Thousands of years from now, when aliens find the dry husk of a tumbleweed that was once Earth, 2015 will be but a blip on the fiery horizon. These interstellar visitors may not know anything of climate change and presidential races, ISIS and terror, protests and Twitter, The Golden Age of TV and Star Wars.
But if we buried a time capsule to explain American pop culture in 2015, what would we include? Which events, releases, trends, and conversations best explain 2015 — and which will we look back at and wonder what the hell we were thinking?
1) "The Dress" hits the Internet, confuses the Internet, breaks the Internet, etc
Though it feels a lifetime and several dozen internet news cycles ago, "The Dress" was a phenomenon that swept the internet for just one day: February 26, 2015. After a Tumblr user named "swiked" posted a picture of a dress and asked people to identify its color scheme, everyone who saw it became immediately and passionately embroiled in a debate that briefly tore friends, family, celebrities, and co-workers apart.
Either you saw a black-and-blue dress, a gold-and-white dress, or a useless exercise that represented all the worst the internet has to offer. Scientific explanations came forward, conspiracy theories loomed large, and Twitter became a hivemind devoted to the sole task of figuring this puzzle out. It was a wacky time, but it will be difficult to explain to future generations why, exactly, anyone ever cared at all.
2) Equal pay in Hollywood gets louder voices
"To every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights," supporting actress winner Patricia Arquette told the Oscar audience on February 22. "It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America."
Arquette's speech was both praised and criticized for implying that women have fought for "everybody else's equal rights," like civil rights are fixed for everyone but women now. But her blunt demand for equal pay is a neat encapsulation of 2015's more open discussions about gender pay disparities in Hollywood. In January, Charlize Theron used information the 2014 Sony leaks to negotiate her pay up to the level of her male Snow White and the Huntsman co-star — to the tune of an extra $10 million. In October, Jennifer Lawrence wrote an essay for Lena Dunham's Lenny newsletter in which she admitted that she hadn't been as aggressive in pay negotiations for fear of being labeled difficult — and that she was finally ready to fight back.
With every day, the clamor for equal pay seems to grow ever bigger and louder. Hopefully, 2015 isn't the last we hear from that chorus.
3) Marvel gets even more ambitious, continues to dominate
Avengers: Age of Ultron, the sequel to Marvel's megawatt blockbuster The Avengers, was supposed to be the biggest news for the company this year. And while the movie did very, very well, it didn't quite live up to the standards set by its predecessor —both earnings-wise and critically. Where Marvel exceeded expectations was in the unexpected delight and ingenuity of Ant-Man, the sleek set-up for Captain America: Civil War, its upcoming projects like Dr. Strange and Black Panther, and of course, its comic books.
4) #blacklivesmatter enters pop culture parlance
As the movement demanding accountability for police violence gained steam this year, so did depictions of it on the small screen. As Flavorwire's Pilot Viruet pointed out, shows that routinely rip fictional stories from real headlines, like Law and Order: SVU and The Good Wife, tried to offer their own perspectives on police brutality and the nationwide protests against it.
But the trend went beyond even that. Scandal briefly abandoned its typical soap structure for a one-off episode about one black man staging a protest to draw attention to his killed son. Empire featured elaborate concerts for #blacklivesmatter, though these ended up seeming more like publicity grabs for the show's Lyon family than thoughtful protests. As more diverse stories get told on television, and more attention is brought to these issues, more shows will try to capture the tension and unease of a country reckoning with its fraught history — to varying degrees of success.
5) "Diversity in TV" reemerges as a popular discussion/catchphrase
It's a familiar and dependable cycle: an outcry emerges for more diversity on television, a couple of shows rise to meet the challenge, Hollywood feels like it's done enough, and so begins the backslide to monochromatic storytelling.
But 2015 saw an unusually large and prominent burst of minority-driven shows that loudly told their stories, including Fresh Off The Boat, Black-ish (which launched in 2014), Master of None, Jane the Virgin (also from 2014), Dr. Ken, The Carmichael Show, and the continued dominance of ABC's Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder. Most prominent of all, though, was Fox's Empire, a Dynasty-level soap that threw the drama of King Lear into record label wars between Terrence Howard and the electric Taraji P. Henson.
All these shows performed above industry expectations, which is to say that all these shows proved that people do, in fact, care about and crave stories starring more diverse casts. A few new shows are hardly going to reverse the Hollywood's overwhelmingly white history, and the industry's institutions are still stacked in white men's favor. At the very least, though, the ratings and enthusiastic reception these shows have received should encourage more forward movement rather than a complacent plateau.
6) Caitlyn Jenner comes out on the cover of Vanity Fair
Caitlyn Jenner came out on the cover of Vanity Fair's June issue, and the issue made for the perfect convergence of pop culture, social justice, and civil rights. Parents and grandparents knew Jenner as a gold-medal-winning Olympian, while a younger generation knew her as the patriarch of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. And in her coming out, Jenner brought already burbling conversations about transgender people into the spotlight.
Jenner, as she has said in interviews and speeches, is still learning about what it means to be transgender. There has also been debate about her prominence and her privilege. Caitlyn Jenner certainly doesn't represent all transgender people, but she shouldn't have to. What she wants to do is bring awareness and empathy to how we treat each other.
"[Transgender people] deserve your respect. And from that respect comes a more compassionate community, a more empathetic society, and a better world for all of us." Jenner said at this year's ESPYs.
