A Celebrity Crush
Celebrity crushes are not a new thing. Pop culture is filled with beautiful people who are meant to inspire our admiration, aesthetic and otherwise. And while it’s inconvenient to repeatedly “fall in like” with real, actual people who populate our lives, live in our neighborhoods, and toil at our workplaces, it seems the most natural thing in the world to discover a new actor or musician (that you’ll likely never meet) and moon over them a little.
So, most of us—at least those of us who like television, pop music, and movies—indulge in a harmless celebrity crush now and again. We notice new faces, physiques, and personalities, feel those innocuous little sparks, and get on with our day. What we often don’t notice is how those faces, physiques, and personalities have been curated, packaged, and presented—how they are, in fact, teaching us who and what is attractive, worthy of our attention, deserving of our admiration.
Most of us experience attraction, sexual or otherwise, as something completely unchosen, whether consciously or unconsciously—especially in the gay and lesbian communities, where we’ve often challenged a certain kind of bigotry that tells us that our attractions to the same gender are “unnatural” and something we chose, consciously or unconsciously.
I am certain that sexual orientation—all sexual attraction, for that matter—has a biological component that is far outside of our control. And, I also believe that there’s a powerful cultural dynamic at play as well.
Those who feel that innocuous spark whenever they see shirtless men with defined abdominals and inguinal creases (look it up) might feel as though they are powerless to control those desires—and they might be correct.
But it’s also true that men’s ideal body types have changed significantly throughout history. Just a century ago, we might have found much leaner men to be much more attractive, and a millennium ago, would have been similarly entranced by a body type we’d now classify as “moderately obese.”
Women’s ideal body types have shifted even more wildly throughout history. As recently as the 19th century, the most beautiful among us were shaped a lot more like Kathy Bates than Kate Moss.
There’s a body of compelling research these days to suggest racial preferences in the realm of sexual attraction are also learned. Those who limit those to whom they are attracted by strict racial guidelines often have strong, if often unconscious, racial biases elsewhere in their lives. (Don’t argue with me; take it up with Drs. Chandler, Newman, and Holts, International Academy of Sex Research, July, 2015).
So, while sexual urges are on the one hand primal and instinctive, it seems they can also be learned, or at least shaped by the culture around us.
I was reminded of all of this recently when I innocently sat down for my latest binge. Based on a series of comic books, The Umbrella Academy (season one now available on Netflix), is a story about superheroes with a healthy dose of family dysfunction mixed in, where six super-powered siblings gather for the funeral of their recently deceased father and abusive taskmaster, and oh-by-the-way attempt to stave off an impending global apocalypse.
As I began the first episode, what I wanted was quirky humor, great special effects, and a lot of action. I received all of that, in abundance. But what I wasn’t expecting was…Klaus.
Klaus is the drug-addled sibling who can see dead people, played by Irish actor Robert Sheehan. He has sad eyes, a lean physique, a hairstyle that can only be described as a “mop,” and a tragic backstory. In all these ways, he represents a completely typical celebrity crush, for me.
But there’s more. A lot of guyliner, for starters. The occasional feather boa. In the first few episodes, he sometimes raids his sister’s closet for a skirt, and attends his father’s rain-soaked funeral under a “bubble umbrella” lined in pink that looks like it was made for a girl in junior high.
To say that Klaus veered significantly from my “type” is an understatement. My last celebrity crush was Julian Ovendon as Charles Blake in Downton Abbey. Sad eyes, a mop of hair, and in every way, traditionally masculine and square-jawed.
What makes Klaus different might not be about Klaus, or even Sheehan. What I noticed by the third or fourth episode wasn’t just that I was mooning over the sad, drunk one—but that the show was framing Klaus as “hot.”
The camera often lingers on his body in a way that encourages a certain kind of gaze. Often, Sheehan would be positioned in a way that practically begged the audience to peer up that skirt he’d borrowed. The score probably helped.
So am I changing, or is the culture changing? Maybe the answer is “both.” It was perhaps the first time I was so entranced with someone that androgynous, and as much as I’d like to give myself some credit for being so open-minded, what’s closer to true is probably that I’m a very good cultural student, and I obediently do what I’m told.
Whether I’ll begin to see real men (outside of my television screen) living on the edge of androgyny as similarly appealing remains to be seen. But if the culture really is moving in another direction, it’s entirely likely. After all, practice makes perfect. ▼
Eric C. Peterson is a diversity and inclusion educator living in Washington D.C. and co-host of a weekly podcast about pop culture.