You know the meme. A man is walking through a city hand-in-hand with his girlfriend—but another woman has caught his attention, and his girlfriend’s not very pleased.
The Distracted Boyfriend meme has all but taken over the internet since it first appeared in early 2017, when a Turkish Facebook page, entitled Great Comebacks to People Who Don’t Like Prog-Rock, posted the very first known version. The poster took photographer Antonio Guillem’s stock image and used it to make fun of Phil Collins’ pivot to pop. Since then, the image has proven to be a versatile source of commentary on topics ranging from 2017’s solar eclipse to the appeal of socialism for younger generations. In April, it was named meme of the year.
Versatile it may be—but the meme is also decidedly sexist. That’s the ruling of Sweden’s advertising ombudsman, after the internet services provider Bahnhof used the meme in a recruitment ad. (You’re the man, Bahnhof’s the lady in the red, and “your current workplace” is the disgruntled girlfriend.)
According to the Local, the ombudsman claimed that the advertisement objectified women: “It presents women as interchangeable items and suggests only their appearance is interesting… It also shows degrading stereotypical gender roles of both men and women and gives the impression men can change female partners as they change jobs.”
In an explanation so straightforward you’ll wonder why you didn’t think of it earlier, the ombudsman said that the image portrayed the two women as objects, and the man as an individual person with agency. More than, the “other woman” was clearly a “sex object … unrelated to the advertisement, which is for recruiting salespeople, operating engineers and a web designer.”
On their Facebook page, Bahnhof all but told the ombudsman lighten up. It was a “tired old meme,” they said, in which “gender [was] irrelevant.” And finding it sexist revealed only that the ombudsman didn’t “get” meme culture.
But a trope can be both hackneyed and offensive. Many commentators have spoken out and written about the racist implications of white people using memes and gifs of black people, saying that it functions as a kind of digital blackface. And it’s probably not surprising that the memes that rise out from the dankest, and most masculine, corners of the internet often have sexism at their core, from riffs on “gurl gamers,” who play games only to attract men, to the “make me a sandwich” trope. Even the wide-eyed stare of Overly Attached Girlfriend plays into stereotypes about bunny-boiling ladies who just can’t give their boyfriend a bit of space.
There won’t be consequences for Bahnhof. The Swedish advertising industry regulates itself—no matter how harmful the ombudsman thinks an ad is, it doesn’t have the power to impose any sanctions. But as the Guardian reports, the damage may have already been done. Around 1,000 comments on the image called the company out for their sexism, with one commenter writing, “You really don’t want to attract women to your company.” Another observed that Bahnhof was “clearly not a workplace for any woman who wants to be taken seriously in her work.” Perhaps a more fitting meme for the company would have been Scumbag Steve.