'Sigma cinema' and why he’s literally me

If you go to Letterbox right now and search “literally me,” you’ll find that “literally me” can mean everything from ax-murdering Paul Allen to Huey Lewis and the News to making meth in your RV. It means not talking about Fight Club, but also driving in the dark of the night to do anything from recording crimes for local news stations to acting as a getaway driver for a pawn shop robbery.

There is something about reclusive, sad young men who more often than not turn to violence — or brooding bitterness — against a cruel world that audiences really resonate with.

What makes someone “literally me”? It’s not as if the archetype of the alienated young man is an entirely revolutionary phenomenon. Dostoevsky’s narrator in “Notes from Underground” has some “literally me” elements, as does Camus’s “Nausea.” If we’re talking about alienated young men, you can’t do better than “No Longer Human” or “Catcher in the Rye.”

Masculinity — both its failed performance and addictive gratification — is the foundation of these characters and their interactions with their universes. It’s in each strand of Patrick Bateman’s perfectly-styled hair and every blue crystal in Walter White’s RV. 

TIME’s Richard Schickel puts it best:

“There is a certain kind of urban character who, however lightly we brush against him, instantly leaks the psychopathy of everyday anguish all over us,” he wrote. “He is, finally, a man of muttered imprecations and sudden, brooding silences; which of these moods is most alarming is hard to say.”

It’s not even as if these characters are anything to look up to. Most of them are terrible people who use and abuse others — often women — for personal interest. With the (heavily debatable) exception of “Taxi Driver,” there’s rarely an instance in which these films have a happy ending. Often, they end with the main character severely injured or dead, realizing that his life is a lie or simply back at square one. Directors and writers alike expressly create them as criticisms of toxic masculinity or capitalism — Mary Harron, the director of “American Psycho,” points out that Bateman is the personification of everything that’s wrong with American vulture capitalism.

What seems odd about many of the films cited as “literally me” is that they were released decades ago. “American Psycho” came out in 2000. “Fight Club” was released in 1999, “Blade Runner” in 1982. Although we are perhaps amidst a “literally me” renaissance, many of the films released in recent years take influence from those that came before them. Look no further than the granddaddy of them all — “Taxi Driver.”

In many ways, the “literally me” archetype has not changed since the days of “Taxi Driver.” Director Martin Scorsese’s film, released in 1976, follows dishonorably discharged Vietnam veteran Travis Bickle as he seeks to “clean up” New York City. “Taxi Driver” was inspired by “Notes from Underground,” but also reality: Travis Bickle leaps out from the diaries of Arthur Bremer, who shot George Wallace during his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. In turn, “Taxi Driver” has inspired the “literally me” characters that followed. 

Film in a time of masculine malaise

The first age of what I’ve lovingly called “sigma cinema” was in direct response to the turmoil of the 1970s and the resulting crisis of masculinity — characterized in M.D. Kibby’s thesis by rising unemployment, diminishing paternal authority and the heightened presence of women in the workplace. These films provided “heroism and power as a counterpoint to dissatisfaction and impotence.”

In the same way that the first wave of “literally me” characters sought escape in conservative masculinity in a misguided response to the turmoil of the 1970s, new “literally me” films seek escape in the fantasy and nostalgia provided in their first-wave predecessors in a misguided response to today. 

It’s easy to want to escape from reality — especially now. Some of the most concerning trends of the 21st century single out men, with male suicide rates steadily increasing since 2006 and studies on American social circles reporting a steeper friendship decline for men than women. This isn’t to state that women aren’t affected by these problems as well — but the impacts of such are disproportionate given how men are socially conditioned. So much male socialization depends on two things: the nuclear family and the workplace. At a time when the opportunities to support a family or move up in the workplace are significantly diminished, the emotional impacts of such are going to be felt disproportionately, especially among the men who have depended on them for validation so consistently, for so long. 

“The way certain developments in the economy, in politics and in the social world have gone in the last 40 years has led to working-class white men … feeling like their authority has been undermined,” said sociologist Raka Ray, dean of social sciences at UC Berkeley. “When you get strong feelings of anger and despair in a group or a population, that can turn very quickly into giving encouragement to the politics of resentment or the politics of revenge.”

It truly takes neither a rocket scientist nor a film critic to show that this resentment is loud and clear. The manosphere — a mishmash of online communities promoting toxic masculinity and anti-feminism — has slowly crept into the mainstream. The alt-right pipeline specifically targets and lures young men into white supremacy by taking advantage of their feelings of rejection by the world and its capitalist forces.

But even though this sentiment is present in fringe groups, these interpretations of sigma cinema are still a problem in the mainstream. While some of the films themselves critique toxic masculinity, their analysis is infrequently gendered — and when it is, it’s not accessible to the average viewer. Furthermore, these “literally me” characters are at the forefront of the men we keep in mind because they are well-written and well-known.   

Why Mr. Rogers is me, but not literally me

For all my gripes with the genre’s characters, I don’t hate “literally me” films. In fact, it’s one of my favorite genres. I love watching terrible people do terrible things — and the appeal’s there. It’s certainly not as if these films are bad simply because their characters are awful people. On the contrary, all the works I’ve mentioned and more are highly acclaimed, chock-full of entertainment value and Oscar nominations. What I am pointing out is that seeing “literally me” characters as a reflection of yourself without any thought is inaccurate and, in some instances, dangerous. 

At the same time that we take a closer look at why we like these films, we should also be pointing to their opposing and far rarer depictions of healthy masculinity in mainstream media.

What I’m proposing is an emphasis on works with depictions of tender masculinity — best exemplified in real life by childhood favorites such as Mr. Rogers, as well as by characters like Waymond Wang from “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” They’re emotionally available, but not pushovers — the epitome of the belief that simply because someone is kind does not mean that they’re weak. In short, they practice what Pop Culture Detective calls actionable empathy: 

“[He] does all of that while also expressing vulnerability and attempting to balance his needs with the feelings of others. In short, he knows what he wants and he never stops trying to get it, he just doesn’t do it in a domineering way.” 

Ultimately, this specific subculture and each of its waves are a reflection of what male fantasy means to its viewers. It’s certainly not as if making a few films about healthy masculinity is going to dismantle gender norms overnight. Sigma cinema’s most powerful tool is that it bolsters or critiques a dominant view, whereas stripping the trope means pushing against the mainstream and actively paving a new road. 

What stripping the trope does mean is a path forward — that is, taking the first steps away from the untouchable fantasy that these movies offer at face-value, and instead pushing towards something that is actionable in everyday life. Or, in the words of Lou Bloom

“If you want to win the lottery, you've got to make money to buy a ticket.”

Audrey Wang profile
Audrey Wang | Editor-in-Chief

Audrey Wang is a Trinity junior and editor-in-chief of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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