Photography Mario Sorrenti. Fashion director Alastair McKimm

why timothée chalamet is the perfect heartthrob for 2018

From his fashion choices to his breakout queer role, Timothée’s heartthrob status feels part of a wider movement towards a more fluid, less patriarchal idea of what beauty and masculinity means.

by Brian O'Flynn
02 November 2018, 10:31am

Photography Mario Sorrenti. Fashion director Alastair McKimm

Timothée Chalamet is the perfect heartthrob for 2018. Awkward, androgynous and adored by millions; he occupies a space in our collective conscience once reserved for men who epitomised a sort of primal ideal of manhood. An ideal that was intrinsically linked to a patriarchal, antiquated notion of what it meant to be desirable, of what it meant to have status. Offering an new vision what a dreamboat can be now, Chalamet is a breath of fresh air.

The first recorded instance of the term heartthrob dates back to 1796, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Its usage at the time was most likely medical, to describe an actual throbbing of the heart, and its pop cultural interpretation probably didn’t evolve until much later. How very boring. Let’s just pretend it was coined in some Georgian teenager’s diary as they gazed out their window at a passing footman.

Today, the Oxford English Dictionary defines the term as “a man, typically a celebrity, whose good looks excite romantic feelings in women”. This gendered and exclusionary definition is probably not just casual LGBT-erasure on the part of the OED -- they’re merely reflecting the historical reality that, for many decades, the way these men and their admirers were discussed was gendered, sexist and heteronormative.

In 1935, Frank Sinatra became the original heartthrob, and his adoring fans got their very own designation: “bobby soxers”. The Guardian’s New York Correspondent reported in 1945 that: “The United States is now in the midst of one of those remarkable phenomena of mass hysteria… Mr. Frank Sinatra… is inspiring extraordinary personal devotion on the part of many thousands of young people… the teen-age girls who constitute the main part of his audience also wear short white half-hose, and are therefore called ‘bobby-sox girls’ or, more simply, ‘bobby-soxers’.”

"Historically, the heartthrob has been seized upon and marketed with singular focus. The selling of sex, mediated by these hunky figures, has relied heavily on traditional, and often toxic, masculinities."

This may have been the first time in history that heartthrob fandom was understood as a collective political identity, a sort of community with its own identifying traits and fashions, and it set a precedent that would endure for a century. Swooning young girls love manly male heartthrobs, right? The heartthrob-fan dyad has long been considered a gendered, unidirectional connection. The tropes of Sinatramania, as it was officially dubbed, have been transmitted right through the era of the Beliebers to today’s latest incarnation: Chalamania. Many fans reject the media’s chosen term, preferring ‘Chalabaes’, or just plain ‘Timmy Stans’, to the loaded ‘Chalamaniacs’ -- but the designation reveals the thread of history tying this same phenomenon back to the 1940s. It serves to show how little has changed in some ways, but also obscures how much we have evolved.

As the decades slipped by after Sinatra, the genetic roots of the heartthrob continued to hold sway over later iterations. It must be noted, that when it comes to racial diversity, disappointingly the following decades are as white as they are straight.

James Dean may be retrospectively hailed as an LGBT figure, but his popularity at the time relied on the suppression of this narrative. Looking back, it feels like the term badboy has always been code for toxic masculinity, inextricably tied to mistreatment of women, aggression and homophobia.

River Phoenix’s ascent to idol status in the 1980s represented a slight softening of the image of a heartthrob -- a delicate-featured young man obsessed with the environment. But the 90s belonged to Leonardo Dicaprio, an actor whose philandering with a different supermodel every week became as much of a defining feature as the roles he played.

"If the history of the heartthrob is rooted in hypermasculinity, heteronormativity and appealing to patronising stereotypes of female fan desires, Chalamet represents a new speciation."

In the early 00s, boy bands like NSYNC and Backstreet Boys perpetuated the idea of a badboy (see Shane Lynch of Boyzone swearing at the EMAs). The male heartthrob was still pushed heavily towards the all-female teenage market (now known as ‘teeny boppers’ -- presumably the mythical descendants of the ‘bobby soxers’). Boy bands like Boyzone et al. were the main fodder for teenage magazines. Such publications were reflections of their time, and were marketed with painfully heteronormative stereotypes towards a market composed exclusively of teenage girls -- the male heartthrob-female fandom dichotomy was alive and well. The alleged blackmailing of Stephen Gately into outing himself to The Sun says all you need to know about the toxic masculinity.

Elsewhere in film, the media fixated on pitting Angelina against Jen in a fight over ultra-hunk Brad Pitt, while boy next door Zac Efron was cooked up in a lab to sell Disney films to teenagers with his blue-eye and bulging pecs. What naturally followed was perhaps our generation’s most famous heartthrobs -- Justin Bieber, pushing against his iconography of teenage innocence by playing the tough guy, and the two Twilight lead stars -- perhaps the most degrading representation of hettiness we’ve ever seen.

Historically, the heartthrob has been seized upon and marketed with singular focus. The selling of sex, mediated by these hunky figures, has relied heavily on traditional, and often toxic, masculinities.

But in the last couple of years we’ve begun a desperately needed awakening. The depths of Hollywood’s misogyny have been laid painfully bare. The president of the United States has unapologetically shared his disturbingly sexist point of view. But counter to this is a new generation who won't stand for it. And, as Broadly recently announced, Gen Z -- our main torchbearer of the heartthrob movement -- is “queer AF”. Out of the 13- to 20-year-old Americans surveyed, only 48% identified as exclusively heterosexual, compared to 65% of millennials aged 21 to 34. The overwhelming whiteness is beginning to shift too. This year's record-breaking superhero epic Black Panther gave us a glimmer of hope for a more racially diverse future of heartthrobs, too.

With Elio imprinted in our minds -- the slender, frail, feminine, twink counter-example to Hammer’s older, sturdier masculinity -- so too has our desire for a sexually ambiguous heartthrob. If the history of the heartthrob is rooted in hypermasculinity, heteronormativity and appealing to patronising stereotypes of female fan desires, Chalamet represents a new speciation. That this has elevated rather than hampered his heartthrob status is an inestimable leap forward. His hunk status doesn’t rely on patronising, heteronormative assumptions about fandoms, about the type of people who would idolise him, and why.

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