In a 1996 episode of the television show Friends, Chandler introduces the gang to the concept of the list—the idea that, in any committed relationship, each person can choose five celebrities with whom they are allowed to have sex. The other person in the relationship is not allowed to get angry about this. “Does anyone else think David Copperfield’s cute?” Chandler asks Ross and Monica while the three sit in Central Perk. It’s no coincidence that Chandler is the one to ask about Copperfield; homophobic jokes about his sexuality permeate the show’s ten seasons. Haha, Chandler thinks a man is cute. Haha, Chandler is gay. The laugh track revs up immediately. There’s a back story, of course, that brings Chandler back into the fold of heteronormativity: David Copperfield is on his girlfriend Janice’s list. Members of the gang establish their own lists, each a mixture of the expected (Cindy Crawford), the quirky (Dorothy Hamill), and the imaginary (Jessica Rabbit).
Ross’s choices eventually become the crux of the plot. Based on Chandler’s advice, he removes Isabella Rossellini from his list for being “too international.” What’s the point of putting someone on the list whom you have no chance of ever meeting? Imagine Ross’s surprise, then, when Rossellini shows up at Central Perk. Still, it’s not to be: by turns creeped out and unimpressed, she eventually tells Ross that, ironically, she has just bumped him from her list of “five goofy coffeehouse guys” that she is allowed to have sex with. The ridiculousness of assuming that our objects of desire will reciprocate our attraction. The hubris. The reality does not, cannot, live up to the fantasy.
Really, though, that’s the whole point. The list is an exercise in the imaginary. That’s the irresistible lure of the celebrity crush: it won’t happen. But it could. But it won’t. But it could. Its logic, its appeal, demands absence even as it presumes access: if we met, if only we met, something would happen. Imagine: something to lift your life out of the humdrum monotony of coffee shop banter and illegal pet monkeys. But is that what you really want? As classicist Anne Carson asks in Eros the Bittersweet, “Who ever desires what is not gone? No one.”
Like anyone, I worked my way through various celebrity crushes, and crushes on real people too. Bobby was the boy I loved most in high school. He was smart and funny, pale and freckled, part of a whole group of smart and funny boys who somehow became popular by senior year. He looked like the late actor Brad Renfro, if you remember him. Bobby and I had several classes together, and by sophomore year we had developed a purely online friendship—I was too anxiety-filled to walk into the school cafeteria, let alone talk to a boy. Our only computer was in the family room, which was so difficult to heat that we usually left it closed off in the winter. At night I bundled up and sat in the cold, waiting for his screen name to appear.
I looked at Bobby and saw someone who called the world on its bullshit shallowness, rejecting the materialist complacency of our peers. I would take such stances too, had I believed for a second that I was allowed to be anything other than nice. I could only envision alternatives to a conventional life through a boy—an object not of desire, perhaps, but identification. It’s the classic film theory dichotomy, in which our only opportunity to identify with a character who possesses agency is to identify with the male protagonist. We watch men going on adventures and women being watched, argued Laura Mulvey decades ago. Often, these adventures involve rescuing women.
My crush on Leonardo Dicaprio was at its peak when I was in high school, a time in my life when interacting with actual human beings was acutely painful. I was afraid of everyone but particularly of boys, whom I was starting to realize had all the power in the world. The ease with which they occupied space was stunning. What was there to do but let them?
Chuck wasn’t scary; he was sweet and kind. Yet, when he asked me to Homecoming junior year, I felt I had to say yes even though I wasn’t interested in him. It would have been kinder to say no; I don’t think I said a word to him all night. He was a perfectly nice person but too real and too there in a way that Leo and even Bobby weren’t, and I was all dolled up and ready for the fantasy to begin. My dress, like so many that hung on department store racks that year, was modeled after one of Kate Winslet’s dresses from Titanic—the one she wears when she first meets Jack, when she’s running away from her prescribed life and is ready to fling herself into the ocean. I also owned, and wore, every item in Max Factor’s Titanic-themed makeup collection. In hindsight, it was way too much lipstick.
In “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” cultural theorist Fredric Jameson argued that mass cultural products—movies, television shows, popular music, and the like—do far more than just manipulate us. We know this now, of course, but in 1979 he was writing against many of the prevailing trends in cultural criticism. Culture, he argued, offers us a kind of “wish-fulfillment.” It reveals and engages with our deepest desires, offering us a utopian vision of a different world only to occlude such possibilities in the end. It stirs our desires only to “manage” or “repress” them.