Further stretching the limitations of the -gate suffix, "Deflategate" was simultaneously one of football's most fascinating and most ridiculous scandals in recent memory.
The accusation went as such: before the AFC championship between the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts, the Patriots' locker room attendant Jim McNally may have released air from a set of game balls, which would make them easier for quarterback Tom Brady to throw. Brady was subsequently suspended from four games for likely knowledge of the incident, and the Patriots lost two draft picks and a cool million dollars in fines.
If you're a Patriots fan, this was — pun absolutely intended — blown out of proportion. If you're not a Patriots fan, you probably experienced the gleeful schadenfreude of a Goliath tripping on its own feet. If you don't care about football at all, you're definitely just sick of hearing puns about Tom Brady's deflated balls.
8) "Netflix and Chill"
While the term Netflix and Chill had its brief moment in the spotlight, people have been Netflixing and Chilling for years. But the phrase perfectly encapsulated the idea of arranging an assignation in this day and age of cord-cutting. Like a lot of popular slang, the term originated on Black Twitter, and found its way to the mainstream before flaming out. But Netflix and Chill will live forever in our hearts.
What else is there to say about the Minions, the squeaky, surprisingly filthy Despicable Me sidekicks who launched their own cartoon empire when their standalone Minions movie made over a billion dollars worldwide by August?
No, really, we're asking. We have nothing else to say.
10) Late-night television becomes a revolving door
Though the late-night landscape is still overwhelmingly white and male, it saw numerous changes throughout 2015.
Stephen Colbert shut down The Colbert Report after 10 years at the end of 2014, and Larry Wilmore constructed The Nightly Show in its place. David Letterman retired from The Late Show after 22 years, and Colbert took his place. Jon Stewart stepped down from The Daily Show after 16 years, and Trevor Noah took his place. Craig Ferguson's Late Late Show ended after 10 years in late 2014, and James Corden's Late Late Show went up in its place.
Meanwhile, John Oliver's HBO show Last Week Tonight became even more of a mainstay, and Jimmy Fallon's lip sync battles kept celebrities busy with audience-pleasing throwback tunes. It's not over yet: next year, Samantha Bee will launch Full Frontal on TBS, making a female perspective central to late-night news in a way it hasn't been since Joan Rivers's yearlong stint in the '80s. (No pressure, Bee.)
11) Amy Schumer is everywhere, all the time, always
As much as Inside Amy Schumer had already been impressing Comedy Central nerds, 2015 was the year when the show and its star broke out in a huge, practically inescapable way. Every week the show aired, a new sketch would be plastered all over the internet, and with good reason; Inside Amy Schumer's third season churned out sharply funny sketches that were also often devastating critiques of misogynist culture.
And she was just getting started. Trainwreck, the movie she wrote and starred in, debuted in theaters in July and went on to gross over $110 million. She had a stand-up special on HBO. She turned down an offer to become The Daily Show's new host. She became best friends with fellow unapologetic blonde Jennifer Lawrence. In 2015 alone, she went through several cycles of pure adoration and backlashes, accolades and critical thinkpieces, her every move, tweet, and Instagram analyzed and spread far and wide.
12) Rape accusations against Bill Cosby go from an open industry secret to an unavoidable roar
It's been over 50 years since the first (the first!) woman was allegedly assaulted by Bill Cosby, and yet it took Hannibal Burress's standup act in October 2014 to kickstart a public outcry that led to what seems like the comedian's final, irreversible fall from cultural grace.
Once beloved as America's fumbling television dad, Cosby is now synonymous with our culture's instinctive habit of believing men over women. Accusations against Cosby flooded the public discourse throughout 2015. The furor peaked in July with New York magazine's stark cover, which portrayed 35 accusers and one empty chair, symbolizing the 11 other women who weren't photographed for the story. The controversy rages on today, with Cosby slamming prominent accusers like Beverly Johnson with defamation lawsuits; on December 30, he was charged with sexual assault for the first time. In 2015, after years of half-ignored rumors, the damage was finally done.
13) Adele returns with a new album and promptly takes over
After four years off the radar, the power of Adele was once again unleashed upon the populace in 2015, as her new album, 25, went about smashing records and racking up sales like no album has in years. Optimistic projections hoped she would sell 2.5 million in her first week; she sold 3.4 million.
She hasn't quite found a single that resonates like 2011's "Someone Like You," much less 2010's "Rolling in the Deep," but Adele doesn't need your dumb singles. She's got new records, a sold-out tour coming up, and Emma Stone and Jennifer Lawrence on speed dial. The lady's got 2015 wrapped around her finger, and 2016 isn't far behind.
14) Star Wars: The Force Awakens slides in as the year's biggest movie, right before the buzzer
The resurrection of Star Wars has been anticipated ever since the disastrous prequels faded from fans' memory over a decade ago. After years of whispers, set photos, and trailer teases, J.J. Abrams's take on the storied franchise hit theaters on December 18 and immediately become a phenomenon — though actually, over $100 million in advance ticket sales meant it broke records even before it premiered.
With fresh faces like Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, and Lupita Nyong'o inspiring a new generation of Star Wars fans, The Force Awakens has already grossed $1 billion in ticket sales, and could very well become the highest-grossing movie ever. With more sequels and spinoffs set for the near future, Star Wars is ready to obliterate your puny mortal records.