The Ryan Gosling phenomenon

It’s been a little while since I wrote my “Sigma Cinema” piece near the end of last year for the Warwick Student Cinema. My Instagram and TikTok algorithms have kept chugging along, and to me it’s still evident the internet remains desperately attached to its Patrick Batemans and Tyler Durdens. However, as of late, it seems the literally me psychosphere, though still alive and well, has largely narrowed in on itself. What I then described as the light-hearted ‘manosphere’ offshoot of appreciating masculinity and complex male roles in film has now carved a path for one man – not character, mind you – to step up.

A familiar face from the memes of yesteryear, Ryan Gosling appears to have been elected as literally me’s ambassador. But unlike the degenerates his characters sit alongside in the literally me collective, Ryan himself appears to have ascended to something higher altogether. It’s become one of the most amusing and pervasive phenomena in online subculture I’ve seen in months. And now having peaked with It-man ‘Kenergy’ in the run up to Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, Gosling’s brilliant juggling of effortless cool and big-screen star power has proven himself to be, much to my own and the internet’s adoration, a knight with amour shinier than most.

Ryan’s Return

From a long-term perspective, Ryan has actually only re-entered the Hollywood scene fairly recently.

Much of Ryan’s early career largely rested on his roles in smaller indie films. This, I think, was as much about Ryan experimenting with his strengths and preferences in front of a camera than it was about climbing the ranks of Hollywood. Standout performances in The BelieverHalf NelsonBlue ValentineDrive, and The Place Beyond the Pines served to develop a pretty serious acting repertoire for Gosling, and while he absolutely demonstrates range in this era of his career, it was clear by 2011’s Crazy Stupid Love that Ryan had found comfortable footing in playing two kinds of roles: brooding, lonely, emotionless sandbag with a hidden heart of gold, or magnanimous, comedic ball of personified confidence.

Come the latter half of the 2010s, Ryan had, by most reasonable measures, won. Now having propelled himself in front of big audiences, he played to his strengths. The charming Sebastian in La La Land was a triumph (the film made me thoroughly enjoy a musical, and I f—ing hate musicals), and Officer K’s moody yet stoic attitude – Ryan’s other acting forte – secured Blade Runner 2049’s position as an impressive, weighty modern sci-fi epic. But after Damien Chazelle’s First Man in 2018, the guy stood out of the limelight for a while. About four years, in fact.

Along with The Gray Man (2022), Gosling’s return to film playing me Ken in Barbie marks the end of a hiatus – albeit a hiatus during which a hilarious online phenomenon seems to have grown in his name.

I’m Him, He’s Me

The year of 2020 saw people plunge into the world of cinema in an attempt to mollify their COVID cabin fever, and film culture online exploded. What followed was, to put it remarkably mildly, quite interesting. All of a sudden, Patrick Bateman was my friend’s wallpaper. I won’t babble, but today’s age of tribal ‘manosphere’ politics and a (rather concerning) craving from young men for masculine guidance proved to be the perfect breeding ground for the literally me movement. And so it was born, with Ryan an indispensable face among the roster of characters (Officer K and ‘Driver’ from Drive being the most notable here).

Once Ryan began churning in this meme machine, I think the internet caught on pretty quick to the fact that a game of Ryan Gosling movie roulette 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. And while one can argue that excelling in such roles (as Ryan clearly has) is often enough to become the subject of idolatry, it’s the way in which he is – certain intangibles in his performances and persona – that have driven Ryan Gosling-ism to new heights.

Greta Gerwig, in a recent interview with GQ, said it better than I could: “there’s a quality to Ryan’s acting, even when he’s hilarious, it’s never the actor standing outside the role commenting on or judging this person. He does it in a way that takes on all of the potential humiliations of the character as his own.” Indeed, there is a pale softness in Ryan’s performances that, even when playing broody or violent men, comes across as both introspective and uniquely self-confident. The result is a rare kind of moderate intensity that serves to consistently make his characters both accessible and inspiring. It’s become a real niche ability for Ryan.

However, despite his masculine appeal, Ryan is not exactly the macho type. “He’s very gentle,” says Emily Blunt in that same GQ interview. “He likes to kind of sleuth around. He’s more sleuth-y than macho, you know?” The interview also speaks to Ryan’s ability to observe peoples’ nuances and socially keep the ball in the other court – something both Emily and the interviewer suspect to be a deflection strategy. I’m sorry, and pardon my chronically online language, but he is so real for that. Nevertheless, Ryan, in typical fashion, seems breezy about all of it, seeming to easily slide through conversations and interviews with wit and genial warmth. But make no mistake, this is Ryan. It’s not a façade – this is transparency. Though along with sly vulnerability, transparency is, as you’ll find, something leading men are not really known for.

