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The Distracted Boyfriend meme is sexist, says Swedish ad watchdog

‘It shows degrading stereotypical gender roles of both men and women’

The Distracted Boyfriend meme took over the internet and officially became the meme of the year. Starting as an everyday stock image by a Spanish photographer before being appropriated by a Turkish prog-rock fan Facebook group as a humbly niche meme, it’s been used as commentary on everything from socialism among teens to obscure anime references, your Netflix habits and mid-00s pop culture moments. You’ve probably given it a go yourself, like many People Online and Big Brands desperately trying to be involved in digital dialogue.

One company however, has been called out for using the meme that the Swedish advertising ombudsman has decided is sexist. Bahnhof, an internet service provider, posted the meme as part of a recruitment drive. In their meme, the boyfriend is ‘you’, the disgruntled girlfriend is ‘your current workplace’, and the new girl is Bahnhof.

The company’s original post, dated in April this year, was captioned: “Looking for a new job? Right now, we are looking for sales staff, operating engineer and a distinguished web designer. Check out our free services page here.” The post garnered over a thousand comments, many blasting the site for its sexism.

According to the Local, the Swedish watchdog (Reklamombudsmannen) ruled that it was discriminatory against both men and 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,” it said in a statement. Ultimately, it ruled that women in the meme were reduced to sex objects, while the man had individual agency.

The Swedish advertising industry is self-regulating, meaning the ombudsman has no power to actually do anything about it. Bahnhof’s response kind of reflected this too, basically telling the watchdog it was a “tired old meme” in which gender was “irrelevant”. In a Facebook post, the company added that the advertising watchdog just didn’t get meme culture.

Nevertheless, it's definitely dented the company's rep. One commenter on the original post said: “It doesn’t matter if it’s a popular meme. If you do not see how this picture is sexist whatever words are on the people, you are clearly not a workplace for any woman who wants to be taken seriously in her work.”

Hopefully though, it makes brands think a bit more about their meme-ing: in the last year alone, we’ve seem some major, offensive missteps from big corporations using memes, from the downright cringe to the disturbing appropriation of depressed and mental health-related memes and conversation. If the EU has its way too, memes might be wiped from the internet for good anyway.