Trigger warning for a Photoshopped picture of a rape.
There is a subset of the female gaze that causes much kerfluffle amongst a lot of guys, and it tends to occur in an incredibly predictable pattern.
Now, for purposes of this post, we will be assuming that female desire for men is not a myth made up by the Illuminati to ruin your life. At the risk of sounding tautological: straight chicks dig dudes. If that’s too wild and out-there a concept for you, you might want to get off the train here.
There’s a very specific form of female desire that comes up at pretty regular intervals, and leads to a repetition of the same pop cultural hiccups every single time. It’s like an annual passion play about desire and gender enforcement, reenacted every year with a new cast. I am referring, of course, to the teen heartthrob.
Inappropriately NSFW pictures and old-man tongue-clucking follow the cut.
What I’m talking about is this:
You’ve heard the jokes: Twilight is gay, and Justin Bieber is both gay and a girl. You wouldn’t think there’s enough material there for terabytes of jokes, but well, here we are.
Now here’s what’s interesting: no matter what age you are, the exact same shit happened when you were 13. There was a male celebrity, a singer or an actor, who massive numbers of young girls were obsessively desirous of. He was slightly androgynous in presentation and did not perform masculinity in a typical way. All the boys in the targeted age group hated him, and declared him gay, a girl, or both. Often it’s a band; ever since the 60s, prefab boy bands have been manufactured and marketed to produce exactly this effect.
Sometimes it happens louder, sometimes quieter. Sometimes you have a wave of cultural derision that seems embarrassing in retrospect, like James Bond making fun of the Beatles in Goldfinger, just one of a thousand anti-Beatles jokes from that era. History has been kind to the lads from Liverpool–less so to the Bay City Rollers, though there was a time in Britain where it was worth your life to insult that band around teenage girls, or suggest around teenage boys that the Rollers might be straight.
It’s a phenomenon as old as mass media. If you spend your time bumming around the 1920s trying to seduce Dorothy Parker, as I generally do, you can’t help but run into Rudolf Valentino.
Here we see the first major heartthrob phenomenon. Women swooned, men walked out of his movies in disgust. He was cited in an infamous editorial that bemoaned the death of true masculinity in favor of sissy pretty boys, an article that’s still running, basically verbatim, today. (Endless damned citations available on request.)
It’s eerie, really. Over nearly a hundred years, you’d expect some slight change. But no, still we play the same game. Pretty-boy celebrity, squeeing pubescent girls, sneering pubescent boys calling out homophobic slurs, editorials tut-tutting about whatever happened to Real Men? If this were any more ritualized, it’d be fucking Gormenghast.
So what the hell is going on here? What is encoded so deeply in our culture that it plays out identically every year without rehearsal or orchestration?
Well, gender enforcement, obviously.
The taste for the androgynous pretty boys isn’t universal, of course. I’m sure there are many women reading this who never even owned an album by N*Sync (or NKOTB, or Take That, or Wham!, or the Monkees…). However, an awful lot of women do recall a breathless obsession/fixation with their dreamy-eyed object of desire that utterly consumed their life for six months or a year, and then just quietly passed. There’s always various theorizing about androgynous guys seeming safer or less threatening to girls still growing into their sexuality, but that’s a topic for another day. What gets me is the gender enforcement.
I trust we can all agree that “gay” is what gender enforcers say when they’re trying to express the concept of “not performing masculinity hard enough”, right? So naturally that’s the first accusation leveled at the Valentinos and Biebers of the world. Conceptually, that’s ridiculous on the surface of it. The whole point of these guys is that they are catnip for girls. Hell, Valentino’s definitive role was (subtextually, at least) Rapemaster McRapington of Rapesylvania, and that was supposed to be the appeal. “Gay” is too easy; there’s something weirder going on underneath.
I think it’s significant how often these heartthrobs get called girls. With that poor Bieber kid it’s the main idea, but I’m sure you recall your share of Orlando Bloom jokes from a few years back, and even the Beatles got the same routine. On a surface level, yeah, that’s just another thing people throw at guys who aren’t performing masculinity hard enough, but I can’t help but feel like there’s another layer of enculturated strangeness.
The subject/object divide is one of the key elements of gender role enforcement, one encoded deeply into our conceptual grammar. In matters of sexual attraction, the point of the Two Rules of Desire is that men are the subjects, never the objects, the desirers, never the desired. Women are the objects of desire. Therefore, if you have a guy who is plainly and inescapably an object of desire, he is by definition a woman. Commence mocking him accordingly.
This phenomenon can be seen as an example of our profound societal commitment to the Myth of Men Not Being Hot. Men are definitely not hot, so we will find any other explanation necessary. Hot guys on TV drawing large female audiences? They must think he’s sensitive and caring, not sexy. Women into porn about two men together? They must be trans men. Women going nuts for a male porn star? They must like his personality.
Well, what about that guy? The one over there doing nothing but driving thousands of girls into a frenzy of feral lust that looks like a high-school production of The Bacchae?
Um, he must be a woman, then.