Dad issues: Celebrity is ‘a mask that eats your face’ (Getty)
It’s that time again: Keanu Reeves has released a new film. Cue the Stampede. Every time the widely popular 58-year-old actor hits the press lane for a new project, he’s greeted with the same heady barrage of sexually charged hero worship. This week alone, the John Wick star has endured an impromptu marriage proposal from a fan and dealt with questions about being the “friend of the internet.” Of course, Reeves isn’t the only actor experiencing this phenomenon. Rather, he is part of a small substratum of typical middle-aged male celebrities that the internet has turned its kaleidoscopically horny gaze on. Pedro Pascal has been social media’s anointed obsession of late, thanks largely to his starring roles in The Last of Us and The Mandalorian. But there are also celebrities like Oscar Isaac, Paul Rudd, Chris Pine, Lee Pace – the list goes on.
The way these men are talked about has two levels: they are praised for both their sex appeal and their apparent moral virtue. They’re not just saints in the eyes of the online public, they’re sexy saints. Sometimes the link between these two traits is made explicit: search Twitter and you’ll find countless tweets celebrating “how you age when you’re unproblematic,” often with a picture of, say, Paul Rudd embracing the dem Face contrasted is that of a gruff fanatic. It goes without saying that morality has nothing to do with appearance – the timeless freshness of the skin of most celebrities is more likely to be due to cosmetic surgery – but it also speaks for the shocking naivety of the public when it comes to celebrities. Being charming in front of a camera means nothing. If the last decade has taught us anything, it’s that abuse and robbery among male celebrities are rampant behind closed doors. Unreserved glorification is only for the protection of the powerful. Don’t get me wrong, I would imagine Reeves is as personable and genuine as he appears in interviews — but we have no way of knowing that for sure.
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There is often a seemingly progressive edge to the way these actors are sexualized. It can be seen both as a corrective response to fans and media’s longstanding sexualization of female celebrities, and as a subversion of the rigid, anti-beauty norms of traditional masculinity. It is also important that Pascal and Co. are often referred to as “Daddy”, a term steeped in history in queer parlance. But none of that changes the fact that forcing this kind of praise on famous people is deeply awkward. They are left with two choices: either play along, feed the beast, or attempt to smack them away, risking turning the erratic energy of social media against them.
Of course, it’s one thing for a woman to tweet a picture of David Harbor in a bathing suit along with a caption about “going wild.” It’s another when the terrifying lust of the internet spills over into real life. Increasingly, celebrities are expected to indulge in their fans’ bizarre adulation. Pascal, for example, was shown a series of screechingly infatuated tweets about him during a recent appearance on The Graham Norton Show. (It should be noted that this isn’t an exclusive trend for male celebrities — YouTube is full of videos of celebrities of all ages and genders “reading thirst tweets” as a rather one-sided gimmick, according to it.) Pascal seemed content enough with that shtick is incidental. It is unfair – and frankly quite naïve – to put people in this position.
John Updike once wrote that fame is “a mask that eats into your face”. When you’re as famous as Keanu Reeves, or even as recognizable as Pascal is quickly becoming, it must be almost impossible to keep a grip on your authentic sense of self. The unabashed idolization of social media fandom has certainly made things doubly difficult. Are these people unproblematic sex gods? No, they are men. Just normal men. Whether they’re friendly or awkward, sexy or repulsive, nothing changes that fact. Pretending otherwise is not only untrue – it’s unhealthy.