And yet, that’s precisely why, circa 2003, he got the role. “The fact that you have no natural leading man qualities is why I want you to be my leading man” was what Nick Cassavetes, director of The Notebook, told Ryan when he was auditioning for the part. And in another piece for Company Magazine back in 2012, Gosling reveals, rather hilariously, that he was told by Nick that he did not look handsome or cool, just “a bit nuts”. With a hindsight, a harsh take, but at the same time, not really.

The humility from his modest beginnings in showbiz still undoubtedly leaks through to this day. For many years, I remember The Notebook being the youth romance film, and it almost still is. It makes sense, then, that Ryan has placed himself at the centre of many women’s desires for years – his further suave roles down the line not exactly helping. “I think it embarrasses him in some ways,” Blunt says. “I got the sense it really wasn’t what he felt about himself.” How adorable.

And that’s what I’m talking about. It’s this combination of strange on-screen charisma and real-life humanisms that make him so, well, human. And by consequence, wholly appealing. He brings it into every one of his films – both a persona and acting toolkit that allows him to look and feel comfy by simply being, by showing up, and not much more. A character’s relatability normally must be written in. Ryan, bizarrely, can make a character ‘relatable’ simply by playing the character. That is the difference. There’s almost a sense of relief that comes with this – one of some deep-rooted expectation being happily met each time without fail.

The aggregation of all this, regardless of the role he assumes or the flaws he wears, is a feature of honesty, in every sense of the word, from the first minute he enters a scene. I think this makes Ryan the mascot for a much-needed hopeful message amidst the gloom of literally me. A man whose characters represent all you wish to see and all you wish to be. Utterly ‘relatable’, and by obvious extension, utterly memeable. And so, ultimately, that’s how I came to my conclusion.

I am Ryan Gosling.

Memes, Barbie, and More Memes

Ryan, not to his knowledge, was undoubtedly a pioneer of the literally me movement – and as mentioned before, becoming a key figure, I now argue, as a consequence of his human qualities. Nowadays, “I drive” is almost solidified internet lingo, and the classic reposting routine of the famous neon lights of Ana de Armas’s holographic body shimmering off Officer K’s drenched hair and taped-up nose (A Ryan staple) has become a familiar sight to cringe-tok revellers and doom scrollers alike. But this is not Ryan’s first rodeo of meme stardom.

Cereal. If some of you remember, back in 2013, Ryan’s movie characters wouldn’t eat it. An amusing vine from Ryan McHenry saw him match clips of Ryan’s movie scenes with his spoon of cereal, which Ryan’s characters always seemed to turn away. Sadly, McHenry passed away, and two years later, in what was a touching tribute, Ryan posted a video of himself finally eating cereal. There’s also the priceless, though slightly more ambiguous, ‘Hey, girl’ meme, which might even go as far back as 2008. Those memes, mostly due to my generation’s affinity for extremely ironic humour, will still be found to be funny today (to give you an idea, I follow meme pages whose recent attempts at humour have involved posting about the mechanics of a John Deere tractor). Anyways, I digress. Back to the future.

Mid 2022 saw literally me in full swing, but outside his ‘sigma male’ edits, Ryan has also had bouts with ‘corecore’ – an art form, by the way – in which Officer K’s chair-kicking freakout scene became synonymous with serious cases of post-modern induced existentialism and online melancholia. Sorry, but I can’t be arsed explaining that one. Go figure. But in all, Ryan’s character, and by extension, himself, became further associated with ‘relatability’.

There was also his Gucci ad in September of last year. If Ryan wasn’t already cool enough, now he was wearing Gucci and eating an apple. What a day that was. This was soon taken and made into hypnotic edits of Gucci clad Ryan overlayed with “Luxury” by Azealia Banks, the videos often captioned with something along the lines of “[insert some relatable situation], my honest reaction:” – I loved it. From my point of view, this marked the turning point where Ryan Gosling posting was unequivocally becoming about Ryan, and slightly less so his characters.

Come the announcement of Ryan playing Ken in Barbie, it almost seemed surreal. By this point, I’m convinced it was fate. The man, already among the highest of internet royalty, lauded for always playing the guy in films – the best of what is both relatable and desirable – is now playing the guy. It was eggs and bacon. It was the role he was born to play, as many critics have espoused now having seen Ryan completely steal the show in an astounding comedic performance, usurping Margot Robbie from her own Mattel throne. And just when it couldn’t get any better, I found out that when Barbie’s soundtrack was being produced, Ryan related to “I’m just Ken” so much that he asked to specifically perform it in the film, forcing Gerwig to rewrite certain scenes.

There’s no debate now. He’s him. But, as is very much the point, that’s all he’s ever been. The pronoun here is deliberately ambiguous. My Ken, playing Ken. It’s a gorgeous metaphor if I’ve ever seen one.

