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This Charlie Chaplin picture might look familiar.
If you were online at all around the end of 2017, you probably saw a lot of the Distracted Boyfriend meme. It originated from a stock photo showing a man being distracted by a woman while walking down the street with his girlfriend. The meme became insanely popular, as it was easy to project whatever you wanted onto the three characters.
this is maybe the best meme ive ever seen pic.twitter.com/NJU66Fis2s
— gay 4 spider-man (@goftrop) February 2, 2017
ok last one pic.twitter.com/wvrar35YBy
— crân-buri-ghân (@bromanconsul) August 25, 2017
I'm very sorry for this, but… pic.twitter.com/iewtkmUmkG
— Peter Goldberg (@peeto_g) June 11, 2018
Much like the photo of the Distracted Boyfriend, Chaplin and his partner are seen in the background, while the object of his attention is shown in soft focus in the foreground. Lose those fancy hats and it’s pretty much the same picture.
Naturally, Twitter was impressed and happy to start creating new versions of the meme.
— Torville Redenbotter (@TravBot) June 11, 2018
— Diana (@BrukDiana) June 11, 2018
— Hunmik (@hunmik) June 11, 2018
— Taffin (@i124nk8) June 11, 2018
— jimmybing (@jimmybing) June 11, 2018
So can we safely say that Charlie Chaplin, who wrote, directed, and starred in Pay Day, invented the meme?
No, not really. It’s certainly interesting that the images are so similar, but let’s not forget that the Chaplin image is a still from a film, meaning the creator of the new meme had the ability to pause the action at the exact point they wanted to create that closest possible equivalent to the original meme. More importantly, the idea that man would be distracted from his partner when he sees someone attractive is a trope that’s been around for a very very long time. That’s the whole reason that the stock photo works in the first place. We can tell exactly what’s going on because we’ve seen the same situation a million times in various formats including, quite possibly, real life.
If you need more proof, consider this version of the meme that started making the rounds back in April.
I’ve found the 18th century equivalent to the distracted boyfriend meme pic.twitter.com/QDKjygVDcr
— big sue (@ELXGANZA) April 16, 2018
Fun fact: the painting is by Joshua Reynolds and it depicts the actor David Garrick stuck between the alure of Comedy and the prestige of Tragedy, so here’s a depiction of how the meme would have worked in its original context. pic.twitter.com/1GDCFM0wXe
— big sue (@ELXGANZA) April 16, 2018
This kind of thing is bound to happen from time to time, given society’s recent access to basically every bit of media ever created.
For instance, a few years ago people were suggesting that Bob Dylan first coined the phrase “I can’t even” back in 1966, during a particularly frustrating recording session. Did Dylan utter the phrase decades before it became popular? Absolutely. Did his saying it somehow lead to it this YouTube video? Probably not.
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These coincidences are always fun to discover, and people should definitely keep pointing them out, but it’s also important to remember that when you have that totality of human history available on your phone, it’s not hard to find an early version of any meme. Somewhere out there are some amazing caver paintings of SpongeBob. Start digging people.
David Britton is a writer and comedian based in Rhinebeck, New York who focuses on internet culture, memes, and viral news stories. He also writes for the Hard Times and is the creator of StoriesAboutWizards.com.