From Grimace Shake and Girl Dinner to Baby Gronk and ‘Barbenheimer’


2023 marked another year of meme-ories.

Like in past years, many online turned to memes as a form of escapism.

“Memes seemed to be a primary way people dealt with and processed and reacted to news this year,” said Jessica Maddox, assistant professor of digital media at the University of Alabama.

They also helped shift our use of language, elevating words like “rizz” and “babygirl,” which have since entered a more general lexicon. This year also had a wide range of meme mediums — from text comments to TikToks to traditional still-image reaction memes.

In the future, Maddox said, she anticipates a rise in video- and AI-based memes. “But the traditional meme will always be there, no matter what other type of media gets thrown into the mix,” she added.

Here is NBC News’ list of this year’s most notable memes, including a few honorable (and dishonorable) mentions.

The top 10

In no particular order

‘Barbenheimer’

“Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” — two very different films — became known as the cultural phenomenon “Barbenheimer” because of their simultaneous release in July, thanks in large part to the online buzz generated by a meme. The term’s first-ever use in April 2022 poked fun at how both movies appeared to be announcing new cast members every other day. The movies ended up having a fake, fun rivalry, with the pink energy of “Barbie” contrasting sharply with the dark and somber overtones of “Oppenheimer.” As their box office weekend neared, many began discussing seeing the movies as a double feature. Those who did turned up for both in themed attire, wearing pink, black or both.

Roman Empire

How often do men think about the Roman Empire? Apparently, a lot. In September, women on TikTok began asking their male partners if they regularly think about the subject — and to their surprise, several men said they thought about it weekly or daily. Many cited the period’s impact on modern society as the reason why. Many TikTok users subsequently admitted to having “Roman Empires” of their own. The phrase has become synonymous online with topics that people think of on an unusually regular basis, including certain movies, life-altering memories and existential thoughts. (The NBC Culture & Trends team’s Roman Empire is the Roman Empire meme.)

‘Baby Gronk rizzed up Livvy Dunne’

Photo Illustration: Madden San Miguel ("Baby Gronk") and Olivia Dunne
Justine Good / Instagram

It was a series of words that left many on the internet asking: “… Huh?” Madden San Miguel, an 11-year-old football protege known online as “Baby Gronk” (a play on the name of retired NFL star Rob Gronkowski), earlier this year visited Louisiana State University, where he met LSU gymnast and social media star Livvy Dunne. After a video of San Miguel and Dunne was uploaded to YouTube, Henry De Tolla, known as H00pify on TikTok, uploaded a video reacting to the meeting, in which he said the now-iconic meme: “Livvy just convinced Baby Gronk to commit to LSU … Livvy rizzed him up.” Rizz, which Oxford University Press named its word of the year, is slang for charming another person. The meme is sometimes misquoted as “Baby Gronk rizzed up Livvy Dunne,” but it’s probably not shocking that some people have trouble keeping the name and slang of this meme straight.

Kevin James shrug

It was the shrug seen ’round the world. A promotional photo of actor Kevin James from the sitcom “King of Queens,” which ran from 1998 to 2007, found new life online after X user @ChampagneAnyone used the image with the text, “me after 1 double rum and diet,” according to the meme database Know Your Meme. James’ sheepish expression paired with the shrug made it the perfect reaction for myriad memes — particularly one on TikTok in which a group of partygoers asks, “Who put this song on?” — typically a song that doesn’t fit the party atmosphere plays before shifting to the image of James, which has typically been edited to match the song’s aesthetic. For example, if the song is a 2000s emo bop, James will have winged eyeliner and swoopy black bangs edited onto him. James acknowledged the meme, using the image in an Instagram post to promote his comedy tour.

Babygirl

Actors Paul Mescal, Pedro Pascal, and Jeremy Strong against a pink air-bushed background; text overlay reads "Baby Girl" in white script lettering
Pedro Pascal and Jeremy Strong (who plays Kendall Roy on “Succession”) are some of the many “babygirls” of the internet.Leila Register / NBC News / Getty Images

In 2023, the internet stopped having boyfriends and started having babygirls. The term, often used to describe adult men, was first used in its current iteration as early as 2017 but took off on social media earlier in the year and was used to describe men like Jeremy Strong’s “Succession” character Kendall Roy and the 200-year-old vampire Astarion from Baldur’s Gate 3. What defines a man as being a babygirl? Well, it’s hard to say. Know Your Meme describes the metrics for babygirl as loose. For many, babygirl is an essence, not a hard and fast definition.

Grimace shakes

In honor of its cuddly purple character Grimace’s birthday, McDonald’s introduced a berry-flavored milkshake to celebrate. But the wholesome premise quickly turned sinister as TikTok users began fake “dying” as a result of drinking the shake, thus creating the Grimace Shake Incident of 2023. Creators made macabre and horror-inspired videos to honor Grimace’s birthday, with each TikTok upping the ante. The trend became popular among Gen Zers, who displayed their dark humor through it. Luckily, Grimace didn’t seem too upset — he just looked the other way.

