‘Literally me’: Why do so many straight guys love Ryan Gosling?

The sad and solitary characters the actor has played have made him the very model of the Hollywood sigma male for the TikTok era

Ryan Gosling
Ryan Gosling at the 2017 Academy Awards ceremony.Christopher Polk (Getty Images)
Armando Quesada Webb

He is rude, doesn’t say much, wears a leather jacket and has a cold look. That is the image of the sigma male, a kind of lone wolf archetype that has become popular online in recent years and that has an indisputable icon: Ryan Gosling. Who once was a teen idol, as unlikely as it may seem, is now the king of sad straight men.

Gosling, who as a child became known on the Disney television show The Mickey Mouse Club before rising to world fame in the early 2000s with the romantic drama The Notebook, is now a prestigious Hollywood actor. Over the years, the Canadian performer went from romantic leads to misunderstood, reclusive protagonists who hide under a shell of hostility — but who, deep inside, are actually empathetic and supportive. This has earned him a legion of fans that relate to characters from movies like Drive, Blade Runner 2049 or even the peculiar Ken from Barbie, taking the motto “Literally me” as their rallying cry.

The archetype of the lone male is nothing new in Hollywood — classic film actors like Humphrey Bogart and Gary Cooper turned it into their personal brands — but in the age of TikTok, the great specimen is Ryan Gosling. You just have to type “Literally me” in the search engine of any social network, and tens of thousands of photos and videos of the Canadian actor will appear. And, in this sea of content, it is impossible to know where the idealization of this figure ends and the mockery begins.

Like most internet phenomena, the origin of “Literally me” is difficult to trace. Sebastian Smith, a 20-year-old English student and Gosling follower, believes that the phenomenon emerged at the end of 2020 and was driven by the loneliness imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. “I think many people of my generation saw in these characters a refreshing look at masculinity,” explains Smith, who is studying a business degree at the University of Warwick (U.K.) and who wrote an article for his university newspaper titled The Ryan Gosling Phenomenon. In the text, Smith does not hide his admiration, stating that Gosling “almost always delivers on at least one of two things: a desirable character, a damaged character, or both. Either the envy of men and desire of women, or a stolid victim of hardship, Ryan began to generate a proper balanced masculine appeal with his characters, especially those of the latter,” becoming, in the process, a “subject of idolatry.”

Although much of the content about Gosling one can find online is ironic or humorous, there is also a problematic side. An article from The Daily Star titled The distressing reality of “literally me” characters, argues that “men’s increased idolization of these characters hint at a major problem,” with the followers of this trend “exhibiting discontent with life, fighting their mental health struggles, and struggling to fit in with their peers.” The problem, explains the author of the article, Azneef Chowdhury, via email, arises when they start to interact with people who share these ideas of masculinity and it becomes a toxic culture.

Psychotherapist Mónica Fraca points out that, in general, the fact that men worship masculinity and look for unreal male profiles to relate to is linked to difficulties in forming a healthy, adequate male image. The expert states that men create idols of extreme masculinity in the absence of a fitting reference: “They seek someone in whom they can see themselves and emit behaviors, emotions or thoughts. They are stereotypical, flat emotional figures.”

Smith acknowledges that there is an element of toxicity in the “Literally me” trend, but believes that those who take it seriously are only a minority. “The joke is that you see characters like Gosling’s, that you know are behaving badly, but you joke about it and you don’t really believe what they say,” says the young man with an enthusiasm and eloquence that contrast with the sad characters that he likes so much. This business student defines himself as someone who “appreciates masculinity” but knows that taken to the extreme it can be harmful. He does not believe, however, that Gosling’s characters are an example of negative masculinity. “I love complex male roles, and I believe that these characters are absolutely necessary for our culture and to express the human condition,” he says.

As for Gosling, it is unclear whether or not he knows about the existence of this cult of male followers. He has never mentioned it in any interview, and seems disinterested when asked about any online trends related to his films. A few months ago, in an interview he gave the BBC while promoting Barbie, while Margot Robbie cheerfully talked about the film’s memes, Gosling only blurted out: “What’s a meme?” Whether he was joking or not, the truth is that, for many of his followers, the actor and the memes have become inseparable — and the “Literally me” trend, whether he knows about it or not, has been going on for more than three years and has become an integral part of his name in internet culture.

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