It's been more than seven years since "sad" Ben Affleck first went viral, a meme the Oscar-winning movie star is very aware of — yet pictures of Jennifer Lopez's husband seeming "miserable" or exhausted continue to explode online. Case in point? Earlier this week, a paparazzi image of Affleck "being sick of life" exploded on X, formerly known as Twitter. As it turns out, that particular photo is actually nine years old, but it didn't stop more than 21 million people from viewing it.
So why do these kinds of Affleck pictures take off online? According to pop culture experts, it's because these feelings Affleck seemingly conveys, while they might not be true, are just that relatable.
"The 'sad Affleck' memes have a couple of different registers that contribute to their shareability," Claire Sisco King, an associate professor of communication studies and chair of cinema and media arts at Vanderbilt University, explains to Yahoo Entertainment.
"In some cases there is a bit of schadenfreude involved, in which audiences seem to take pleasure in the apparent hardships of a person who is otherwise imagined as privileged and powerful," King continues, noting how people who don't have access to A-list level "wealth and luxury" sometimes want "to take shots at people who do." But she cautions: "I don't think all of the memes or their shareability suggest a sadistic attitude. 'Sad Affleck' has also become a point of identification for a lot of people who can relate to feeling overwhelmed, exhausted or even despondent."
Wake up, new Ben Affleck being sick of life image dropped. ☠️ pic.twitter.com/WYYZzDo1mF
— Dystopic Hippy ✍🏾 (@DystopicHippy) November 5, 2023
"Sad Affleck" first emerged in 2016 during the Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice press tour. Later that year, paparazzi captured him smoking a cigarette looking exhausted. Any time he's carrying Dunkin' Donuts, those pictures go viral. Then there was his trip to the Grammys earlier this year with Lopez, in which every gesture was dissected and the internet collectively agreed he had a terrible time, despite both stars saying otherwise.
Sulafa Zidani, associate professor of media studies at Northwestern University, believes there are various "essential components" of Affleck that makes him the perfect meme — and those are not necessarily bad components.
"He looks overburdened and tired, like someone with a lot of worries, or someone who has just had enough. We are not used to celebrities conveying this kind of feeling, and that makes his images appear authentic, a quality that the internet values significantly," she tells Yahoo Entertainment. Affleck seemingly "overburdened" is "topped off with his quintessential New Englander obsession with Dunkin' Donuts, which internet users find very funny. When you juxtapose that with the fact that he is a celebrity, a category of people we expect to be more fortunate and performative, his paparazzi images just seem even more funny and memeable."
As for why a 2014 photo of Affleck went viral this week, Zidani notes that it's common for memes to get revived years later, although that's typically on Tumblr. As for this particular photo, she notes that "the image builds on a pattern of memes and images of Ben Affleck where he looks, as the Twitter user described him, 'sick of life,' and the knowledge of existing Ben Affleck memes surely helps this newly surfaced one thrive."
Essentially every photo of Affleck is picked apart, whether he's talking to ex-wife Jennifer Garner, or having his body language dissected with Lopez. It would seem as if a star of Affleck's caliber would expect to be photographed at all times. So how does this keep happening? Well, he's human.
"I think most celebrities are aware of the presence of paparazzi, but this presence has become so ubiquitous for so many famous folks that it becomes nearly impossible to stay 'on guard' at all times," King explains, noting that these "moments that get frozen in time" are "often just fleeting gestures" that "can be taken out of context."
"What might appear as a moment of distress or exasperation could actually be something as banal as a yawn. Images that become tabloid fodder or that get 'memefied' are re-contextualized with captions and in conjunction with other images, so we cannot necessarily take them to be indexical representations of what actually took place in front of the camera," King adds.
Still, it seems like Affleck is an easier target than say other stars who get "memefied." Take Pedro Pascal and Christopher Meloni, whom the internet has deemed "daddy" and "zaddy," respectively.
"That is very different from the type of attention that Ben Affleck receives, who seems to attract the attention of the internet not for his good looks, but rather for these moments where he is captured appearing genuinely dejected," Zidani explains. "Since, to most of us, 'sad' is more relatable than 'handsome,' images of Ben Affleck looking sad end up being more inviting for people to use as a meme describing their own reaction to a situation."
King also believes that Affleck's personal life, including his high-profile relationships and openness about his alcohol addiction "makes him susceptible to rather melodramatic narratives about his personal life and well-being," whether that's fair or not.
Affleck has acknowledged the memes before, and said in an interview last year that while he found the initial "sad Affleck" meme "funny," he worried about what his three children think. ("Then 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.") Zidani points to this as being "one of the problematic behaviors of meme culture" in that there's "usually no consent in the meme-making process."
"Perhaps by making memes of his images, we are just adding one more worry to an already overburdened Ben Affleck," she says.
However, Affleck is getting in on some of the viral jokes. He starred in one of the buzziest Super Bowl ads, for Dunkin' Donuts of course, and did another commercial for them alongside Ice Spice that debuted in September. "He clearly knows how to incorporate [these] elements from his personal life into his star persona," King states.
"But the moments when he's caught seeming sad or frustrated might not be all they are framed to be, and it's possible that they might in fact be demonstrations of typical human emotions that have gotten the best of him at moments of intense scrutiny or pressure. What human hasn't been caught off guard at times?" she continues. "If Affleck is aware that he's being photographed or 'caught' in an unbecoming moment, part of the images cache does seem to stem from their apparent authenticity or candidness. The sense that audiences can see who stars 'really are' — however imagined or manufactured that identity may be — has long been a part of celebrity culture's appeal, even when audiences know better... because they know celebrities are performers with publicists whose entire job is image management."
There might be an opportunity to take back control of the meme narrative, too.
"I think the mood conveyed in Ben Affleck memes is so relatable in our day and age that they will continue to circulate on the internet no matter what," Zidani explains. "It might seem like him not being in on the joke would cause meme-makers to be more interested in making jokes about him, but I think memes are often actually coming from fans who are excited about the opportunity to relate to a celebrity that they like. If Ben Affleck is reading this, I would want to tell him that engaging with the meme makers might be more wholesome than he expects."