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2021 was the year the Millennial meme died
Illustration Marija Marc

2021 was the year the Millennial meme died

As it becomes increasingly uncool to shamelessly seek virality with well-known cultural references – think: that Devil Wears Prada ‘villain’ meme – Millennials are behind the times when it comes to valuable online currency

TextLouis StaplesIllustrationMarija Marc

We’ve all seen it: you know, that meme. The one that lurks in the drafted tweets of Millennial start-up brands, in the depths of BuzzFeed’s old listicles and still haunts Gay Twitter’s soul. Sometimes it adapts to new formats, like, ‘The movie villain / the actual villain’, but the message is the same: “Wow, looking back at it, the REAL villain of The Devil Wears Prada wasn’t Miranda… it was Andy’s unsupportive boyfriend and friends!”

This meme is so overused that it’s now been a meme in itself. 2021 was the year that it went viral yet again and people finally started to get pissed off about it. The general consensus is that the ‘actual villain’ of the film is this unoriginal, annoying take. 

This backlash forms part of a wider rejection of the ‘Millennial meme’. Think about it: how many of the most tired memes – like the Mean Girls,So you agree…’, Gossip Girl’s, ‘gopissgirl’, and that Sue Sylvester meme from Glee – have been derived from pop culture that Millennials loved? They were the first generation to grow up with the internet and be Extremely Online, and therefore feel a certain ownership over it. But Meg Lewis, a meme expert and social media manager at Giphy, thinks we’re finally witnessing the last gasps of the Millennial reign over the digital kingdom. “It’s getting more embarrassing for Millennials to share anything prior to probably 2012,” she says. “It’s a definite passing of the torch, because the nostalgia that we feel for all the GIFs and memes prior to that point is definitely fading and being replaced with more recent references.”

What else defines a ‘Millennial meme’? In general, memes from this sub-genre tend to lean into repetitiveness and well-known pop cultural references. The Devil Wears Prada is full of these, from the epic cerulean speech to the ‘Are you wearing the Ch-’ boots meme, ‘It’s a tough call, they’re so different’, and, of course, ‘Florals? For spring? Groundbreaking’. 

Back in the day, having a background knowledge of precise quotes was much more impressive because it wasn’t so easy to look them up, and GIFs weren’t as widely available on social media. But now, posting the newest and most up-to-date references is a much more valuable online currency. Memes are much more specific too. 

Part of this is down to the fact that memes are now posted with more immediacy. “If something goes live on Netflix at the weekend, it’ll take about 45 minutes for GIFs and memes to appear on social media,” Lewis says. “That’s really what is now seen as more ‘elite’ – not throwbacks to more old school things that have happened. It’s more about how fast you can watch the new thing, and how fast you can meme it and post it.” After an episode of Succession, for example, the biggest reward on social media goes to whoever can think of the best joke using the episode’s newest and most giffable moments. The more niche the better, because they’ll be enjoyed by fans who are truly in-the-know – a departure from deliberately posting references that everyone understands.

Millennial memes are also defined by an intentional virality, which is becoming increasingly uncool too. Appealing to such well-known cultural references, like The Devil Wear’s Prada, Sex and the City, or Mean Girls, casts the proverbial net as widely as possible, to harvest the most likes and shares. But brands have made us increasingly sceptical of content which seems overly designed to ‘go viral’ and a tone-of-voice which feels purposefully ‘relatable’. While Millennials bask in curated Instagram meme pages, Gen Z are gravitating towards less pristine platforms like TikTok and Snapchat, where posts tend to be presented in a more informal way.

When it comes to The Devil Wears Prada, specifically, there is a wider culture clash that could be driving the online rebellion against its memeability. The film showcases what is now considered to be an unhealthy attitude towards work: Andy’s group of friends admit to hating their low-paid jobs, and she is only working at Runway Magazine (in exploitative conditions, to the detriment of her personal relationships) because it will open doors for her. Halfway through, she confides in her mentor Nigel that her “personal life is falling apart”. His response? “That’s what happens when you start doing well at work.” Although her personal life does (sort of) implode, ultimately her career plan works, because she gets her dream job. When she meets up with her moody ex-boyfriend at the end, Nate tells her he’s moving away to become a chef – their individual ‘career goals’ are presented as the happy ending, rather than a romantic reconciliation. 

