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?