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Who are the "literally me" characters?

From identification to the cult of toxicity

Who are the literally me characters? From identification to the cult of toxicity

For many Millennial boys in the early 2000s, watching Mary Harron's American Psycho was the opening of a world. Instead of the classic male protagonist, Patrick Bateman represented a revolution: a wardrobe overflowing with Armani, Valentino and Brooks Brothers suits; a minimalist Manhattan apartment; a body toned and trained like a model's by dint of methodical morning workouts. Back in the day, cultural suggestions of the metrosexual were reflected on Patrick Bateman: the meticulous attention to beauty products (it was Bateman who taught an entire generation that alcohol ages the skin), boutique shopping, limousines, and exclusive restaurants suggested not only a standard of living to aspire to but also a mindset for achieving it, a list of elements to which to bring attention in order to take the best care of oneself and, thus, express one's full potential. Of course, this is not the message of the film; quite the contrary. Bateman's materialism and obsession with appearances represent the alienation and complete moral and emotional emptiness surrounding 1980s yuppie culture. Patrick Bateman is on the verge of insanity, and yet this has not prevented him from becoming the symbol of a generation of cis-etero men tragically bereft of icons who have made him on TikTok the image of a successful everyman, a figure with whom to identify. In the image of outward perfection and apparent self-confidence that the film offered many recognized themselves, pointing their fingers at the screen and thinking: «He’s literally me». 

@ghostedsf How to be a sigma. #sigma #sigmamale #sigmamindset #sigmaedit #motivation #fyp The Perfect Girl (The Motion Retrowave Remix) - Mareux

Movies and TV series are full of such characters: Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver, the Ryan Gosling of Drive and The Place beyond the Pines, Walter White of Breaking Bad and Thomas Shelby of Peaky Blinders, the Joker of Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix, Tyler Durden of Fight Club, Al Pacino in Scarface - this is just to name a few. The root of their appeal lies in the charisma these characters wield, in their ability to spin the plot of the story around themselves solely because of their own mental abilities, their Machiavellianism and their cynical and disenchanted philosophical views, often "incorrect" and breaking with the mainstream that promise deeper revelations and truths than those commonly accepted by the rest of society. The status of "lone wolves," outsiders, and rebels has made these characters the icons of online incel communities and especially of the so-called Sigma Males, the latest evolution of that part of the male audience convinced of the existence of a socio-sexual hierarchy in society that Alpha men dominate thanks to their own strength, their iron will capable of overcoming the barrier of any social convention - a strength and will that is manifested in a large bank account, a trained body, and a large number of sexual conquests. The Sigma Males represent a variation on the Alpha man theme: if the Alpha appears to be dependent on social approval and success, the Sigma is independent and even more self-determined, focused on himself and uninterested in pursuing, for example, women as an element of social validation. 

And while it is true that men have always been fascinated by some character who falls into the "literally me" category, the space that social media today has given to communities of men who want to turn their lives around by ceasing to feel subordinate to the rest of the world has fostered the emergence of an increasingly precise and defined group identity and groupthink. Their ideal guru could be identified in former kick-box champion Andrew Tate, who has gathered millions upon millions of followers around him thanks to his misogynistic rhetoric based on the mythology of the strong man that sometimes spills onto politics, associating the image of these fictional characters with that of Trump or Putin. Even though Tate has been expelled from every social media outlet his following thrives, but more importantly a growing number of cis-hetero men are vowing to the Sigma Males mentality based on the doctrine of self-discipline, control of emotions, and aloofness to the alien world of women, seeking a form of superiority and dominance over things. On TikTok, the hashtag #sigmamale is viewed 2.4 billion times; #alphamale, on the other hand, 1.2 billion times; #andrewtate, on the other hand, possesses 20.6 billion views (although many of these videos are parodies or sneers at Tate) while #sigmagrindset, a word that identifies the performance- and profit-driven mindset of Sigma Male, has 3.1 billion. Fortunately, not everyone is as radicalized as Tate in his or her view of society, nonetheless the appearance of "literally me" characters is associated with the mindset of Sigma Males or their associates and follows a rhetoric based on a warlike lexicon of "victories and failures," "warriors," or the idea of an antagonism between "them" and "you," about those who fall and get back up, pain that fortifies, and so on. To cite one such video, this type of content is aimed at men who feel "afraid," "depressed," "anxious," "weak," and "unhappy," who are "afraid to go out," while among the most recurring words in these videos are "boss," "goals," "motivation," "improvement," "success" in addition to various and sundry motivational aphorisms. 

There is a single problem: almost none of the "Literally Me" characters really represent a positive example. All of these characters are undoubtedly charming, well played and well written, but they are designed to represent dysfunctional and failing role models. Fight Club itself, perhaps one of the Bibles of "Literally Me" characters, shows that some men would rather give themselves over to anarcho-terrorism than go to therapy, and its central character, Tyler Durden, literally says he is a perfect projection of all male ideals and power fantasies. In the discourse we have been having, the theme of identity recurs a great deal: film characters are mirrors with which the audience identifies, while the search for labels such as "alpha" or "sigma" to belong to instead invokes the need for a shared group or identity within which to define and construct oneself and, in more general terms, in which to define the concept of "masculinity" and "manhood." The issue, however, is that in the frantic search for identification those elements of the story in which the uplifting value of the story itself is hidden are lost: one looks to the trees and loses sight of the forest. If you end up watching American Psycho or Narcos feeling a sense of admiration for Patrick Bateman or Pablo Escobar you have lost the sense of their story or the utility to be derived from it. In other words: are we sure we really want to be the characters we aspire to imitate?