Things change quickly on the Internet. The stories that were trending this morning may be gone by tonight. The memes that were popular in January may be gone by February. Others, however, are more enduring. Take the Distracted Boyfriend Meme: it hit peak popularity in September, but here we are in March and it’s still making appearances on my social media feeds.
Unlike many of its contemporaries, there is something that is in some way universally relevant about the Distracted Boyfriend Meme. Obviously not everyone has a significant other whose fidelity is questionable, so it isn’t the literal image of the meme that strikes a chord. Besides, that isn’t even how the meme is always used. No, the Distracted Boyfriend has proved relatable because everyone has, at some point or another, had one thing and wanted another. It’s the old wanting-what-you-can’t-have conundrum. The meme’s rise to popularity, then, makes sense.
But its continued endurance is another matter. After hitting peak popularity in September, the Distracted Boyfriend should have followed the trend and faded away into nothingness. Why is it still around, then? I have a theory about that.
On October 5, just as the Distracted Boyfriend was beginning its downward slide, the New York Times published a detailed exposé on Harvey Weinstein’s longstanding sexual harassment cover-ups, and the world changed. After that, it seemed that every day another Hollywood star, business tycoon, tech mogul, or politician was resigning, fired, or under criminal investigation. From House of Cards star Kevin Spacey being wiped out of a movie in post-production to the dramatic defeat of the Republican Senate nominee and accused child predator Roy Moore in Alabama, the voices of the victims of sexual harassment and assault were starting to be heard and accepted. As the cracks in the established narrative widened, Hollywood star Alyssa Milano posted a tweet that would give the movement its biggest momentum yet:
If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet. pic.twitter.com/k2oeCiUf9n
— Alyssa Milano (@Alyssa_Milano) October 15, 2017
Due to Milano’s popularity, the simple yet profound #MeToo hashtag—originally coined by social activist Tarana Burke as a way to spread empowerment through the power of empathy—spread like a coffee stain from an overturned mug; stories came spilling out, clouding the reputations of hitherto untouchable public figures. Thousands upon thousands of women—and, yes, men as well—shared their experiences of sexual harassment and assault. And in December, TIME Magazine selected “The Silence Breakers,” including Burke, the #MeToo Movement‘s founder, as their TIME Person of the Year, validating, perhaps, the movement’s scope and power.
What, you may ask, does all of this have to do with a popular meme that started before the #MeToo Movement took off? Everything. Because a meme isn’t just a joke that some Internet nerds locked away in their computerized catacombs use to troll each other. A meme is a social movement unto itself, a way for society to confront the uncomfortable truths about itself. Often, these truths are minor, little flaws that we can laugh at and say, “It’s true, we really do that!”
To some extent, that is exactly what the Distracted Boyfriend Meme does: “It’s true, we really do hanker for what we don’t have!” But there’s a flip-side to that meme. It’s not just a guy with an attention not giving his girlfriend enough attention, and it’s not just a guy plotting infidelity. It’s not the fact that he’s turned away from his girlfriend; it’s that he’s turned towards another woman. He’s wolf-whistling at her, objectifying her retreating form, and she alone of the three figures in the picture has her face blurred. She is, unquestionably, being harassed by the titular distracted boyfriend, and she is de-humanized at the same time.
It may make for a funny meme, but the Distracted Boyfriend Meme has a message that is far more important, and it arrived in the public eye at a time when that message was finally being heard. Is it any wonder, then, that we’ve held onto it for so long?
The messages that we share with one another over the Internet have a multitude of meanings, whether or not we acknowledge them. Memes are no exception. Just as memes are influenced by societal factors, memes have the potential to influence society in exchange. It is only by recognizing and inhabiting the power of memes that we can harness that potential for the good and create an open dialogue geared towards improving our world for all those who must live within it.
I know this is a big issue to tackle, so I would really love to hear your thoughts. Please do comment below. How has #MeToo affected you? Is the Distracted Boyfriend Meme timing just a coincidence? Is it just another funny meme? Let me know what you think!