Ermahgerd! The year in memes

From Texts from Hillary to "Gangham Style," we look back on what went viral in 2012

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published December 31, 2012 5:00PM (EST)

To be honest, any year that doesn't have a Nyan cat in it is a bit of a comedown. But 2012 nevertheless provided its own special viral charms — some of which didn't even involve felines. So we say thanks to Ridiculously Photogenic Guy and Overly Attached Girlfriend, and to all those other viral stars we couldn't get out of our heads if we tried.

Shit Girls Say

It began as a Twitter feed in 2011, but it was in 2012 that Graydon Sheppard and Kyle Humphrey's devastating drag parody of feminine phrases truly took over the world. Though blowing the lid off the Twinsies!-peppered world of chick vernacular earned Sheppard and Humphrey their share of critics, it also inspired a treasure trove of witty imitations, notably Chesca Leigh's also-gone-viral Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls. It even went old school and became a book. Shut UP! 

Kony 2012

A documentary experiment to "make an obscure war criminal famous"  succeeded in calling international attention to Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony by garnering millions of views. In the process, though, it also raised serious questions about the integrity of the muckraking Invisible Children organization. And when, in May, its co-founder Jason Russell was detained by police after a bizarre and naked public meltdown, it was just another a strange twist in one of the year's unlikeliest memes.


Fresher than OMG, cuter than YOLO, ermahgerd began its life in the same way that those Picard facepalm and walking into Mordor things did – with an image. But the word soon broke free of the enthusiastic, "Goosebumps"-loving girl who originally accompanied it, going on to become the catchall phrase for wonderment and surprise. In a year that provided way too much WTF, it was just what we needed.

Texts from Hillary

If the secret to comedy is timing, Texts from Hillary wins for the year, hands down. The Tumblr's creators Adam Smith and Stacy Lambe didn't belabor the joke; they didn't wring the life out of it. On April 4, they simply presented an image of Madame Secretary of State looking badass, wearing sunglasses and checking her smartphone while aboard a C-17 Globemaster III — and let the captioning commence. By April 10, the site was so huge that Hillary herself had submitted an "ROFL @ yr tumblr!" And then, wisely, Smith and Lambe decided "It has gone as far as it can go" and called it quits. You shone briefly but brightly, Texts from Hillary, and for that we are grateful.

Real Actors Read Yelp

It didn't have the explosive ubiquity of Binders Full of Women or Fired Big Bird, but for consistent, pure genius, we've got to hand it to Gotta Kid to Feed Productions and the committed thespians who proved this year there is nothing funnier than a dramatic reading of a sarcastic Indian restaurant review. Taking the often preposterous hubris of Yelpers – "People go to Outback Steakhouse for an EXPERIENCE!" —  the series gave a scenery-chewing voice to the remarkably emotional realm of Yelp. Branching out to Craiglist's Missed Connections was an inspired move, but Real Actors Read Real Comments from Real Actors Read Missed Connections may be the apex of everything that opinionating on the Internet is about.

McKayla Is Not Impressed

It took just one memorably scrunched up mouth and a pair of defensively crossed arms to make Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney the year's ultimate symbol of all that is meh in the world. She later admitted, "I remember wishing it had gone differently, and I had an expression on my face for two seconds." But it was that flicker of disdain that instantly became her calling card. A photoshopped version of Maroney's underwhelmed visage was soon cropping up in every third Facebook post, and Maroney sportingly joined in the joke, re-creating her famed "just smelled poo" face on "The Colbert Report" and schooling Obama in how to get it right. She may only have bagged a silver medal in London, but she's a winner in our hearts.

Botched Jesus

Normally, the destruction of art is a tragedy, a sign of a culture that has lost its way. But we'll make an exception for Potato Jesus. And the sheer ballsiness of Cecilia Gimenez, the 80-year-old amateur art restorer who turned a fresco of Christ into what the BBC described as "a crayon sketch of a very hairy monkey in an ill-fitting tunic," was just a bonus. First, she took it entirely upon herself to spruce up Elías García Martínez's Ecce Homo in a uniquely outsider artist manner. Then, she entrepreneurially tried to capitalize on her fame by demanding payment for her work and plying her art on eBay. But what made "Beast Jesus," a.k.a. "Monkey Jesus," a.k.a. "Potato Jesus" so winning was the image itself — so brilliantly, irreverently hilarious. It turned the little Spanish town of Borja into a tourist destination, inspired one of "SNL's" best bits of the season and, best of all, made possible the year's greatest Halloween costume.

Ikea Monkey

Monkey Jesus wasn't the only fabulous simian of the year. Proving that just because you're discount shopping doesn’t mean you have to dress like a slob, rhesus macaque monkey Darwin became an instant star in December when he was found roaming a Toronto area parking lot clad in a dapper shearling coat and diaper. It was weird, funny and random – in short, everything that "Animal Practice" wasn't. The five-month-old Darwin was soon sent to a primate shelter, where he would be given the "motherly" company of an older monkey, but alas, no new clothes. But Darwin, if you're available, there's a stingray out there who'd love a picture with you.

Grumpy Cat

Just when the Internet seemed in danger of total monkey domination, Grumpy Cat came along late in the year to restore the balance of the universe back where it belongs -- in a decidedly feline direction. With a dour countenance that just begged for someone to add an "I had fun once … it was terrible" caption, Grumpy Cat became a role model for irritable creatures of all species, the world-weary antithesis of ermahgerd. But Grumpy Cat herself, better known as Tard, insists she's not really grumpy. "That's just how my face is shaped."

STORYBOARD: Tard the Grumpy Cat from Tumblr on Vimeo.

Gangnam Style

C'mon – what'd you expect? The most viewed video in YouTube history (over a billion hits and climbing) made galloping a legitimate dance move and put the phrase "Op op op op" into the vernacular. It was the way that Korean pop star PSY's video went completely over the top – and then kept going, out, out into the Felix Baumgartner sphere -- that made it an instant surprise hit. It's been flash-mobbed in Paris, given the "Glee" treatment and imitated by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. And though the earworm was at times claustrophobically inescapable, "Gangnam" proved the whole world can stand united on our basic love of horses, fancy cars, explosions and sexy laaaaaydeeeeeez.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth Williams