From Mav: Last year we did a special Valentine’s Day show about romantic shipping in our favorite fictional universes. It was so great celebrating Valentine’s Day by explaining to everyone in final decisive detail exactly how I am 100% positive that Hermoine and Harry totally absolutely and without a doubt totally “did it” behind the scenes in the 7th book. We can all agree on that now, right? I thought so. Ok, moving along. As we approach Valentine’s Day this year I’ve been thinking about love again, but I want to approach it from a different perspective. Not the relationships that we imagine between different fictional characters, but the relationships we imagine between fictional characters and US… and what that means. That is to say that if there’s one thing that I’m sure we can all agree on, it’s that Illyana Nikolievna Rasputina, aka Magik, is totally in love with me and has been since the mid-1980s. You know… or she would be… you know… if she like was real and stuff… Similarly, I want to point out that Ariel the Little Mermaid also would totally be in love with me if she were real too. And Holli Would from Cool World who I maintain is WAY hotter than Jessica Rabbit (don’t judge me!).
Of course, I don’t just have crushes on cartoon characters. I’m pretty sure that I’ve mentioned on the show before that I’ve completely reasonably totally had a completely age appropriate crush on Winnie Cooper from The Wonder Years since I was 13 years old. I’m not alone here. If you are an at least nominally heterosexual man of a certain age living in America, and you’re NOT in love with Winnie Cooper… something is wrong with YOU! And she’s perfect, because as far as I am concerned she totally ages right along with me. We were the same age when the show started, were the same age when it ended. Yes I realize there’s some weirdness since the show took place in the past and so in a way she’s both the same age as me and at the same time also twenty years older. Look, if I can ignore the fact that Illyana is a drawing and also a half-demon mutant sorceress… time displacement ain’t a thing. The point is that my love for Winnie Cooper is perfect, pure, enduring and eternal… and it extends to her actress Danica McKellar, who similarly is perfectly age appropriate for me and also both gorgeous and smart and I’m sure would totally be in love with me today… you know, if she had any idea who the hell I was… which she doesn’t. DETAILS!
But my unrequited crush on Danica made me start really start thinking about the nature of celebrity crushes. There’s a fundamental difference between my crush on Illyana, Ariel or even Winnie than the one on Danica. Being in love with Winnie Cooper isn’t fundamentally any different than being in love with the Little Mermaid. They’re stories. They don’t have feelings. They don’t have agency. Whether they love me back or not is purely a function of my own imagination. McKellar is a real person. It’s entirely possible that in real life she might not be in the slightest bit attracted to me. Or might even straight up just hate me. The same with any of my other celebrity crushes. Rihanna, Shakira, Halle Berry, Lolo Jones. It feels like there’s a weird lack of consent going on. Hell, I’m in love with Audrey Hepburn and she’s been dead for years. Granted, crushes are often one way even in real life. But somehow, this just feels “different.”
And again, I know I’m not alone here. Both my wife and my mother have noted on MANY occasions to me that they have crushes on Johnny Depp (as have countless other at least nominally heterosexual women of a certain age). And the idea of hall passes for a limited list of famous people is so common that it’s been a plot on several sitcoms. And while sure, the idea that I’m allowed to fuck Rihanna or Stephanie can just fuck Depp if we ever just happen to run into them is great… for us… but it really doesn’t take into account the crush’s desires at all. So I can only conclude that in a sense, we don’t think of celebrities as “real people” in as far as it comes to crushing on them. The lack of feasibility of ever encountering them makes them “fictional” for all intents and purposes. They don’t count anymore than Winnie Cooper or Illyana Rasputin.
So then extending the idea that the relationships are always “essentially fictional” makes me think about them even more as fantasy. The idea of the relationship with the celebrity or fictional character essentially becomes mental pornography. Even if you’re not really imagining them in a masturbatory manner (and who are you kidding, pervert!), they’re still just fantasies. And what makes this special is that we can essentially dispense with any of our natural sexual propensities in relation to them. I’m thinking here about the fact that I have seen plenty of women tweet or facebook update that they are 100% straight and yet swear that they would “make an exception” for Ruby Rose or Janelle Monae. I mean, I totally get it. They’re both extremely attractive. And they both have very public personas that openly question heteronormative conventions of both sexuality and gender. But there’s probably less gender fluid common crushes that do the same thing. I’ve certainly heard supposedly straight men make the same claim about Jason Momoa (and yes… yes, I totally would) and he’s as stereotypically masculine as you get. And then there’s David Bowie who certainly had his hetero-male admirers (not my thing personally, but I still totally get it).
