Yes, he’s a capable film director and actor, but Ben Affleck also has a face made for memes.
The internet was reminded of that Sunday night, when said face was filmed looking less than thrilled at the 65th Grammy Awards in Los Angeles.
While his wife J.Lo grooved to performances by Stevie Wonder and Lizzo (and seemingly scolded Affleck at one point, a scene which was awkwardly caught on film), the actor spent most of the night looking like he’d rather be anywhere but the Los Angeles Crypto.com Arena. (Alternate reading? Maybe as an Angeleno, he’s still bummed about that name change. RIP, Staples Center.)
It was a glum face. The face of a man in serious need of some Dunkin iced coffee.
It’s a face that’s imminently meme-able, and has been since around 2017. That was the year when he and his “Batman vs. Superman” co-star Henry Cavill were asked about the movie’s almost universal negative reviews: Superman answered. Batman just sort of disassociated. The internet did its work, soundtracking the clip to Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” and making it go viral.
Just like that, Affleck became the depressed person’s meme of choice, stealing Sad Keanu’s sad-guy glory.
Lockdown-era pics of the actor struggling to pick up his daily Dunkin iced coffee delivery during a global pandemic only sealed the deal. This man was truly all of us!
So given all that rich meme history, Affleck’s Grammy glumness was bound to make headlines:
“Twitter Agrees: Ben Affleck Should’ve Stayed at Dunkin,” Vulture wrote.
“Ben Affleck Plumbs New Depths of Existential Despair,” The Cut declared.
“Did anyone check on ‘miserable’ Ben Affleck after the Grammy Awards?” the LA Times asked.
“Sad Ben Affleck Is My Favorite Meme,” InStyle said, summing up the general feeling.
Why sadness ― particularly celebrity sadness ― is so meme-able
Watching the Grammys on Sunday night, Las Vegas-based psychologist Tanisha M. Ranger laughed like most of us.
Affleck looked like the world’s most unenthused plus one at a spouse’s work event, Ranger thought. Who hasn’t been there? (A professional lip reader commissioned by the Daily Mail ― because of course ― said it looked like J.Lo told her husband, “Stop. Look more friendly. Look motivated.” Let’s be honest, that sounds exactly like what our partner might say at a holiday party if we were losing interest in the story Gustavo from IT was telling about his favorite office snacks.)
But watching people react and engage with the clips online, Ranger felt a little icky.
“There were a lot of assumptions that I saw about whether or not he is happy in his marriage and whether or not it was a mistake for them to get back together, and all of these things that just were like, ‘wow, we really are taking this very far,’” she said.
In other words, people were getting all parasocial relationship-y with it. A “parasocial’ ― or one-sided psychological ― relationship is formed when we become attached to famous people and how their lives play out.
“People think they know more than they actually do about the celebrity, and where they act as if there are different social and moral rules for engagement with people who are by and large strangers not intimately in our lives,” said Allison Hart, the clinical director and registered psychological associate at WellspaceSF.
Celebrity lives are seen as character lives, Hart said.
“They are cared enough about to be invested in, despite the fact that they are strangers, but not enough is known about them firsthand to humanize them easily,” she explained.
There’s some schadenfreude involved when we over-speculate about celebrities’ lives, too ― how can they complain or wear their unhappiness so bold-facedly when they have millions or billions of dollars, and Stevie-freaking-Wonder performing a few feet away from them?
Generally, though, creating memes generally doesn’t come from a place of malice. Oftentimes, it comes from a place of empathy.
“Human beings are wired for connection,” Ranger said. “To see photos of this person who we usually see as Batman and directing movies looking like, ‘I just need to smoke, I’m over it,’ that connects us.”
“To see that expression, that genuine emoting, and connect with it, that’s basically what empathy is,” she said.
Having a celebrity stand in for an avatar for something as deep as depression also gives us a way to talk about our own experiences with mental health conditions, said Liz Higgins, a marriage and family therapist and the founder of Millennial Life Counseling. You could tell your friends you’re feeling kind of depressed, or you could post a sad Affleck meme.
“I think that, as painfully true or wrong this may be, people can often project emotions and judgements onto celebrities because pseudo-vulnerability is easy with someone to whom we are completely differentiated,” she told HuffPost. “There’s essentially no ‘true’ or real relationship there, so it’s just easier.”
In other words, Higgins said, when we don’t know someone, it may feel easier to write our own narrative around who we think they are and what they can tolerate. And there’s little risk or negative outcome to ourselves when doing so.
The negative side of meme-ing real people
Studies have suggested memes provide us with a sense of belonging. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always extend to the subject of the meme; plenty of non-famous people who’ve become memes have spoken out about how much more difficult living their lives became after they became internet famous.
Affleck himself has said that he worries about how his kids will respond to the “Sad Affleck” memes, telling the LA Times last year: “My kids see it and I think, ‘Oh, are they going to think their dad is fundamentally sad or they have to worry about me?’ That’s really tough.”
He’s also spoken candidly about his struggles with addiction, depression and anxiety ― so being surrounded by a group of people drinking at an industry event could have been triggering. It might be just as triggering to see some of the more callous takes about the state of his marriage or mental health, Ranger said.
“I could see how all of the assumptions that people were making could become really damaging to a person if they are in a vulnerable position, with regards to their emotional well being,” the psychologist said.
Clearly, it’s good to not be noticed sometimes ― a luxury most of us have as non-public figures, Hart said.
“I think that most of us get to experience our private moments by ourselves or with our chosen people,” she said. “Nobody photographs non-celebrities crying on public transit, either, yet I see it at least three times round trip to and from San Francisco.”
“Nobody photographs us in our catatonic, grief-stricken states while sitting in our cars avoiding people, places and things,” she said.
Like Reeves before him, Affleck will probably be stuck in the sad guy meme mold for a while. But even “Sad Affleck” wasn’t sad all night at the Grammys. Look at this pic of him and actor Adrien Brody! Positively beaming.
Is this a rare not-so-sad Affleck sighting? A man with resting misery face (except when in the company of Adrien Brody)? Just a bored dude accompanying his wife to her work function?
In the end, maybe it’s not that deep: Like all of us, Ben Affleck just contains multitudes.