A tweet has gone viral with a compilation of photos featuring the Hollywood actor posing together with women, in which he performs perhaps what is colloquially known as the 'hover hand' – a phenomenon that occurs when two people embrace for a photo op, but one or both leave their fingers an imperceptible distance away from the other. Only, the Matrix star exhibits an almost comically exaggerated version – arms inches away from the waist, open palms exposed to the camera.
"See, no touching!" his body language screams.
The 'hover hand' predominantly exists as an online meme to mock men lacking the confidence to make physical contact when with an attractive woman, but here a different interpretation was in order. That this was a deliberate pose to avoid producing evidence for a possible claim down the line.
Certainly, this need not be the only explanation. Perhaps he is reticent or polite, as he has mentioned in interviews, generally squeamish or specifically uncomfortable making physical contact with strangers during what must be dozens of daily requests for a quick pic. And one of his co-posers is the famously irreverent 73-year-old country singer Dolly Parton, hardly a #MeToo victim in waiting.
But neither is it implausible that as a man living in the ever more deranged gaze of celebrity culture, abetted by social media and picture-taking smartphones, and in the midst of a moral panic that can bring down anyone (remember when Johnny Depp was cooler?) Keanu is playing it safe. So, possibly this is a habit he has developed: no hands, no lawsuit.
Much as there is something dolorous about celebrities being denied an ordinary existence, this story is not about Keanu. It is about us.
His air of dignified melancholy mixed with a mysterious blankness has always made it easier for people to project their own feelings onto the actor. It is not an accident that the Sad Keanu meme – featuring an oddly forlorn Reeves eating a sandwich – has endured for years.
And in this case, people are channeling through him a deep anxiety.
What is a trivial, even contrived, non-story has produced, from the original tweet alone, in over 75 thousand shares, and four thousand comments. The discussion was not celebrity gossip, but referenced fundamental questions: is this normal? How does this affect my own behavior? Have the rules changed for how men and women should operate in close quarters?
Many praised Keanu for his foresight ("smart man"), others celebrated the new age of politeness and "respect" ("this is actually what having manners looks like," thus presumably implying that physical contact is bad manners), and one person wondered about "the obsession we have with touching women at any given moment." Former White House advisor Sebastian Gorka popped in to blame "the left."
But regardless of your take, one thing is indisputable: what was once a simple social ritual, performed in the vast majority of cases without any ulterior motive (or even much thought) has now evolved into another social minefield to be negotiated self-consciously. Not just by Keanu, but by you as a man, the next time you pose with someone you are not 100 percent sure of, a colleague, a relative, a friend of a friend, a stranger in a bar. They probably won't sue you, but the photos will be there forever, and you can be labeled "handsy" or "creepy" or perhaps laughed at as the opposite – an overly-fastidious "Victorian gentleman" protecting a "lady's modesty."
And this might be the reality for the foreseeable future. As long as there exists the climate of constant public suspicion, not just this but hundreds of other routine interactions that were once considered friendliness or play or flirtation. Of course, some sober examination of existing social practices is necessary – non-consensual shoulder rubs in the office were never appropriate, even when they were accepted.
But perhaps there is detectable in the entire Keanu discussion a burbling undercurrent of regret, among both men and women who were not either abusers or victims, at this loss of innocence, at the new reefs in what is already a hard-to-navigate map of inter-sex relations. A frustration that we can't even take a photo without all the tedious disassembling. Or maybe that's just wishful presumption, and this is how we should all live now: carefully, hands hovering.
By Igor Ogorodnev
Igor Ogorodnev is a Russian-British journalist, who has worked at RT since 2007 as a correspondent, editor and writer.