From Timothée Chalamet and Keanu Reeves, to Jeff Goldblum and Donald Glover – unpacking the rise of the extremely online phenomenon
Cast your mind back to the films you saw and loved in 2017 and it’s highly likely Call Me by Your Name will be near the top of the list. Telling the story of Elio and Oliver’s tender, exploratory relationship as played out over the course of one long, hot summer in Northern Italy, Luca Guadagnino’s coming-of-age tale not only ushered in a new era of peach-themed erotica, but also made a star of a then little-known actor by the name of Timothée Chamalet.
Since those halcyon days, Timmy’s star has sky-rocketed. At the tender age of 24 he has accumulated a roster of accolades including nominations for both a Bafta and an Academy Award, and taken on a diverse number of roles in everything from the 2019 adaptation of Little Women to the upcoming remake of cult sci-fi classic Dune. Perhaps his most enduring role to date, however, remains that of the ‘Internet’s Boyfriend’. But what exactly is an Internet Boyfriend and what intoxicating mélange of pheromones, good looks, and talent does it take to inspire such digital devotion?
According to that reputable purveyor of linguistics the Urban Dictionary, the term has been circulating since 2005, borne from an era of MSN crushes and evolved over the ensuing decade into more of a collective online infatuation. Following Timmy’s role in Call Me by Your Name, photos of him goofing around with co-star Armie Hammer and an unearthed video in which he raps about statistics saw the hashtag #internetboyfriend begin to trend on Twitter. Since then, adoration has spooled into memes, myriad Instagram accounts, and even a book, Chalamania, which the blurb describes as a ‘chic love letter to the shaggy-haired, angelic-cheekboned heartthrob’ (it’s still in stock on Amazon folks).
Timothée may be the internet’s most far-reaching example what we now know as the #internetboyfriend, but he is by no means the last. A long and still growing list of other male celebrities have since been awarded the moniker, including Keanu Reeves, Rami Malek, Riz Ahmed, Donald Glover, Noah Cetino, and Lord of the pterodactyls himself, Jeff Goldblum. On paper they seem like a motley crew, Jeff Goldblum is, after all, a 67 year old man who once told GQ he regularly drinks so much carrot juice that his faeces turn orange, but, as it turns out, youth and washboard abs are seemingly no longer prerequisites for sex symbol-dom in 2020.
Dr Ronan McIvor, a consultant psychiatrist at London’s Nightingale Hospital, suggests that there has been an evolution in what society deems to be attractive. “I think it’s probably driven in large part by the internet and the imagery that we see,” he explains. “Women are not necessarily being drawn to macho men, they want something more from their celebrity crushes. Someone with intelligence, character, perhaps slightly eccentric.”
“Women are not necessarily being drawn to macho men, they want something more from their celebrity crushes. Someone with intelligence, character, perhaps slightly eccentric” – Dr Ronan McIvor
It is no coincidence that our desire for greater emotional range from our idols coincides with the pre-eminence of social media. This has never been truer than in our current climate: the world is turning to technology to stay connected and celebrities are opening up to us more than ever, but with each new Instagram live their veneer of mystique is eroding. As voyeurs we can relate to the banality of their routines. They too binge-watched Tiger King, baked their fifth sourdough loaf, and have only washed their hair once this week.
Intrigued to see whether a new prototype of a pin-up was mirrored in my social circle, I posted an Instagram story asking people to divulge their celebrity crushes and what they found so attractive about them. My inbox was soon inundated with replies, almost exclusively from women, and the results were surprising. The most popular choice, surpassing all the typical 00s heartthrobs like Ben Affleck, Mathew McConaughey, and Leonardo DiCaprio, was Marriage Story star Adam Driver. No one seemed able to pinpoint a particular feature that made him so desirable: one person simply wrote “I don’t know why but he’s just got it”.
The Internet’s Boyfriends are the on-screen embodiments of our desired mate, and their real life imperfections, far from deterring us, make them seem more accessible. Keanu Reeves is middle-aged and biologically past his physical prime, Adam Driver’s face was once described as ‘human origami’, and Jeff Goldblum is, well, Jeff Goldblum. But what they lack in Adonis-like perfection, they make up for in relatability. Perhaps then, it is not solely their eccentricity, sense of humour, or perceived kindness that makes them more desirable, but the feelings these qualities instil in us that create a sense of intimacy, that in the right time, right place we could be in with a chance.
