We’ve done it everyone—we can finally say ‘it’s a wrap’ on a year that brought some complicated emotions in its wake, to say the least. While that’s undeniable, in many ways, 2021 will also be remembered as a year of progression. More than 8.47 billion COVID-19 vaccinations were administered globally in a truly hot vax summer fashion, Donald Trump was finally banned from Twitter, and NASA’s Perseverance casually made oxygen on Mars. No biggy. Also, we saw the appearance and obsession of NFTs, which we now know are the way forward for artists and creatives to earn a living. Hopefully, those were worth the wait. I don’t think anyone really understands how they work just yet, but oh well, we have 2022 for that.
2021 was also home to some of our greatest, most wholesome pop culture moments yet. We got the Friends reunion we had all been begging for, Rihanna was declared a “national hero” of her home country, Barbados, and Paris Hilton finally found love and got married. I mean, even Avril Lavigne made an iconic comeback and joined TikTok (along with every other celebrity you can think of, making us feel closer to them than ever) while Britney Spears was freed from her conservatorship, at long last.
My favourite part of 2021? Us as a society having to learn how to prioritise ourselves and ask for more; for better. Perhaps it was watching Spears go up against her own family—her own abusers—in one of the biggest and most publicised lawsuits of the decade or Adele letting us know that “divorce, babes, divorce” can be a good thing. Whatever the inspiration behind this crucial societal shift, we learned that ‘no’ doesn’t have to be a dirty word. Actually, it’s rather freeing.
After the third lockdown lifted and restrictions eased, it seemed our attitudes changed. We were less afraid and more aware of how much time we unintentionally waste. We were more willing to spend some cash, to do the activities we’ve had on our bucket lists for years, to pull a sicky and go spend time with our loved ones instead.
A real watershed moment was when Simone Biles withdrew from the women’s gymnastics team Olympic finals in Tokyo this summer. In doing so, Biles demonstrated how much courage it takes to put your own needs first. To put your mental health above anything else. ‘No’ is a word we’ve always struggled with, especially in Britain, where our entire personalities seem based on politeness and bottling up our own feelings. Yet Biles proved that it could and should be used, setting a 2021 full of saying ‘no’ when needed.
This was further proven in the movement aptly named ‘The Great Resignation’, as so many of us truly said ‘fuck it’ and quit our shitty jobs to pursue something we were truly passionate about. Recent figures from HR Review show almost one in 20 workers in the UK resigned during the pandemic—just one segment of the global workforce sacking off their jobs in their search for something more fulfilling. If there is any greater joy in the world than quitting, it is everyone in the world quitting at once because we know we deserve better.
It seems that this year, we all decided our dream job was not working at all. Perhaps three lockdowns were enough for us to think about how much better family time might be over meaningless labour, or maybe we just got finally sick of our exploitative bosses. Either way, the seismic pandemic led us to focus on what matters to us, not just when it comes to our jobs, but in all aspects of our lives too. We learned to reject what doesn’t make us feel happy, healthy or safe, and boy does that feel good.
Despite the fun moments, 2021 was also undeniably a year of grief. No matter how determined we all were to have fun this year, that loss hit even harder. Considering these challenges and dismal events, to put it lightly, that also occurred in 2021, there couldn’t have been a better time for us to learn the versatile power of ‘no’ and start demanding more from those in power.
Political unrest, climate anxiety, health concerns and misogynistic violence lingered over us as we tried to turn our backs on a painful 2020, and make the most of a brand new year. In the wake of the murders of Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa and sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry—to name but a few—we, as women and feminine-presenting people, spent a lot of 2021 feeling afraid.
Subsequently and unsurprisingly, a lack of trust in governing bodies—whether it be in the justice system or our actual government—has followed. According to a YouGov poll, half of women have lost trust in the UK police. The survey showed 47 per cent of women said their trust in the police had decreased since the details of Wayne Couzens’ crimes were aired and other high-profile examples of police forces’ misogynistic cultures followed. Additionally, even 40 per cent of men said they also lost trust in the police following these crimes.
What’s more, a third of British citizens said they no longer trust the government. And why would we? With the constant fear of lockdown looming over us with no clear direction, their own former advisor Dominic Cummings speaking out against them, receipts in hand, and numerous illegal Christmas parties being held by the Tories during the third lockdown, they’re not exactly a trustworthy bunch.
Meanwhile, discourse over LGBTQ+ rights have dominated the headlines—someone please get JK Rowling and Dave Chappelle some professional help—as anti-LGBTQ hate crime reports rose by 210 per cent. You’d hope, given those numbers, that those in power would want to help reduce violence. But instead, LGBTQ+ artists and activists had to do the work themselves. It’s a little disappointing to be constantly carrying the weight, but their work is inspiring as always. Despite a storm of hatred towards transgender people making up an unfortunately huge part of the year, transgender artists really did dominate 2021. Torrey Peters’ Detransition, Baby flipped the script on trans representation in literature and Shon Faye’s The Transgender issue became an instant Sunday Times bestseller. Not to mention, Lil Nas X, Girl in Red, Arlo Parks, and We are The Union made sure LGBTQ+ folk still felt represented in the charts.
While the statistics are certainly bleak, they also reflect a time of change and response. They speak to the British people’s patience running out. What we began asking for in 2021, and will continue to ask for, is a better world.
Despite the many heartbreaking events of this year, they have also managed to awaken activism in a large portion of us. The vigils, climate protests, articles and digital activism efforts proved that we care, and we’re no longer accepting those who don’t. Just a quick scroll through TikTok or Instagram will show passionate digital activists demanding the prioritisation of backing social funding over police funding and opinion columns were filled with bright ideas about how we can preserve our planet and lessen the threat of climate change. We also stepped out from behind our screens and to the streets, with cities around the UK demanding better systems to combat violence, and save our planet.
Though we quietly hoped it would be gone by now, the ongoing pandemic continues to expose the enormous contradictions and inequalities of our societies, leading more and more of us to speak up about it. Which, once again, brings me to the fine thread that miraculously held us whole throughout 2021—our ability and freedom to say ‘no’.
No to the small things like low rise jeans trying to wriggle their way back into our wardrobes, no to the control we previously let our terrible jobs have on our own happiness, finally handing over that resignation letter, and no to the ongoing violence left unchecked by a corrupt government that does very little about it—all the while refusing to give us clear guidance or protection during a deadly pandemic.
As the year now draws to a close with a recent North Shropshire win to the Liberal Democrats, renewable energy at a record high, and the Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) consultation reopening, we can confidently say change is afoot for 2022—all thanks to everyone fighting. This year, we had enough. We learned how to be defiant. And now is the time to use our teachings, moving forward, to our fullest capabilities.