The therapeutic rise of celebrity thirst culture

How women and LGBTQ+ people are re-appropriating desire, one meme at a time

A James Dean poster.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Perry Mastrovito / Alamy Stock Photo, Screenshot/Amazon)

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.

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Laura Bogart

Laura Bogart is a featured writer for Salon and a regular contributor to DAME magazine. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, CityLab, The Guardian, SPIN, Complex, IndieWire, GOOD, and Refinery29, among other publications. Her first novel, Don't You Know That I Love You?, is forthcoming from Dzanc.