from u/trippy_art_special’s post on the Midjourney subreddit (image via Reddit)

The viral Midjourney-generated image of puffer jacket Pope, also known as “Dope” Francis, was maybe just a flicker of a meme in the grand scheme of things, but it was so realistic at first glance that a ton of social media users were fooled when reposting it. “Dope” Francis also planted a seed for Hyperallergic‘s viral “April Fools” post about a fictional partnership between Balenciaga and the Vatican for a spiritual menswear line. Artificial intelligence for Good™.

Trump’s Mugshot

Despite the multiple AI generations depicting this very moment, we got the real deal earlier this year and it gave way to some unforgettable responses. The photo itself didn’t hold people’s attention for too long, but Trump’s expression, intentional or not, was clearly applicable to more situations beyond being booked and processed in a county jail.

Girl Dinner vs. Oyster Girl

Some of us are privy to ✧Girl Dinner✧, which the internet defines as a low-effort snack plate, and some of us can put it away like Oyster Girl, who slurped down 48 oysters and three lemon drops on a dud date and still had room for the next course. Both went viral this year, proof that people will always be fascinated with what women eat. I think the crux of it is whether or not you know what you want, and how you use your resources to get it. What else is there to say other than women contain multitudes? 💅 Just don’t ask me to quantify them unless you’re prepared for some Girl Math

The play-by-play for those who missed Oyster Girl’s video (screenshot Rhea Nayyar/Hyperallergic via X)

David Brooks’s Airport Dinner

1911 Smokehouse Barbecue in Newark immediately called out David Books for misrepresenting the price of his meal there. (meme by Valentina Di Liscia/Hyperallergic)

Caught lying in 4K, unsuspecting New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks caught some major heat in September after complaining about the state of the economy due to a $78 burger and fries at an airport restaurant. 1911 Smokehouse Barbecue was not about to let that slide, though, setting the record straight with some receipts indicating that Brooks had imbibed several alcoholic drinks that he didn’t account for in his pointed lament. The Newark restaurant added insult to injury with a “D Brooks Special,” prompting social media users to chime in or add to the running gag.

Burning Man Mud-Bath

Mother Nature works in magical ways, doesn’t she? If the orcas were just a sign, Burning Man 2023 was a beacon of light concerning Earth’s omniscience for inconveniencing others. Not even a half-inch of rain upended the entire festival by making it impossible to get in or out of the “playa,” seriously harshing the vibes for a bunch of techies and influencers on their annual drug-fueled pilgrimage.

Science says that the salary-to-empathy relationship tumbles down a negative slope. (screenshot Rhea Nayyar/Hyperallergic via X)

Roman Empire

To be fair, no one ever specified if cultural media born from the Roman Empire fell outside the parameters … just sayin’. (screenshot Rhea Nayyar/Hyperallergic via X)

Mixed in 2022 and leavened in 2023, this half-meme, half-research study revealed that a lot of men think about the Roman Empire pretty regularly. This took a lot of female content creators and social media users by surprise — myself included. I took Latin all throughout high school and I still don’t really get it, but it seems like it’s tapping into some male-dominated reflection on humanity’s technological and territorial achievements? Anyway, the Roman Empire trend opened the floodgates for different demographics or individuals to share their personal Roman Empires, which happen to include the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, devastating character deaths in literature and cinema, Princess Diana of Wales among other fascinations. So … what’s your Roman Empire?

Montgomery Brawl Folding Chair

A post on X celebrating Premimathieu “Premi” Sterlin’s timely “Alabama Sweet Tea Party” (2023), a Photoshop revision of Ernie Barnes’s “Sugar Shack” (1976) that includes the iconic folding chair from the Riverfront brawl (screenshot Rhea Nayyar/Hyperallergic via X)

Saved the best for last, just for you! Not only did the riverfront brawl that unfolded ( :~] ) in Montgomery, Alabama over the summer unleash a torrent of memes, it resurfaced some tidbits of Black history nestled in the archives of the web. It looks like the courts had a good sense of humor about it, too, since chair-wielder Reggie Bernard Ray made it out without jail time, only owing a fee and 50 hours of community service.

Honorable Mentions

As always, some memes were perfectly lovely but not quite year-defining material. Without further ado, who could forget:

The Shein Influencer Trip disaster:

The Boston Cop Slide video:

And last but certainly not least, Kevin James:

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