Desperation is mostly inseparable from masculinity. Men strain for fame, for female attention, for sad, trivial triumphs over one another. We are a people perpetually trying to figure it all out – flexing in the mirror, using lines we've heard before, trying to seem bold and dignified. We're not cowboys or poets. If we are, we wear it as a disguise. Mostly, we are vulnerable and self-conscious and probably masturbating for the third time on a Tuesday afternoon, because we're off and that Lea Thompson scene in All the Right Moves just came on. We are not men, but almost. Note: columns may also contain William Holden hero worship and meditations on cured meats.
For nearly three hours’ worth of his reality show, What Would Ryan Lochte Do?, I watched Ryan Lochte shout and spasm and sigh and, most frequently, look historically, paralyzingly confused. I have seen him in his natural habitat: sweaty-faced, glowing under trashy-bar neons, teetering drunkenly in front of enamoured-and-then-usually-very-bored girls who are holding tiny purses and pretending to smile.
This is because Ryan Lochte is just barely a person. He is a walking treatise on bro culture: driven only by his basest impulses, no restraint, going hard, going big, getting your back, shredded abs, hot dog/penis jokes, iPhone pictures of friends mid-vomit. He is a debauched, self-impressed, permanently aloof human Labrador who thinks every night at some club named BREATHE or THE AREA or something named after an AXE body spray fragrance is worth mythologising. Ryan Lochte is a Jagerbomb: juvenile, completely devoid of subtlety, responsible for tremendously regrettable female decisions.
He is someone who would find branding his own energy drink as the pinnacle of human expression. Who would chest-bump his mother or sincerely refer to his testicles by name – which would, inevitably, be something like TRON and KEVIN. He is immune to doubt or self-reflection, unless he is reflecting on that girl he fucked or that burger he totally crushed. He is obsessed with KILLING IT and co-opting the never-cool remnants of pop culture trends from five years ago: grills, SWAG, Keffiyeh scarves, wearing knit hats indoors, rosary beads. He’s attractive in a plastic, Mattel-doll way, artificial-looking and with the practiced intensity of a model in one of those style books they keep at Supercuts.
WWRLD?, which concluded its first season this past Sunday, chronicles the generic mischief of him and his LOCHTERAGE, which is his “INNER CIRCLE DEDICATED TO ‘TURNING IT UP’ AT ALL TIMES.” It is displayed that way during the show, because there is no lowercase in Ryan Lochte’s universe. Just bigger uppercase. He has catchphrases and besties and at one point stands at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool and openly contemplates urinating in it. But to call Lochte a manboy in a state of paralysis would imply a level of self-awareness. Instead, he is just magnificently, incomprehensibly simple. It’s as if he has been completely insulated from the universe beyond Nintendo and soda commercials and swimming pools. He behaves like someone who would go to Paris and eat at an Outback Steakhouse. Who would replace each key of his computer with exclamation points. His brother’s fondest memory of a previous trip to Los Angeles was seeing “the Papa John’s guy and Tara Reid.” It is conceivable that Ryan Lochte has not made an intentionally interesting comment in his entire life. He exists to be hashtagged, branded, sloganed and pitched to Speedo.
His command of the English language can only be described as “occasional”. He says one of his favourite movies is What Woman Want, with Mel Gibson, which is not actually the title but could serve as his own Cro-Magnon-y mission statement. As he and a first date sit down at a sushi restaurant, he says, “Have you ever came here before?” He mangles adages. He uses them in the wrong contexts. Pausing mid-sentence and attempting to recall words like “fact” and “banana” is an intensely exhausting experience for Lochte. Questioned about politics in a Washington, DC bar he reacts like someone performing a quadruple bypass on an elephant with a pretzel rod, or an eight-year-old trying to learn Kierkegaard. His moments of confusion are not like someone trying to determine which Component the DVD player goes to but an all-consuming, life-stopping confusion. Existential confusion. Why am I here? What are words? He seems to only sporadically understand that he is, like, a thing that does stuff on a planet.
His cellphone background is a picture of rocks. Literally, rocks. Asked how he would define himself, he answers “Ryan Lochte”. Attempting to make pizza, he acknowledges that he doesn’t actually know what a cheese grater does.
He says fashion is something that he is passionate about, but he is not passionate in the sense that he intends to learn anything about it; he just feels passionately that alien-green sneakers with his name molded in rubber at the bottom are something people should have. He wants an extension of himself that other people can wear almost as if it were a means of sexual gratification. When asked how he’d describe his fashion style he says, “rock star slash hip-hop”, which is accurate only in that his style is contrived and unremarkable. On WWRLD?, it alternates between Urbane Rapist, Baby’s First Camp Bisco and late-90s Freddie Prinze Jr.
In one episode, Lochte pursues a local Gainesville, Florida girl because around her “I can be myself. I don’t have to act like anything. I don’t have to impress her.” The irony is that Ryan Lochte is incapable of being anyone besides Ryan Lochte. His most dedicated attempts to impress anyone are to impress himself. He is an infant, endlessly amused by his own existence. In another episode he is asked the craziest thing he’s ever autographed. He says “a French fry”, and then laughs, not so much because “CELEBRITY CULTURE, RIGHT?! LOL” but because why didn’t I think of that. You can almost picture Ryan Lochte, alone in a quiet house, autographing individual French fries and cackling out loud.
His interactions with women consist of eating sushi and “let me show you the bedroom ;).” To Lochte, they exist as pretty long-haired things to play with and then wander away from without warning, because inside his brain is just a row of Super Mario Kart question marks bobbing up and down, and he is Bowser barreling down Rainbow Road. He communicates only through winks and drink orders and innuendo delivered with all the grace of a penis-shaped blimp making a crash landing.
He is not a douchebag in the arrogant, malicious sense. He is just accidentally obnoxious and maybe-possibly-slightly handicapped and for that he is almost endearing. There appears to be not one single decision in his life motivated by vindictiveness or anger. He trains so aggressively because a guy tells him to. When he pulls a prank on his brother he apologises. In nearly every interview, he is mocked just-discreetly-enough for everyone to recognise it but him. Which is to say the insults are loaded onto a locomotive and driven into his face. He is oblivious to this, of course, because he is Ryan Lochte, and he is a Euphoria Robot whose motherboard activates only in the presence of cleavage or mozzarella cheese or recreational sports, brah.
What Would Ryan Lochte Do? Ryan Lochte probably has no idea.
John Saward likes O.V. Wright and eating guacamole with no pants on. He lives in Connecticut. Follow him on Twitter @RBUAS.