Greta Gerwig's Barbie just released, a film with deep cultural implications, not only due to its association with the aesthetically opposed Oppenheimer, directed by Christopher Nolan, but because it could be the latest addition to a increasingly popular, loosely defined movie genre, called sigma cinema.
For those who know about it, the link between Barbie and sigma cinema is clear: Barbie stars, alongside Margot Robbie in the title role, Ryan Gosling as the co-lead, Ken.
Ryan Gosling is the unofficially leading actor in many other sigma cinema movies, such as 2011's Drive, 2013' Only God Forgives and 2017's Blade Runner 2049, the first two directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, and all three portraying a neon-noir (a portmanteau between neo-noir and neon aesthetics) vision of life and society.
Sigma cinema movies also include classics such as 1976's Taxi Driver, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro, 2000's American Psycho, starring Christian Bale, and 2014's Nightcrawler, starring Jake Gyllenhaal.
All these movies follow lone men with obsessive behaviors as their protagonists, are set in highly urban environments, and include scenes with them engaging in unhinged violence at some point in the film, usually with some sort of higher justification for their actions, either it be to save someone, to vent their illness, or both.
Due to the informal characteristics of this genre-in-development, many other entries have been added to it, including 1993's Falling Down, starring Michael Douglas, 1999's Fight Club, directed by David Fincher and starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, 2001's Donnie Darko, starring Jake Gyllenhaal (another actor with various sigma roles) and lately, 2019's Joker, directed by Todd Phillips, starring Joachim Phoenix (with Robert de Niro in a supporting role) and 2022's The Batman, starring Robert Pattinson.
However, all films in this list tend to follow the lonely, disturbed and obsessive protagonist with fits of violence in a urban setting, with this aura bieng adopted in internet memes as the "literally me" trope, wherein content creators and shitposters project themselves into these film characters due to how much they feel connected to them on a psychological and spiritual level.
We must also consider that the 2020-2021 lockdowns heavily affected many people, men, most particularly, by further isolating them from the rest, which may explain the rise of both sigma cinema as a genre and of "literally me" content in the internet during the last few years.
But now, back to Ryan Gosling, his presence in this genre of movies has become so important that he has become the centerpiece of the the meme itself, with it transforming into the formula "Ryan Gosling is literally me" instead of just the former, generic just "literally me" one.
The fact that he was selected to be the co-star in the Barbie movie could have been just another silly joke, but reality is usually more surprising than fiction, and art tends to reflect it in unexpected ways.
The first coincidence could be that Gosling already starred in another pastel-colored film with a disturbed, loner protagonist, with a plot involving a doll, 2007's Lars and the Real Girl, a movie that could have made the cut into sigma cinema if it wasn't for the deeply unsettling topic it portrays, that of a mentally unwell man trying to have a romantic relationship with a sex doll and how his immediate community just plays along until he snaps out of it.
The second coincidence is that the Barbie movie also portrays a topic that has been orbiting around sigma cinema since its organic inception as a genre: that of masculinity and society, which in our current era, under censorship by the progressive clergy in academia and mainstream culture, has found a way out into the internet, where it has become connected to other men-centered networks, namely, incels, pick-up artists and MGTOWs, all movements now belonging to the so-called manosphere.
While the Barbie movie may be a rather successful attempt at shoving corporate intellectual property down our throats in a cleverly unironical way (it portrays its own owners/producers as Barbie's antagonists in "the real world") it may have backfired in promoting a feminist message of female empowerment. Or maybe that was its true purpose.
For one, the central plot of the movie goes with Barbie having an existential crisis (later explained as a refection of her owner having one in the our world) and deciding to get out of feminist dream-like Barbieland, where all women are beautiful, classy bourgeois professionals (the exceptions being Midge, Barbie's pregnant friend, and Weird Barbie, a disfigured variation of the protagonist, acting as a mystic/sage in Barbieland).
Ryan Gosling's Ken, whose character is presented as the leader of fellow beach-enjoying Kens and whose main purpose is to impress Margot Robbie's Barbie to get to become her boyfriend, decides to tag along with her out into the real world, where his experience is different to the one she encounters.
Whereas Barbie gets taken aback by what is presented as "the patriarchy", with an initial vulgar treatment and later with the realization of men holding up positions of corporate power, Ken founds out for the first time what it means to be respected for what he is, that is, a man, after living a life submitted to female, namely Barbie's, will, where he's constantly rebutted, rejected and underestimated.
As the two lead characters separately return to Barbieland, big changes are set forth to their dreamworld society, with Ken persuading his fellow Kens into taking over, having brought up to them the idea of patriarchy as it was presented to him in the real world, that is, men deserve respect for the mere fact of being men, in radical contrast to what they were used before his return.
Thus, Ken, acting as Prometheus, introduces not only this idealized version of patriarchy, but also shares the light and the fire of revolution to his fellow men in their opression, and with them getting the reins of power, the Barbies end up adopting more submissive roles as their loving girlfriends and housewives.
Barbie, having returned to Barbieland later than Ken, tries to convince him and her fellow Barbies to R E T V R N T O T R A D I T I O N with all the Barbies back in their positions of power and the Kens chilling at the beach, but with their newly assumed perks and duties (men wielding power for the first time, and women in the comfort of not having to wield it anymore), she gets rebuffed.
