The “Distracted Boyfriend” meme became an internet sensation in 2017, with anybody having a social media account probably seeing it at least a few times. It is known as an object labelling meme, where users place different labels on the people in the meme to produce different effects. The original photo came from Antonio Guillem and was posted on November 2, 2015 on iStock, a stock photo website. It depicts a boyfriend looking at another girl passing by while his girlfriend scoffs disapprovingly. The original title was “Disloyal man with his girlfriend looking at another girl”. The first known instance of a captioned version of the image was posted on January 30th, 2017 to the Prog Düşmanlarına Verilen Müthiş Cevaplar Facebook page, showing Phil Collins looking at pop music over prog music. However, with such a niche reference the post didn’t gain much traction outside of the group.
The stock photo really blew up when Instagram user @_dekhbai_ posted the image with captions “Tag that friend / Who falls in love every month” on February 23rd, 2017. This added an open-ended comedy to the post, allowing users to tag their friends so that they would spread the image to other friends and encourage them to like the post. This kind of effective tagging is very common on Instagram meme pages nowadays, with many using the “Tag your friend that…” caption. Over the next seven months, the post would garner over 28,500 likes, and its popularity only grew from there.
The next big leap for this meme came on August 19th when Twitter user @n1m161 posted the photo with the boyfriend labelled “The Youth” looking longingly at “Socialism” while “Capitalism” is offended. This being the first truly funny, widely appealing version of stock photo showed people the potential of the meme and opened up creative avenues for other users to begin captioning. They were followed by reddit user r/danikger on August 21st who captioned the man “me” looking at the solar eclipse while “scientific evidence supporting the dangers of staring at the sun” looks on. I personally very much enjoy the overly long caption version of memes, as I think this adds a great comedic effect. The post gained 31,200 points in 24 hours on r/me_irl. From this point on the ball started rolling on the captioning craze with more posts being put on r/MemeEconomy in the next few days. Slate even cited it in March of 2018 as one of the most influential memes to the object labelling trend of the late 2010s.
Now, with the popularity of the meme growing, people discovered another side to these photos: a whole series with a storyline. The man checks out the other girl at multiple occasions in different places, while his girlfriend and him somehow wear the same outfit. This series was posted on August 22nd, 2017 on Tumblr by user klubbhead. The middle photo is my favorite, with the man checking out the other girl even as he proposes to his girlfriend, which is an homage to the ridiculousness of some stock photos. Klubbhead replied to his post the next day with more series of the couple being happy before, then meeting and befriending the other woman. By August 25th, the post gained over 47,500 notes. Adding such a funny backstory to the meme just makes it so much more intriguing, enticing even more users to want to caption the image and produce more interesting memes.
After this series of photos is posted, an even more hilarious series is posted by Twitter users @akfamilyhomeak and @oranforest on August 24th, 2017 showing the two women growing closer while the boyfriend gets blurrier in the background. This is the final discovery of extra series involving these actors, but another single photo was posted by Reddit user r/toastr on October 29th with the girlfriend now checking out another guy while a different boyfriend becomes jealous. At this point, many photos begin cropping up with people parodying the meme from real life.
A few of my favorite examples of this are an 18th century version, a wedding photo, and an instance from Jack Black’s gaming channel JablinskiGaming. The 1761 painting by Joshua Reynolds was posted by Twitter user @ELXGANZA along with the caption “I’ve found the 18th century equivalent to the distracted boyfriend meme” and it got over 34,000 retweets and 110,000 likes in 24 hours. The wedding photo version was posted on Twitter by user @skylxrksays from an original Reddit photo by user r/Lyude on October 1st, 2018, gaining over 27,000 retweets and 94,000 likes. The Jack Black version actually comes from a shot in one of his videos from his gaming channel JablinksiGaming entitled “Jumanji 4”, which was uploaded on February 22nd, 2019. On February 25th, user @StoiclDir noticed the moment and posted it on Twitter. Then, Reddit users added the captions shown below and posted the photo to r/dankmemes.
These parodies show how the popularity of the original meme grew so large that users started seeing it all over the place. The meme was so popular in fact, that it was awarded “Meme of the Year” at the Shorty Awards in 2018. I think this meme also represents the creativity of internet patrons adding such different captions and photoshopping various other images into the original stock photo. Seeing the format crop up in funny places adds a special charm to the meme, and people that aren’t in the know would be very confused by the new versions. This speaks to the evolution that can happen when various users remake and rethink the meme over time in various funny ways. Every time another parody appears it reminds people how funny the meme is and gives it new life. That is one of the reasons we still see this meme today. It’s no wonder “Distracted Boyfriend” received “Meme of the Year”, being such a creatively open template that let iteration upon iteration improve on the impact and hilarity, transforming it into the beloved meme we know today.
Source for all photos: https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/distracted-boyfriend
Jablinski gaming video: https://www.youtube.com/embed/mZMGBBGXZlE