On its release date in 1997 — twenty years ago today — young women flocked to movie theaters to see Titanic, just as we rushed to see William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet a year earlier. What “fundamental hopes and fantasies of the collectivity,” as Jameson called them, were being “given voice” while we did so? When I was a teenager and Leo was in his early twenties, his physicality didn’t read at all as scary adult man. He was a boy playing boys. What I notice watching his early films now is how pretty he was. With his long, highlighted hair, smooth skin, and full, rosy cheeks and lips, he appears almost feminine. Why did so many young women love this pretty young man? Was he safe, as an object of desire? He certainly seemed less threatening than the Stanley Kowalskis of the world. Perhaps it was a way of acknowledging the scariness of men, of patriarchy, without trespassing too far against the strictures of heteronormativity. It’s not uncommon, historian Carol Dyhouse tells us in her recent book, Heartthrobs: A History of Women and Desire, for young women to prefer the delicate to the rugged. I realized I was getting old when I first found Mr. Big attractive.
In 2007, film critic Nathan Rabin, writing in the A.V. Club, coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”—a character who “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”
What do we do with male characters who conform to these tropes? Critics have long identified the corollary of the Manic Pixie Dream Boy, with Leo’s character in Titanic often serving as Exhibit A. But I’ve never seen a good analysis of what it means for female viewers to engage with these male characters and the actors who portray them—these men, these boys, whom we thought would save us.
By the time Titanic came out, Leo was at the height of his stardom, not least because of the previous year’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet. I’ve never felt particularly hailed by R + J, though, although I know it was specifically designed to cater to spectators like me—lovestruck, middle-class white girls with disposable income and a ride to the mall. Perhaps the problem is that Juliet is such a boring bummer of a character. Unlike Romeo, she has no friends her own age to hang out with, just the comic relief of the Nurse. Instead she sits there and looks pretty, and though she does take action late in the story, she’s mostly there for Romeo to desire. Who wants to see the girl with whom they identify most, Angela Chase herself, reduced to such a status? Not I.
Titanic, though, seemed to offer the possibility of escape. Leo as carefree artist Jack spontaneously hops aboard the ship after winning tickets in a poker game, only to embark on a doomed love affair with upper-class Rose. A self-described “tumbleweed blowing in the wind,” he’s not interested in “making it” in any conventional sense, only in pursuing adventure and accumulating experience. Leo-as-Jack shows none of the physical wear and tear that such an existence might entail. I’m not sure how many itinerant artists had such perfect highlights in 1912. But no matter: Jack is a function, not a fully-realized character. His main task is to teach Rose how to truly live.
In fact I once knew a boy something like this, with tousled blond hair and a seeming desire to save me. I left acting class needing to cry. Who knows why. He followed me into the hallway and held me. Several weeks later we were in my dorm room, his head resting on my knees, his arms around my legs, both of us seventeen and beautiful. But I never saw him again after that morning, and only years later did I realize that I probably could have kissed him. Still, it felt like the story was finally starting, like my story was starting because of him.
Rose has bigger problems than a missed makeout session. To safeguard her family’s financial stability, she has agreed to marry Cal (Billy Zane), the son of a Pittsburgh steel magnate and a mustache-twirler of a villain. To be his wife, Rose must resign herself to a life of obedience. But Rose yearns for freedom, and she finds it in Jack. “Why can’t I be like you, Jack?” she asks, “Just head out for the horizon whenever I feel like it?”
Nearly four decades after Titanic sank, a teenage Sylvia Plath wrote in her journal of her “consuming desire to mingle with road crews, sailors, and soldiers, barroom regulars—to be part of a scene, anonymous, listening, recording . . . to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night.” But she can’t, because, as she writes, “I am a girl, a female, always in danger of assault.” In the world of Titanic, Rose can escape from these systemic dangers without having to change them. All she needs to do is find a boy like Jack to save her. So that’s what I looked for: a way to escape. I recognized the failures of patriarchy without yet having a name for it, without yet knowing that Leo couldn’t save me from it. The master’s tools and all that.
But here’s the thing: I wanted something. In Heartthrobs, Dyhouse argues that desire itself, including celebrity crushes, is active, not passive, an antidote to what Mulvey calls women’s “to-be-looked-at-ness.” I’d expand this to include the fantasies we project onto ostensibly real people who, like Bobby, were effectively as far away as any celebrity.
I think Dyhouse’s perspective helps to redeem my teenage self, and teen girls’ crushes in general, a bit. These mental accommodations, these avoidances of reality and forays into the imaginary, in their own way serve a social function. For me, they helped make girlhood palatable. They helped me to survive it.
Christina Larocco is a writer and historian based in Philadelphia, where she is editor of a scholarly journal and a prose editor for Cleaver Magazine. Her creative nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Hotel Amerika, Footnote, and Avidly.