The therapeutic rise of celebrity thirst culture
How women and LGBTQ+ people are re-appropriating desire, one meme at a time
I was 13 years old when I first saw James Dean on a rainy Sunday afternoon classic movie marathon — cutting a figure that was lean as a knife blade in blue jeans yet somehow, simultaneously, almost unbearably tender. I was fat and ungainly, with a mouth full of braces and a head full of daydreams. My body provoked the pitiless scorn of the boys at school; my spirit provoked the glacial wrath of my father, a man who had no patience for dreaminess. But James Dean was different — though he was impossibly beautiful, he was still an outcast like me, estranged from his peers and desperate for a father's love; though he was effortlessly cool, he still showed compassion for the misfits who were further out on the margins. His pictures soon adorned my locker and his poster was taped to my bedroom door, watching over me as I filled reams and reams of spiral notebooks with fantasies — about the love we'd share, about the conversations we'd have, about how he'd kiss my temples and hold my hand and tell me I was perfect, just as I was.
Decades later, I could call James Dean my first crush, but this doesn't feel wholly accurately. The longing I felt for him, and, more importantly, everything he represented to me, wasn't some tickle of butterflies in the belly, it was like waiting for a cool stream to rush into a burned-dry, husked-out cavern. It was thirst. This kind of longing has always been prevalent within pop culture — the pin-up queens of yesteryear have become the Cam girls and Instagram models of today; the bobbysoxer maenads who screamed for Sinatra and The Beatles (and yes, James Dean) are the Extremely Online™ teens who devotedly post snippets from each of Timothée Chalamet's press appearances — and yet thirst is having a particularly trenchant social moment.
There are podcasts like Thirst Aid Kit, where hosts Nichole Perkins and Bim Adewunmi assess the appeal of a particular celebrity or trope in a personal context braided with cultural analysis; there's thirst journalism; and there's the rise of social media users whose singular devotion to their beloved baes makes them internet celebrities in their own rights. There are whole sub-genres of thirst, most notably, where women make very grand and opulent calls for celebrities like Rachel Weisz and Cate Blanchett to run them over with dump trucks.
For once, it's not about what wets the whistle of the cis white hetero dude: The axis of thirst culture revolves around what women and members of the LGBTQ+ community long for; now, seemingly more than ever, the objects of those desires, the people who excite and soothe and delight us, offer a delectable complication to the thuggish spectacles of sexism that have only felt more overt and galling against the opposing, yet simultaneously sparking, currents of #MeToo and Trumpism.
For a long time, how we've thought about desire — who gets to show it, who is worthy of receiving it — has been straightjacketed into a straight white male gaze, a gaze that can be objectifying at its mildest and violent at its worst. "For a woman to call attention to her desire ... is tricky, and for centuries it was downright dangerous," observes Rachel Vorona Cote, essayist and author of the forthcoming Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today. "There's a thrill to this — it still feels very bold to call attention to oneself as a desiring subject because we're still wriggling away from the cultural expectation that women simply don't speak this way in public."
In this context, women and members of the LGBTQ+ community reclaiming desire through thirst culture is an act of defiance.
In an essay for BuzzFeed, Grace Perry questions why queer desire so often finds its pop cultural locus on celebrities who identify as straight; still, she writes, "it's true that there's an element of queer liberation in the ability to publicly thirst over whoever we so choose, gay or otherwise, with relatively little repercussion." Thirst Aid Kit's Adewunmi told Salon that she and co-host Perkins are "two straight black women and talking about lust and desire and sexuality and all these expressions of humanity is not something that has traditionally been given to black women." Each episode of the podcast ends with "fan fic" wars, where the two hosts share their drabbles about the episode's subject; these drabbles encompass the sensual, the domestic, and the unabashedly romantic often all at once. During the episode on Jake Gyllenhaal, Perkins imagines the actor soothing her through doubts about her appearance; her fantasy of him loving her affirms her own beauty and sticks a dagger in the heart of doubt.
Re-appropriating desire to women and LGBTQ+ people — who have frequently been on the savage end of the male gaze — also complicates, and reinvigorates, our ideals of masculinity. If we can consider the geyser eruption of thirst culture to be a life-affirming repudiation of the epidemic of violent misogyny so glaringly exposed in #MeToo and Times Up, then it's no wonder that thirst culture has so exquisitely centered a vision of manhood that is rooted in compassion, not conquest.
Many of the Adonises of our modern thirst era have knocked down the old tentpoles of masculinity, preferring instead to treat their personas as wider, more open and accommodating spaces. Stars like Mark Ruffalo, Harry Styles, or Michael B. Jordan aren't just classically handsome — they're more likely to make headlines for talking about gender equality, the value of kindness, or taking care of one's mental health than for smashing up motel rooms or punching out photographers, like some of the heartthrobs of my teen years (here's lookin' at you, Johnny Depp). Chris Evans, who could have easily settled into the bland beefcake comforts that a role like Captain America would easily afford him, publicly identifies as a feminist — and, more poignantly, talks about the process of learning to be a better ally. He was also a surprisingly vulnerable and humble guest on Thirst Aid Kit.
It's telling, as well, that 2019's "Keanussance," or celebration of all things Keanu Reeves, was driven more by stories of Reeves' abiding sense of decency than the leonine grace of his body or the cinnabar darkness of his eyes — a marked contrast to the way he was perceived during his debut, as a dim-bulb beauty compared to the more "serious" actors like Depp and Sean Penn, whose capacity for off-screen violence and art-bro debauchery marked them as "intense." Until recently, that is, when both men's records as accused wife batterers have dimmed their stars and started to snuff out their box office appeal. In an essay for Longreads, Soraya Roberts articulates the wider political potential within something as subterranean as lust: "Out of the wreckage of male toxicity, [women] used thirst to mark the men who remained worthy."
Hollywood abounds with the kind of beautiful and talented young men who would make Raphael's brush sing across the Vatican palace, but Timothée Chalamet has distinguished himself as The Internet's Boyfriend because he seems kind and approachable — earlier this year, a woman went viral by live-tweeting her experience flying next to Chalamet in coach; he gabbed about The Office, asked her questions about her everyday life, and seemed genuinely interested in her responses (try getting an average dude on OkCupid to do even that much). Chalamet, along with his contemporary It Boys like Harry Styles, Lucas Hedges, Jharrel Jerome, and Ashton Sanders, are particularly beloved by young (and not so young) fans for their ease and fluidity with gender presentation and sexuality, their willingness to be soft and vulnerable. Briallen Hopper, author of the essay collection Hard to Love, sees these traits in classic thirst objects like Paul Newman: "a queer energy that … was also about inhabiting a kind of vulnerable, bruised, and still skillfully seductive kind of masculinity — a kind of masculinity that might desire to be held or consoled; that might need to lean."
This kind of attenuated tenderness drew me to James Dean when I was a lonely and aching teenager, who often felt like I was walking across scorching sands holding a divining rod, trying and hoping (often against hope) to find a kind of manhood that was precious and shining, a treasure that wouldn't blind or sink me. Those fantasies, sweet and fleeting as they were, remained a ballast against the cruelties and everyday indignities I received from the real-life men I knew. They gave me hope that someday, real life could be a better life. The people we thirst for are living mirrors, reflecting more than just what we like, or even who we are — they reflect what we need. Our entire pop culture has become that teenager in their bedroom, conjuring new reflections of passion and power, spinning visions to excite and delight with something broader, something better.
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