When Keanu Reeves, arguably the most beloved man in Hollywood, takes a photo with a woman, he puts an arm around her back — but he doesn’t place his hand on her. In a saner time and culture, this fact might be seen as beneath discussion. Unfortunately, we are in the United States, 2019 A.D., an age of chaotic hypermediation, so Keanu cannot practice such behavior without the world taking notice. And thus, a mega-viral tweet:
This dude wasn’t the first to notice the Always Be My Maybe scene-stealer’s “hover hand,” of course, and neither was he the first to imply that it had something to do with a climate of sexual misconduct allegations made under the banner of the #MeToo movement. In January 2018, a photo of Reeves visibly not touching women to either side of him made the rounds, first on Twitter and then on Reddit, with a caption describing his legal insulation by way of a reference to The Matrix. By not grazing their arms, the joke went, he protected himself.
More interesting and telling than these images, I think, are the assumptions of intent they raise, and the way celebrity cool may recontextualize an otherwise maligned habit.
Start with the idea that Keanu is “not taking chances,” or “reading the room.” While I have little doubt that Reeves is sensitive to the dismal gender dynamics of his industry — he’s done a far better job than his peers of seeking out women-directed projects, for one — it’s absurd to say he’s respecting personal space just to duck the reputational damage of an accusation, in part because many stories women tell about predatory men do not involve publicly documented moments (politicians aside). That toxic male communities including Men Going Their Own Way have characterized these images as “Keanu Avoiding #MeToo Like a Boss” is another red flag on this line of interpretation, along with the guys complaining that this is a measure of how the #MeToo movement has overstepped. Is Keanu truly worried that Dolly Parton will take him down for lightly resting a palm on her hip? I submit that he is not! Isn’t it far more likely that, like Will Smith, he’s figured out that the hover hand is just… an appropriate way to pose with people you don’t know very well?
To say that this is a merely tactic for preserving one’s good name recalls the 60 percent of male managers now afraid to work alongside women, or our weirdo vice president’s policy of never meeting alone with one. The way to avoid being labeled a grope-y creep is not to cut off half the population — it’s to quit groping on them, ya creep. Besides, there’s scant evidence that Keanu only adopted the hover hand in the past few years, in response to societal changes. I did find his hand on sometime co-star Sandra Bullock at one point, but in other cases, even she appears to receive some distance. Besides, they’re obviously quite close, and Bullock is fairly handsy herself. No harm, no foul.
Women seemed more disposed to view Keanu’s hover-handing as a naturally respectful, polite, chill and gentlemanly instinct, separate from any concern for self-preservation, even as men complained that he’d been scared into this pose. If dudes want to resist the more positive view, it’s probably because they’re clinging to the bogus narrative that false or trumped-up misconduct accusations are the norm. They may also be unwilling to diverge from the long-held reading of the hover hand on internet forums, where it was typically seen as a sign of nerdy cowardice. In 2010, a series of photos of fans with actress Summer Glau at a convention established this trope: dudes thrilled to be standing next to an attractive celebrity crush but afraid to get a little too familiar. In time, this extended to any guy who appeared to lack the confidence for actual contact.
The revelation that Keanu hovers his hands — with fans who would surely be happy to hug him! — puts the lie to years of space-shaming. Those sweet geeks had appropriate boundaries, and so does this ultra-suave superstar, this Neo, this Ted, this Wick. And, in the way of genuine cool, he’s apparently observed this principle since well before anyone was praising it as such. Will it be enough to break the curse?
I hope this impact lasts in the long term. But at least we are reminded, yet again, that Keanu always sets a good example, independent of the current atmosphere. The lesson here is simple, should men be smart enough to learn it: There’s a difference between valuing another person’s autonomy and cynically shielding yourself from a complaint you’ve pre-judged as spurious, and you are not a weak-willed loser for keeping your extremities off someone else’s body. Real men hover their hands. Get used to it.