While searching last week for the origins of the archaic term bedswerver,[a] I found this pic:

You might recognize the composition from the image behind the “distracted boyfriend” meme from 2017:

Being who I am, I thought it was interesting that the latter photo became the viral hit and not the former photo, and I wanted to know why. After all, few if any of the memes relied on gender, the distracted boyfriend standing in for “people”. So why not let a girlfriend stand in for “people”? I had my suspicions, but I took it to the court of public opinion that is Twitter:

You can click on the comments to read along if you’d like (unless it’s past 30 days and the tweet’s been autodeleted), but the general consensus was that the girlfriend in this pic isn’t distracted/horny, she’s offended/angry. Only in the context of the original, boyfriend-centered pic, goes the argument, would we ever think this girlfriend was aroused.

I’m curious about this because physiognomically these two are doing the same things: furrowing their brows and pursing their lips. Also: we can see what this woman looks like when she’s offended/angry, because you’ve probably noticed by now that the model also plays The Girlfriend in the viral pic. Her angry expression looks like dropped-jaw, widened eyes.

So what makes Distracted Girlfriend “look mad”? A few things come to mind here, not necessarily as means of answering that question. One is what certain facial expressions connote, specifically furrow (from the OAD: “tighten and lower in anxiety, concentration, or disapproval”) and purse (“pucker or contract, typically to express disapproval or irritation”). Individually, each seems connected with disapproval, but together they somehow broadcast arousal.

The other thing to note is that Distracted Boyfriend’s got a slight upturn at the center of his brow—which often expresses a kind of pathetic feeling, and is often a component of one’s “O-face”—whereas hers are turned down at the center, perhaps villainously. A subtle furrowing distinction that might make all the difference.

Another commenter wrote, “Women are never that obvious,” which indicates that we’re looking at an unusual image here, whereas the viral pic is more familiar (another common explanation for why it went viral: we’re used to seeing images of lecherous men, not women). And I wondered why it’s unusual, why women aren’t as obvious about this as men.

Because no single thing is inherent in every woman’s nature (see my gender essentialism complaint below), it’s incorrect to claim that women aren’t as lecherous or hornily aroused by passersby as men are. So either they choose to be more subtle about gawking, or they have to be, and I’m curious about why, and I think both options have the same reason why.

“Man [sic] behave this way more than women do,” one commenter wrote, but this is a just-so story, very likely a self-fulfilling prophecy, but its believability may have something to do with why “distracted boyfriend” became the meme. I think that we expect men to be horny for women and we expect women to be angry at men, to that point where even when a stock-image photographer deliberately sets up a scenario where a woman is acting horny for a man, the majority of people see her as angry, or too unnaturally obvious in her expression.

She’s not playing an expected role, Distracted Girlfriend, which is what I suspected from the start. And this isn’t a failure of the model to act well, or the photographer to realistically set up a scenario, it’s a failure of the role itself, the roles we all expect each other to play.

There’s something darker at work in the image that’s worth pointing out. One commenter ventured that the reason “distracted girlfriend” didn’t become a meme is that distracted boyfriends are funnier because of lower/safer consequences: “[I]f a guy cheats on a girl, he might be dumped or get his car keyed or she might smash his TV. If a girl cheats on a guy though he’ll beat the shit out of her or just kill her, so not as many people know women who might cheat, because they usually die.”

Usually makes this an unuseful idea, and their lumping together distraction with cheating is even more useless,[b] but it’s hard to argue that the threat for the distracted girlfriend isn’t potentially greater. Note the grip Distracted Girlfriend’s boyfriend has on her, the way he’s pulling her away with his whole body. Obviously, we’re not looking at the right territory for jokey memes about how quickly people change their interests.

Which is to say whether the girlfriend is broadcasting horniness or not on her face doesn’t matter. The image shows her being held back, almost as if her safety were in danger. Is it because she’s about to start a fight with the guy she’s looking at, as one commenter suggested? Is it because she wants to run off with him, as I’ve been trying to feministly suggest remains a possibility?

It doesn’t matter. Look at her body in the frame compared to Distracted Boyfriend’s body in the viral pic. Look at both their partners’ bodies and reactions. Their faces, Distracted Boyfriend’s and Girlfriend’s, are in charge of broadcasting their arousal, but the faces and bodies of their partners are in charge of broadcasting how we should feel about their arousal.

Distracted Boyfriend’s girlfriend looks more easy to abandon than Distracted Girlfriend’s boyfriend, and that this is all in body language, in the way men and women can hold each other bodies differently, creeps me out the more I look at it.

We’ve been watching a lot of Dynasty at home these days, Neal and I, and I’ve been surprised at how surprised/shocked/disgusted I’ve been at all the moments a man will just clench a woman by the upper arm and move her through a room. And not always in menace! It seems there was a time (and I’m not naive, I know we’re still in it), when husbands felt it was natural to maneuver their wives around the way they might a tool or piece of furniture.

That the wives never lash out in anger or violence—Get your fucking hands off me!—tells me so much about what the culture allows women, and the nature of the threats/needs for subtlety mentioned above.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. It’s from The Winter’s Tale
  2. And I can’t help pointing out how readily people fighting for gender equality cling to gender essentialism, as though it’s not itself a product of gender inequality.