“It’s getting more embarrassing for Millennials to share anything prior to probably 2012. It’s a definite passing of the torch” – Meg Lewis, meme expert

It’s not surprising that so many Millennials loved this story, which was very of its time. Having entered the work market in the midst of an economic crisis, much of what is now considered ‘Millennial culture’ celebrates a capitalistic, work-focussed mindset. It’s all about ‘side hustles’, having a ‘five-year plan’, ‘making your job your LIFE’, and aspiring to be ‘a boss’. To Gen Z, the Millennial attitude towards work has provided much opportunity for mockery. In fact, it’s a key part of the so-called “beef” between the two generations, which started with TikTok videos mocking Millennials for supposedly being overly corporate, among other things. Gen Z are more likely to have the mindset that work is simply labour, rather than a person’s entire identity. So the idea of dreaming to be a cog in a big corporate machine, or working in a job you hate because it’s in the ‘five year plan’, probably seems less aspirational – as does a monologue like the ‘cerulean speech’. 

The pandemic has accelerated a scepticism towards hyper-productivity. On #CorporateTikTok, Gen Z have been dragging their bosses and sharing the pitfalls of the daily grind. But most noticeably, more Millennials have realised that much of the work culture they had glamorised is overrated, or even harmful. Mid-pandemic book releases like Amelia Horgan’s Lost In Work have attempted to untangle how precarious work conditions and monetised side-hustles have left so many people feeling unfulfilled. So looking through today’s lens, surely the ‘actual villain’ in The Devil Wears Prada is the capitalistic system that exploits workers to the point where it destroys their personal relationships?

Young people aren’t rejecting capitalism entirely, of course, but more a version of it which places them at the bottom of the ladder. The Devil Wears Prada reflected a time where people were still picking up magazines and letting the trends be dictated by huge corporations, but now brands are happy for their employees to be TikTok influencers at work, as a face of the company. “Now it’s the companies who are taking cues from Gen Z,” Lewis says. “It feels like, because they (Gen Z) are so visible, they have much more power, which is a huge switch.”

We see this shift dramatised in Emily in Paris. The bizarre Netflix show updates The Devil Wears Prada’s #GirlBoss fashion legacy for the avant basic Instagram era. Emily (Lily Collins), the show’s supposedly Gen Z protagonist, often feels like a Millennial trapped in a 22-year-old’s body. But we don’t see Emily running around ordering her boss lunch or coffee – instead, she tries to challenge the old school norms of the Paris fashion scene and is (slightly unrealistically) rewarded for it. “Every random idea Emily had from just typing away on her smartphone got approved,” Lewis says. “For the most part, we saw her being respected for being young and smart, instead of clawing her way up from the very bottom and following all the rules and norms like Andy did.”

“Millennial memes are defined by an intentional virality, which is becoming increasingly uncool”

It might seem overly deep to be looking at wider shifts in work, culture, and capitalism in relation to memes. But really, Millennial memes are representative of Millennial culture. And the pandemic has accelerated the process of both being challenged, updated, or shunned – not just by Boomers and Gen Z, but by Millennials themselves, too. It’s not like Gen Z aren’t capitalising on the situation where likes and shares can be monetised – just look at TikTok and YouTube’s mega-influencers. But the rejection of Millennial memes is more about the unoriginality and desperation that often accompanies them (not to mention the BuzzFeed-esque brand-like tone). It’s a comment on the attention economy that encourages people to re-use the same mortifying tweet for 15 minutes of internet fame. 

So, as Millennials lose their grip on the internet, what would Miranda Priestly say? “That meme? For retweets? Groundbreaking.”