Here in America we are tearing our hair out over having a very bad government much of which does not consider women fully human. But in Sweden, memes are being scrutinized for sexism.
The Guardian reported on Wednesday that Sweden’s advertising ombudsman ruled that the Distracted Boyfriend meme—which was once a quaint stock photograph by Antonio Guillem called Man Looking at Other Woman, and has been forever fused to our central nervous systems I am sure—is sexist. The image was used in ads for the internet services provider Bahnhof, which assigned the labels “You” to the boyfriend, “Your current workplace” to the girlfriend, and “Bahnhof” to the second woman.
In America, this ad probably would not merit the iconic backward glance. But the ombudsman, RO, said in its ruling “The advertisement objectifies 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.” That is so sweet!
Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean the ad campaign is kaput. As the Guardian notes, “The Swedish advertising industry is self-regulating, meaning that the ombudsman can criticize ads but it doe not have the power to impose sanctions.”
The Guardian also reported that after the ad was originally posted in April, it attracted more than a thousand comment, many calling it sexist.
Bahnhof responded by explaining the cruel, cold logic of memes, in which signifiers are empty, corruptible shells for meaning: “Anyone familiar with the internet and meme culture knows how this meme is used and interpreted. Gender is usually irrelevant in the context. We explained meme culture to the ombudsman, but it chose to interpret the post differently.”
Incidentally, We Explained Meme Culture to the Ombudsman is the title of my forthcoming novel, out wherever gender is usually irrelevant from No Future Press.