Barbie falls depressed over this situation, but encouraged by Gloria, the Mattel corporate executive who brought her back to Barbieland, as well as by her daughter Sasha, Weird Barbie, and Allan (Ken's discontinued best friend and Midge's boyfriend) with their speech of female empowerment, she convinces her fellow Barbies to join her and together, they suggest, in a femenine manner, for the Kens to compete among themselves, which soon breaks into an all-in fight, thus introducing warfare to Barbieland.
In the ensuing chaos, the Barbies to regain their positions of power and manage to prevent the constitutional amendment the Kens intended to make to enshrine male superiority, but having lived in both dominance and submission, the Barbies decide to extend equality for Kens and outcast dolls, returning to a status quo that would, in principle, prevent further revolutions and keep the system in check.
Ken's story in the movie ends with his musical number where, apologizing for his extreme actions, he sings to Barbie that his identity is so tied to gaining her favor that he lacks a purpose without her, cementing his status as the ultimate simp (slang word for simpleton, meaning someone who shows excessive attention toward another who does not reciprocate the their feelings) with Barbie rejecting him for the last time and encouraging him to find an identity of his own.
In many senses, the story arc Ryan Gosling's character goes through this movie is similar to the one he goes through in Lars and the Real Girl, as both of them get confronted by the real world over their unhealthy adoration of a doll, and must decide to act on it and live for themselves.
However, in Lars and the Real Girl (a pre-sigma cinema/Drive-Blade Runner movie) Gosling's character is surrounded by a loving community, who accepts his mental issues and supports him to grow out of it and embrace the real world with a real life.
Now, this movie was released in 2007, a couple years after 9/11, when liberal democracy and corporate capitalism still seemed to be a viable alternative for society, and when a strong network of intermediate bodies such as family and neighborhood could still provide with support for people to become healthy and productive.
Barbie, having released in 2023, shows a different world, one that has changed a lot since the early days of the 21st century, and one that has gone through its own dark development as the years went by and the dream of peace, wealth and development became a dark nightmare of war, poverty and stagnation, seldom illuminated by the artificial neon lights of a city, ever-growing in crime and concrete.
2011's Drive shows the first insights into what was about to come, and Gosling's unnamed protagonist, the Driver, demonstrated that in the then upcoming age, the stoic man that just worked in silence was to make a decision at some point and say goodbye to his hopes and dreams for a life and a family as he was confronted with the reality of violence and money.
This is characterized in the now famous scene where he kisses Carey Mulligan's character in an elevator as he protects her before he proceeds to savagely beat another character that was sent to kill them both given their (indirect) involvement in a robbery gone wrong.
Ryan Gosling is further reflected as the stand-in for the contemporary Western men in Blade Runner 2049 as his character, Officer K, a less-than-human replicant Blade Runner, tasked with destroying evidence of replicant sexual reproduction, ends up entangled in a conspiracy involving powerful corporate forces.
His lack of emotions and attachment to his virtual, holographic AI girlfriend, portrayed by Ana de Armas, who at one point shows conflicting signs of sentience by naming him Joe (which later is revealed to be a generic name) is contrasted with the violence around him due to his profession and his involvement in the conspiracy, as he tries to become a real human being, and a real hero, fighting and dying for a cause higher than himself.
2023's Barbie follows this sequence, with Gosling's Ken trapped in a quite literal matriarchal longhouse, an emasculated asexual doll without any other purpose than pleasing his more important femenine counterpart, and as he follows her in her existential self-discovery journey, he finds about the redacted part of his identity, accepting his own masculinity as it is and using it to lead for change.
Ken might be the last in a long line of sigma/"literally me" characters portrayed by Ryan Gosling, but if this trend goes on, he might prove that there is a certain coherence and continuity in each of his cult roles, now influential in the way young Western men perceive themselves.
Maybe Greta Grewig's purpose with Barbie was to provide with a metanarrative to justify the current status quo as one that keeps male violence at bay by giving power to women, but ultimately, what she did was to demonstrate how change needs male energy (Ken-ergy?) to happen, even if the status quo is ultimately upheld with small changes.
Ryan Gosling's role in this new chapter of the sigma mythology is not minor, as he embraces yet another aspect of contemporary male struggle and makes it into a fine performance, showing how male identity struggles for female love and attention and how that natural momentum, at one point used to get the female gaze, can be turned around into a revolutionary rush for violence.
The Barbie movie may have been a commercial ploy to sell dolls, profit over intellectual property rights and promote the prevailing feminist narrative of female empowerment as the status quo, but it gave an unwilling lesson taken from the deepest principles of natural law: men need women to keep civilization running and stable.
Lone men, without nothing to lose, nothing to fight and no one to be devoted to work for, are potential burdens to society, for without the incentive to win femenine attention and attraction, their energy is going to be refocused onto violence, and not any kind of violence: political violence, warfare, revolution.
In both Drive and Blade Runner 2049 this theme was already present, as Ryan Gosling's characters were pushed towards their ultimate goal after losing the main femenine presence in their lives, either deciding to back off form her life as a way to protect her, or getting her taken away from him by the film antagonists.
And if the Driver and Officer K were already the stoic archetypes young men were following in our terminally online times, in Barbie, Ken might have just become the ultimate reflection of Western masculinity, and with it, the Barbie movie may just have crowned Ryan Gosling as undisputed Sigma King.