But when the first trailers for Barbie dropped around April, literally me resurged in full force. Except for one caveat. The ‘literally me space on TikTok, once a diverse space featuring many a face from your favourite selection of men who are in dire need of mental treatment, is now unquestionably dominated by Ryan Gosling. However, it wasn’t just the new character of Ken. It was nearly every character Gosling had ever touched, especially those from fan favourites Drive and Blade Runner 2049Literally me on steroids, through Ryan Gosling tinted glasses.

He is so adored that the memes in the current cycle now contain the same kind of horseshit prose that involves the poster claiming, certifiably, that they are Ryan Gosling. ‘Literally me’, but very literally. Comments under such posts are predictable and compound the humour: real (I am Ryan Gosling); real (I’m schizophrenic); please stop posting photos of me. Another meme – a personal favourite of mine – features a clip of Tony Soprano berating his therapist, Dr Jennifer Melfi, and storming out in a sulk because she told him, as the caption indicates, he is not “literally Ryan Gosling.” Nonsensical garbage, clearly, but I cackle all the same.

Furthermore, contemporary Ryan posts are now so often accompanied by “Nightcall” by Kavinsky (“there’s something inside you, it’s hard to explain” – yes, you know the one) that the heavy retro synthwave opener to Drive can be overlayed with pretty much anything now. It doesn’t even have to be about the movie Drive. I saw one Reel recently that showed a chain of TikToks overrunning someone’s feed, where each TikTok – using “Nightcall” as its sound – had a slideshow matching Ryan’s differently coloured suits to differently coloured energy drinks, deodorants, cars, and even coffee makers (#literallyme, #moccamaster). Pure brain rot, no doubt.

But these veins of similarities that have grown from the Ryan Gosling ecosystem don’t just affect my literally me memes, or my memes in general, but my entire feed as a whole. And besides that, it helps that Ryan is also a genuinely funny man with a real knack for comedy – he seems to have a brilliant sense of delivery and comedic timing, all of which adds to the atmosphere of humour that he carries wherever he goes nowadays. It reminds me very much that we haven’t forgotten the charming, easy-going kid he once was in his early career. GQ concurs: “inside him, always, lived the spirit of a kid dressed up like a hamster in Orlando, performing for anyone who would watch.” Ryan then goes on to say “there’s something about this Ken that really, I think, relates to that version of myself. Just, like, the guy that was putting on Hammer pants and dancing at the mall and smelling like Drakkar Noir and Aqua Net-ing bangs. I owe that kid a lot. I feel like I was very quick to distance myself from him when I started making more serious films. But the reality is that, like, he’s the reason I have everything I have.” It’s like he almost knows what we want to hear.

Overall, this awesome mash up of internet memes and pulp has, over time, compounded into an air of merry silliness and light-heartedness, not in ridicule of, but rather in appreciation of Ryan that is still a joy to take part in. And from the internet’s perspective, it appears to be very much what the doctor ordered.

Cultural Sentiment, Conclusion

The fact that I’m writing this at all might be indicative of Barbie’s incredible marketing scheme. However, I think Ryan’s charisma had already laid the groundwork for the phenomenon to take hold in the first place. So far, I am convinced that Ryan Gosling is single-handedly responsible for Barbie’s male audience appeal. And while I won’t claim some niche internet memes are responsible for the sum of Barbie’s box office success (the film is a tremendous achievement), I do think it’s indicative of a wider cultural sentiment – a general appeal so rarely found among modern celebrities.

Some of you will have seen the interviews of Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie in their recent press circuit. People have hailed his comedic ability and uncomplicated nature. The dude hasn’t answered a question seriously once, and he comes across as a proper heartthrob. I don’t know what else Ryan can do, at this point. ‘Kenergy’, as most of you have heard by now, is the new term for this summer – an ode to happy simplicity, and quiet self-confidence tinged with a slight ironic vanity. A perfect gift to the world, from Ryan.

Yes, his characters will always exude fantastic masculine appeal whether the subject of literally me jokes or not, but Ryan’s new Ken era serves as a shining beacon of both ideal masculinity and personhood; an era, for Ryan, of comedic brilliance and suave mystery. Rarely do things in life go completely right, but when it comes to Ryan, his internet idolatry, our sense of humour, and our development of cinema, I would say it totally has.

Ultimately, I hope to see all this continue – a subscription to the doctrine of a man that so easily wears his gentle masculinity and humility on his sleeve. Manufactured through a churn of memes or not, the essentials of the modern Gosling persona are, honestly, very much a standard one can and should attempt to adopt, whether it be for a playful laugh or a genuine attempt at development. But even outside of that, it’s comforting to know that he will always, at the very least, be me. That’s all we need him to be. To be, together, Kenough.

She may be everything. You may just be Ken. But that’s okay. With Ryan at the helm, you’ll find your Kenergy, and I think we all take great comfort in knowing that isn’t going to change.

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