Melanie K Tong, a stylist from London, asserts that part of Timothee’s allure is his perceived obtainability. “He’s the ideal boy next door which makes him appear more approachable, attractive and in a way, attainable. He is well spoken, goofy, extremely talented and incredibly well-dressed – what’s not to love? I feel like fans impart the personalities of the characters he’s played onto him, making him more relatable.” This is a sentiment echoed by embroiderer Florence Armstrong: “Timmy seems nice, maybe that’s why he’s a new kind of sex symbol, he could be a real guy you were seeing, not so Hollywood-y.”
The phenomenon of the Internet Boyfriend also coincides with the meteoric rise in the use of online dating apps like Tinder, Hinge and Bumble. In 2017, for the first time ever, more couples met online than in real life, and the new technology hasn’t just changed how we date, it has altered who we date. The ability to connect with people outside of our social groups and geographical surroundings has provided a wealth of potential suitors and permanently modified our perceived standards.
According to research by the University of Michigan, both men and women are much more likely to send an opening gambit to people more ‘desirable’ than themselves online. Analysing messages exchanged between 200,000 heterosexual singles, the study found that aiming out of your league was no longer an act of wishful thinking; it is the norm. Those with the highest ‘desirability’ weren’t always the most aesthetically beautiful either, but possessed a combination of status markers such as professional success, far-flung holidays, and other attributes that caused them to stand out from their peers.
“Timmy seems nice, maybe that’s why he’s a new kind of sex symbol, he could be a real guy you were seeing, not so Hollywood-y” – Florence Armstrong
While online apps have provided ample opportunities for people to meet, they have also created a new dating landscape that can be difficult to navigate. The Internet is littered with articles outlining the perils of ghosting, benching, breadcrumbing, and new and more lurid ways to give someone the boot (tip: Google exo-skeletoning). As it becomes clear that online dating comes with as many, if not more complications as meeting IRL, it’s no surprise that a desire for escapism can lead many to burrow further into on-screen fairytales and improbable fantasies. Most of us won’t match with Adam Driver on Tinder, but a heady mix of romantic cynicism and aspirational thinking can lead to a blurred line between where our feelings for celebrities begin and where it’s possible for them to end. After all, some are merely a DM away.
It’s unsurprising, Dr McIvor says, that this false intimacy can turn into obsession and a sense of ownership. “People have always been fascinated with celebrities but social media has caused obsessional behaviour to mushroom,” explains Dr McIvor, who has seen a spike in patient stalking cases since the advent of Facebook. “It promotes a sense that we know this person. Most people will take this at face value but there will be a small amount of people who have characteristics that make them more impressionable and take it too far.”
Although fancying celebrities is completely normal and rarely pathological, Dr McIvor explains that there are factors that can make certain people more susceptible to delusional fantasies and extreme behaviour. There is an association between unhealthy celebrity worship and people who have fewer or less intimate friends, those who have concerns about their body image, and have had or are considering cosmetic surgery. In extreme cases this obsession can lead to erotomania where the person develops a delusional belief that the celebrity is in love with them.
For the vast majority of us a celebrity crush is perfectly harmless and often motivated by a desire to fit in or be part of a collective group. From Lord Byron in the 19th century to the Beatles in the 60s, fans have long sought to interact with their idols, from screaming at concerts, seeking out autographs, or, in Byron’s case, sending clippings of pubic hair. Social media has just provided a new outlet to express that admiration: “It has resulted in a more persistent and widespread expression of that hysterical behaviour,” explains Dr McIvor.
But what of female sex symbols? Can they exist in a post-Me Too world and is there an equivalent Internet Girlfriend? Far fewer men responded to my Instagram post and when pushed struggled to think of a celebrity they were more than loosely attracted to. It seems odd, though, that men seem far less likely to develop amorous feelings for celebrities: after all, our brains are hard-wired in much the same way. Dr McIvor suggests that this could be a social, rather than a biological, discrepancy. “Over the decades there is a familiarity with young girls becoming obsessed with male celebrities, whereas in boys it might be considered a weakness or less masculine to have these types of preoccupations,” he confirms.
One thing is for sure: unfettered access to information, dating apps, and social media has changed our perception of celebrities and their accessibility. The phenomenon of the Internet Boyfriend is an extension of our ancient obsession with beauty, romance, and status, just bundled up in more authentic packaging. In a world where people are suffering but perfection is still commodified, seemingly, all we really want to see is a picture of Jeff Goldblum’s carrot-hued innards.