The sigma male, characterized by his rudeness, aloofness, leather jacket, and cold demeanor, has gained significant popularity online in recent years. One individual who personifies this archetype is Ryan Gosling, who has transitioned from being a teen heartthrob to the embodiment of the sad straight man. Gosling, originally known for his role in the Disney TV show The Mickey Mouse Club, rose to worldwide fame in the early 2000s with the romantic drama The Notebook.
As time went on, the Canadian actor shifted from playing traditional romantic leads to portraying misunderstood, reclusive protagonists who appear hostile on the surface but possess empathy and supportiveness within. This transformation has resonated with a legion of fans who relate to characters from films like Drive, Blade Runner 2049, and even the unique Ken from Barbie, proclaiming, "Literally me" as their rallying cry. While the lone male archetype is not new in Hollywood, with classic actors like Humphrey Bogart and Gary Cooper popularizing it, Ryan Gosling has emerged as its ultimate embodiment in the era of TikTok.
A simple search of "Literally me" on any social media platform will yield tens of thousands of photos and videos featuring the Canadian actor. However, amidst this abundance of content, it becomes difficult to distinguish between the idealization and mockery of Gosling and his persona. Like most internet phenomena, the origins of the "Literally me" trend are challenging to trace. Sebastian Smith, a 20-year-old English student and devoted Gosling fan, believes it emerged towards the end of 2020, fueled by the loneliness brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Smith asserts that many people from his generation found a refreshing take on masculinity in these characters. In an article titled The Ryan Gosling Phenomenon, which he penned for his university newspaper, Smith unabashedly expresses his admiration for Gosling, highlighting his ability to portray desirable and damaged characters that cater to both men's envy and women's desires. Smith contends that Gosling has generated a balanced appeal with his characters, particularly those embodying the latter, transforming into an object of idolatry. However, amidst the irony and humor prevalent in online content related to Gosling, there is a problematic side to the "Literally me" trend.
An article from The Daily Star titled The distressing reality of "literally me" characters argues that the idolization of these characters by men indicates a significant issue. The followers of this trend often exhibit discontent with life, struggle with mental health issues, and have difficulty fitting in with their peers. According to Azneef Chowdhury, the author of the article, the problem arises when these individuals engage with like-minded people, resulting in the development of a toxic culture. Psychotherapist Mónica Fraca suggests that men's inclination to worship extreme masculinity and seek unreal male figures to relate to arises from difficulties in forming a healthy male image.
She asserts that men create idols of hypermasculinity due to the absence of suitable role models, resulting in stereotypical, emotionally flat figures. Smith acknowledges the toxic element within the "Literally me" trend but believes that those who take it seriously constitute only a minority. He explains that the joke lies in recognizing that Gosling's characters often display negative behavior, and the appreciation stems from a lighthearted understanding rather than belief. As an enthusiast of masculinity, Smith acknowledges its potential harm when taken to extremes. However, he does not perceive Gosling's characters as exemplifying negative masculinity.
Smith argues that complex male roles, such as those portrayed by Gosling, are essential for cultural expression and representation of the human condition. As for Gosling himself, it remains unclear whether he is aware of the cult following he has cultivated among male admirers. He has never addressed the topic in any interviews and appears disinterested when asked about online trends related to his films. In a recent interview with the BBC while promoting Barbie, when co-star Margot Robbie gleefully discussed the film's memes, Gosling jokingly queried, "What's a meme?" Whether intentional or not, for many of his followers, he and the memes bearing his image have become inseparable. The "Literally me" trend, regardless of Gosling's awareness, has been ongoing for over three years and has become an integral part of his online persona.