‘Angela Bassett did the thing’

awards show
Ariana DeBose during the EE BAFTA Film Awards 2023 at The Royal Festival Hall, in London, on Feb. 19.Kate Green / Getty Images for BAFTA file

Actor Ariana DeBose hosted the British Academy Film Awards in February and delivered a particularly memorable line in her opening rap: “Angela Bassett did the thing.” It may have been a strange way to praise the legendary actor, but a lot of people loved DeBose’s enthusiastic ode to Bassett. The rap, which praised the women nominated for acting awards that night, was received as both cringe and camp by social media users. While enough people hated on DeBose’s rap to the point of her briefly deactivating her X account, many defended her and agreed that, yes, Bassett — who was nominated for her role in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” — did do the thing. Even Bassett referenced the line while accepting an award at the NAACP Image Awards in February.

Chinese Spy Balloon

Image:
A U.S. Air Force U-2 pilot looks down at a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon as it hovers over the United States on Feb. 3.AP file

A mysterious Chinese balloon drew ire from U.S. government officials and a deluge of memes from internet users after it was seen hovering over Montana in February. The Pentagon suspected it to be a surveillance balloon, while China claimed it was a weather balloon that had lost its way. After days of viral debate over whether to “pop” the balloon, the U.S. Air Force shot it down over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of South Carolina. The incident sparked nonstop jokes online, with internet users coming up with a wide range of meme templates poking fun at the bizarre nature of the incident.

Canon event

Image: Miles Morales, played by Shameik Moore, in \"Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.\"
Miles Morales, played by Shameik Moore, in “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.”Sony Pictures Animation

There are moments in life that are fundamental in shaping who we are as people — and these are canon events. Popularized following the release of “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” in June — which dealt with a multiverse of Spider-Mans who all experienced the same life-changing spider bite and loss of a family member — people took to TikTok to share the “canon events” that helped build their character. Describing breakup spirals and coming-out journeys, TikTok users shared the unavoidable actions they’ve taken to learn the lessons they needed to become the people they are today.

Orca Wars

If you were online in 2023, chances are you participated in the so-called orca wars, aka the fictional battle between humans and killer whales. After several incidents of orcas seemingly attacking and sinking boats were reported this year, many online began posting about their allegiances to the orcas, particularly one who was deemed “White Gladis.” The memes first popped up in May and continued to trend every time an orca seemed to partake in an act of revenge on humans.

The Honorable Mentions

Because there were just too many good memes to leave out entirely.

‘Ludicrously capacious bag’

A line uttered by Tom Wambsgans (played by Matthew Macfadyen) on “Succession” sounded more like SAT vocabulary prep than a diss. But after the character brought up a “ludicrously capacious bag” in an episode earlier this year, it was plastered across a countless number of totes sold on Etsy and became an instant meme.

Girl dinner / girl math

This was the year of girlhood not just in movies and music, but in memes as well. “Girl dinner,” comprising an array of charcuterie-esque snacks in place of a full meal, and “girl math,” the silly logic women supposedly use to justify their purchases, were the most popular of 2023’s “girl”-themed trends meant to embrace frivolity in girlhood while also poking fun at it.

Horny copypasta

Is the future of news… sexually explicit chain text messages? Recent breaking news events, including the death of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the expulsion of Rep. George Santos from Congress, were broken to some people via horny copypasta, or long blocks of memeable text. While the texts may not be the most informative, they definitely are eye-catching — and certainly get the point across.

The Dishonorable Mentions

Because not all memes are created equal.

Colleen Ballingers ukulele apology video

online apology
Colleen Ballinger played a ukulele in her apology video.Courtesy Collen Vlogs/YouTube

The internet went wild when Ballinger, a YouTube star known for her Miranda Sings persona, pulled out a ukulele in June to perform a song addressing backlash over allegations that she engaged in inappropriate and exploitative relationships with underage fans. The 10-minute video, in which Ballinger repeatedly called the online discourse a “toxic gossip train,” drew even more scathing reactions and was quickly memed as one of the cringiest apology videos of all time.

Paris bedbugs

While Paris Fashion Week is typically associated with haute couture and chic models, this fall’s event saw a more unsightly star — the bedbug. An infestation plagued Paris while influencers and models from around the globe visited the city, sparking international fears of a wider spread of the vermin, as well as many memes. Luckily, exterminators said people shouldn’t worry too much about bedbugs, which are a far more common issue than many would like to think.

M3GAN

The killer android doll became a social media icon after the trailer for the film “M3GAN” debuted. But her dance moves, which quickly went viral, were not just entertaining — they were also very creepy.  (“M3GAN” is distributed by Universal Pictures. NBC News and Universal Pictures are both owned by NBCUniversal).