Ben Affleck—famous actor, Oscar-winner, and former Sexiest Man Alive—was once universally considered to be a heartthrob. While most of the aforementioned accomplishments are still factually correct, Affleck's fame has morphed into territory one might not connect to someone of his stature. Recently, mention of the former Ben half of Bennifer and Bennifer 2.0 conjures up images of giant cups of Dunkin, stacks of mail, and paparazzi strolls with his now-ex-girlfriend Ana de Armas, not to mention a cardboard cutout of de Armas being stuffed into a trash can. Ben Affleck has crossed over into meme territory, and we can't look away because in him, we see ourselves at our most defeated.
This journey started with that massive back tattoo of a phoenix that he tried to lie about, until it was ultimately revealed in a despair-laden paparazzi pic snapped at the beach. It's given way to Dunkies and sadness, which have become his most notable features, bigger than any movie he's made in the last five years. No really, name a movie (that you've actually seen and wasn't a superhero movie) starring Ben Affleck since 2014's Gone Girl? You probably can't, even though he released more than one literally last year. How did the man who once had it all get here?
Over the last five years or so, Affleck has gone through what's known as a flop era—the period in a person's life when they're at a personal or career low, which feels doubly magnified when compared to their periods of huge success. Celebrities especially feel the cruel microscope that can come with a flop era. In many cases, this era is caused by some personal turmoil. Affleck has endured a very public divorce from Jennifer Garner, alcohol addiction (he's now sober), rumors of a gambling addiction which he's attempted to squash, and a number of commercial and critical failures, including 2020's The Last Thing He Wanted and 2017's Live By Night. He's opened up about this rough period in his life, telling the New York Times last February, "It’s not particularly healthy for me to obsess over the failures—the relapses—and beat myself up. I have certainly made mistakes. I have certainly done things that I regret. But you’ve got to pick yourself up, learn from it, learn some more, try to move forward."
It's arguably the back tattoo, exposed in that infamous photo of Affleck staring into the ocean, that launched the former It Boy into memedom and an avatar for despair. What has only exacerbated this is the sheer volume of fresh photos published of him doing something normal with a tinge of ridiculousness, like hoisting his face mask up while cranking a cigarette or staring directly into the camera while picking up a couple of pizzas from his front door with an expression resembling Bigfoot getting caught eating at an iHOP. These photos often have a depression glaze to them, but that might also be us projecting onto Affleck what we're all feeling in these difficult times. The pandemic has affected us in different ways depending on our race and social class, but it's fair to say we've all been leveled in some way in this COVID world. Affleck is not immune, either. And so his little strolls and his incessant Dunkin pics not only remind us that we're all going through it in our own ways, especially as we near the one-year mark of living like this.
Affleck is no different than, say, Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears in that he's experienced public personal traumas, and the fact that he's openly discussed his struggles can make the jokes a bit hard to stomach. Even so, the images of him fumbling with a stack of mail and a huge cup of Dunks are painfully human and deeply relatable in their mundanity. While we can all comprehend that Ben Affleck is technically a human person, seeing a celebrity of his stature chugging his Dunkies with an arm full of Amazon packages is mesmerizing. Like, he could probably pay someone to get his mail and coffee, right? The glitz, fake tanner, and gleaming white veneers that once made up his post-Boston Hollywood persona have been stripped away; what remains is a regular millionaire going through it and looking kind of silly. That's made him more relatable than ever.
In a piece for The Ringer, writer and comedian Josh Gondelman wrote about how Boston Ben's love of Dunkies, and the seemingly endless paparazzi pics of him with his "iced coffee with a shitload of sugar" made him "The reigning king of male discomfort captured without the subject’s consent." Gondelman posed, "Dunkin’ as a brand harkens back to the Red Sox of the late 20th century: a scrappy, much-maligned underdog that is actually worth millions and millions of dollars. In other words: Ben Affleck. The alignment between his persona and the Dunkin’ brand is almost cosmic, and seeing them merge feels like witnessing a man at peace with himself. We want our stars to be just like us, but ultimately, we want them to be themselves even more."
Just like Affleck, Bernie Sanders also found himself the subject of memeification overload. In an image from the inauguration, we see our socialist king sitting in a chair, arms crossed, hands kept toasty by a pair of brown knitted mittens, and wearing a face mask, parka, and his trademark expression that radiates cranky grandpa attempting to restart the router. The photo set off a flurry of memes—Sitting Bernie behind a merch table; Sitting Bernie watching Jamie Lee Curtis strip in True Lies—that the senator's camp then put on a sweatshirt and sold for $45 to support Meals on Wheels in Vermont (what a good sport!). Within three days, the memes started to feel like red-tagged yogurt on a dollar store clearance rack.
In Bernie, we saw the version of ourselves that exemplifies us at our most tired-of-this-shit; at our most anti-social; at our most over it. His vibe in that moment captured what a lot of us felt, whether about the election, the pandemic, or any annoyance needling us in our current existence. His grumpy disposition felt like a reflection of ourselves, and that's what memes are all about, right?
Affleck indeed has fallen from grace in a way that can feel startling to watch, but he's picking himself up one Dunkies trip at a time. I don't like to make a habit of rooting for rich and famous white men, but I'll raise a Coffee Coolata to Ben and his back tattoo to have some peace.