What makes the ultimate heartthrob?

From Marlon Brando and Leonardo DiCaprio to Timothée Chalamet and Pedro Pascal, the objects of our collective infatuation can often reflect our shifting culture and sexuality right back at us.

Sex symbols, dreamboats, hunks, pretty boys, heartthrobs. Over the years, they’ve gone by many names and faces, but the tide of feeling that has made and sustained them has remained unchanged since before Beatlemania.

A heartthrob is an object of unbridled, adolescent infatuation. They inspire a kind of worship infused with lust that teeters on obsession. You yearn to meet them in real life, but think that if you did, you might pass out. You’ve considered buying a water bottle they once touched, or erecting a shrine where they once vomited (yes, really).

From Elvis’s swiveling hips and Brad Pitt’s glistening abs to Paul Newman’s baby blues, Idris Elba’s intense gaze and Timothée Chalamet’s bedhead – whatever your generation’s particular predilection, one thing is certain. For a sweet blip of time, it drove you to distraction.

Heartthrobs are powerful sociocultural barometers, too. Like licking your finger to see which way the wind is blowing, paying attention to who is currently sending the girls and the gays into a whirl of knee-trembling longing can tell us a lot about the shifting nature of masculinity, sexuality, and how desire is culturally constructed in relation to age, race and class.

For the last month, my TikTok feed has been full of horny, yearning edits of Pedro Pascal (at the time of writing, #pedropascal boasts 8.2 billion views). I’m not complaining – though my boyfriend has begun to – but all this begs the question about how certain people come to be crowned the heartthrob du jour.

Pascal is today’s dish of the day, but why? What curious blend of looks, personality traits and cultural tastes make a person universally adored at a particular point in time, a symbol of society’s appetites and attractions, and indeed of sex itself? Why, for example, did the 50s love square-jawed, full-lipped, rebellious yet feminine bad boys” like Marlon Brando, Elvis and James Dean? Why did the 80s prefer a tanned yuppie à la Patrick Swayze and Rob Lowe, and the 90s a skinny pretty boy with prominent cheekbones, like Leonardo DiCaprio and Jared Leto? Why is a cool slutty daddy”, as Pascal is often referred to, the archetypal heartthrob of right now?

As with many things, the heartthrob game is a cyclical one. Nice guys replace bad boys. First you fancy The O.C.s blonde jock Ryan, then the dark-haired, geeky Seth. Those on the millennial-Gen Z cusp, for example, grew up watching the trajectory of 90s pretty boys such as Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp and Leo, as they variously swapped their abs and cheekbones for drug and alcohol addictions, started dating women young enough to be their children, stopped seeing their actual children and became alleged domestic abusers.

Enter Paul Mescal and Pedro Pascal, both unconventionally hot heartthrobs. They’re sensitive and humble, but also sexy. They seem to have a deep well of sadness inside them, yet also appear to be silly billy cheeky chappies”

In other words, if what makes a heartthrob is ineffable and unrepeatable, what breaks them is simple and commonplace. They become human: fallible, unlikable, cruel. They fall from the pedestal. Rather than remaining heartthrobs, many turn out to be toxic losers.

During the cultural reckoning precipitated by #MeToo, as the sex symbols of yore disgraced themselves, a pervasive public desire emerged for guys who were unproblematic. Ones without sexual assault and abuse allegations attached to their names, who could be found within the pages of Lisa Simpson’s teen magazine Non-Threatening Boys. Men who didn’t look or act like the stale, pale males eulogised throughout history – Keanu Reeves (hot in the last four decades), Michael B. Jordan, Idris Elba, Henry Golding, Daniel Kaluuya. All are held up as examples of positive, non-toxic masculinity.

Indeed, as Vogue wrote in 2019, being soft is cooler than being a womanising, hard-edged hero”. And who was the vulnerable, slightly sickly looking heartthrob who made himself known that same year? Timothée Chalamet. To use a phrase coined by writer Anne T. Donahue, he was an artthrob”.

Yet, while he might be less squeaky clean and more nihilistic than his immediate heartthrob ancestors – remember when he predicted that societal collapse” was in the air? – Chalamet is essentially cut from the same cloth as 00s boyband lads. Despite being launched into the public’s consciousness by masturbating into a peach via Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name (2017), and there being copious internet evidence that Chalamet definitely fucks, he remains oddly… sexless.

The same can be said for Harry Styles and Tom Holland. Both exude a kind of Ken doll, smooth down there” energy – perfect perhaps for #MeToo-slash-Donald Trump-slash-Boris Johnson years spent grappling with abusive power structures and rape culture.

Enter Paul Mescal and Pedro Pascal, both unconventionally hot heartthrobs. They’re sensitive and humble, but also sexy. They seem to have a deep well of sadness inside them, yet also appear to be silly billy cheeky chappies. They’re vocal supporters of LGBTQ+ rights (Pascal’s sister is trans) and social justice movements. They’re not posh English public school lads or all-American frat boys. They both love their sisters and mums. Essentially, to use a buzzword, they’re relatable, despite the fact they’ve been launched into celeb super-stardom with the force of dynamite.

Mescal listens to Mitski, goes for runs around East London, and pops to the Co-op to buy Crabbies Ginger Beer and prawn cocktail crisps. Pascal listed doom-scrolling, listening to NPR and the news and dissociating” as his fave pastimes while waiting to be called to set. What better to sooth our authenticity-craving, intimacy-starved, post-Covid woes?

As his friend of 30 years and fellow actor Sarah Paulson put it, Pedro Pascal is powerful, soulful, hilarious, capable of having the deepest conversations, willing to hold your hair back when you’re sick, and in possession of the broadest shoulders to lean on… He’s the whole motherf-cking deal.” Until, of course, the winds change, and new heartthrobs blow our way.

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