I was talking about this concept with former show guest Anna Peppard and she noted a curious gendered thing that happens in schoolgirl celebrity crushes. I’ll leave it to her to expand upon it in comments if she likes, but the thrust of what I got from her argument is that if you have for instance a girlhood crush on David Bowie, there’s an inclination to both as she put it “be a Bowie girl” and “be a Bowie-Girl”. That is, part of the idea of crushing on Bowie is not just wanting to possess him (romantically, sexually, whatever) but also wanting to BE him. Bowie is probably the best example of this, but there certainly are other minor examples. Again, to go back to Depp… while I don’t think he’s ever commanded the kind of total cosplay-esque devotion that Bowie did, there’s still “something there” where he seems to directly affect the style of his heterosexual admirers. I don’t feel like there’s quite an analogue for a female celebrity with cis-het men… or at least not that I can think of.
But to me, the interesting thing about Bowie is that like Monae and Rose, he bucks gender norms, especially back in the day. In a sense crushing on Bowie (or Monae or Rose) is a sort of gateway into pansexuality. There’s a way for the person with the crush to explore their inherent queerness without necessarily devoting to it. The fictionality of the crush and the unattainability of the actual celebrity, I think, makes it okay in a way that acknowledging a real life queerness would not. At least not at first. And though it seems like a counterexample because Momoa lacks androgyny in every way that Bowie displayed it, But I think the same thing actually happens just in a less obvious way. Momoa is so overtly hyeprmasculine that it somehow seems almost “not gay” for another man to be into him. There’s sort of an implied exception. And I feel like maybe that’s the point of the crush. He’s a “safe place” to explore feelings. Because in a way he’s no more real than my other fish person crush of Ariel.
And he’s certainly more acceptable than the completely-reasonable-because-she’s-fictional-but-super-deviant-if-you think-about-it-beyond-that crush I have on Lola Bunny. And you have one too. Don’t lie! Because in your heart of hearts, you have issues with besitality! Ok, maybe not. But I think she is doing something with her sexuality that is also in this same realm. She’s definitely a male gaze character. But she’s also very much a tomboy. But I think in some ways the same thing happens as with the other examples. There’s a safeness to the sexuality that works just because she’s a cartoon character. Sexualizing the tomboy allows Lola to have a performative masculinity and a performative femininity at the same time. And packaging her as a silly animal cartoon character allows her a little more leeway and acceptability than Jessica Rabbit might have in the same role.
And really, maybe you don’t want to think about it too hard. But… thinking hard about these things is what we do here. So tell us, who or what are your fictional crushes? Are they real people or celebrities? What do you think is the psychological and cultural reasoning behind why we have them? What do crushes do to help us break down our sexual norms?
From Wayne: As usual, Mav touched on most of the points we want to talk about. He and I may have to fight for Illyana’s affections.
And Maybe Audrey Hepburn’s as well.
I’ve said for a lot of years that I didn’t really do the “celebrity crush” thing in the way a lot of other people do. I say here on the record that I am the only boy in his middle teenage years in the late 70s who didn’t own the Farrah Fawcett poster. I just couldn’t get the vibe on her at the time. The same was true of Bo Derek, and many of the other celebrity sex symbols that were foisted on us at the time. But I did engage with my own versions of this. I’m pretty sure that Goldie Hawn helped launch me into puberty. I had totally age-appropriate crushes on Jodie Foster and Tatum O’Neill and Kristy McNichol. I briefly fell in love with Cherie Currie based solely on a Runaways record cover.
I don’t remember doing this with fictional characters as much, except as Mav pointed out, the celebrities were just as fictional in their own ways. I was a little in love with Donna Troy in the New Teen Titans, and Mav and I have both talked about having our hearts broken in that same series by Terra.
And, just for the record, in my day to day preferences I’m pretty straight, but I’m totally on board with the Bowie crush. He was beautiful and talented and brilliant, all of which I find appealing in a sapiosexual way. Some of it is the androgyny, which I do find interesting. I was made fun of pretty hard back in my rural surroundings for my love of Queen. I think this sort of impossible crush allows us to conduct emotional mind experiments with things we may never do in our real life. I currently have a crush on Luke Spiller, lead singer of The Struts, for the same glam Rock androgyny reasons.
I seem to do this with Rock stars more than other celebrities. I spent a tremendous amount of the 90s in love with PJ Harvey, who exhibited her own brand of androgyny. There was a least one concert in a very small venue in DC where I’m sure she was singing directly to me.
No, really. She was.
There is the potential dark side of this as well. Celebrity stalkers have been in the news for a very long time. Unlike David Hinckley I didn’t try to impress Jodie Foster by trying to kill the president.
Time for some shameless self-promotion. This idea forms the core of my novel This Creature Fair. In I explore the idea of the celebrity crush, and, within the context of an Urban Fantasy/Horror setting, what might happen if suddenly the celebrity starts stalking you.
So, this has become more of a confessional than a pseudo-academic blog. I guess what we’re asking here is why do we do this? Why do we project romantic/sexual fantasies on the unobtainable? With celebrities it makes a certain amount of sense because they are, in some ways at least, real people, even though all we ever really see is the mask/persona they present to the public. What in the world do get from doing this with fictional characters? Is it purely because it provides a safe psychological distance for us to explore these feelings?
Let us know who your crushes are, real or fictional.