Is Gender F***ing with Our Fantasies?


Orlando Bloom is my first celebrity love. I’ll use the present tense because, though it’s been over a decade since I fell for him, when his name pops up in celebrity news, an abashedly smitten lustfulness still pumps through me. I dressed up as Orlando as Legolas in Lord of the Rings for Halloween in fourth grade. Reproducing his long elven locks, stash of feather-tipped arrows, and mud-colored cape was a drawn-out escapade; my mom spent several weeks helping me fashion my most elaborately honed Halloween costume. I even found pointy elf ears! When I come across photos from that elating night of trick-or-treating in my Legolas masquerade, the likeness between the eight-year-old blonde girl and her smooth-faced celebrity crush is disarming. I blush, slightly unnerved as I try not to contemplate what Freud might say of a young girl whose admiration for Orlando Bloom drove her to become him.

A few years after the enchantment of Legolas, I still loved Orlando Bloom, but by then, Orlando was a pirate, and I knew about masturbation. One scene in Pirates of the Caribbean left me woozy—Orlando’s molten, agonized brown-eyed gaze as he watched his lover kiss another man had me enamored, disordered, sweaty, and sticky. If only a sandy, thick-lashed sensitive scallywag needed me with the soul-shattering ire and gut-pumping passion of Will Turner’s adoration of Elizabeth Swan. A sweet lusty toxin slithers through me even now, as I recall the outlaw pleasures of becoming sexually sentient with an on-screen gentleman pirate. My yearning for Orlando Bloom was not a clean, sudsy puppy love affair; it was a humid secret of preteen longing, a warm visceral syrup carrying with it a rising dawn of clitoral arousal, and private exploration in the uncharted back alleys of my erotic imagination.

There’s no distinct moment separating my aspiration to emulate Legolas and my desire to get washed ashore on top of the brawny Will Turner; the trajectory of my evolving sexuality seems much more loop-de-loop than a linear course from childhood to adolescence. Innocence (or inexperience) and apprehension perpetually resurface. Perhaps the notion of casting off a childhood cocoon of sexual innocence is an overly simple metaphor—in my experience, adolescent fantasies can comingle, come out of and intersect with earlier crushes.

Crush_coverI’m relating (over-sharing?) my mixed-up emotional and physical experiences with a celebrity crush during the convoluted span of preteen sexual awakenings to push back against a notably disembodied, sexless narrative of girls’ crushes as presented in a much-hyped new book called Crush: Writers Reflect on Love, Longing, and the Lasting Power of Their First Celebrity Crush. A collection of celebrities contemplating their own first famous loves, compiled by writers Cathy Alter and Dave Singleton, Crush beautifully explicates the ties between fantasy and self-exploration, with personal essays penned by big names ranging from Stephen King and Roxane Gay to James Franco and Andrew McCarthy. The mishmash of voices offers intimate vistas into the expansive scope of sexual development and the role of celebrity in articulating sexual excitation. Several poignant snippets like “What else is a crush but a repository for our own passions and unfulfilled real-life relationships?” and “Over time, the exposure either disillusions you or complicates/mellows/deepens to something like actual love, once the aura of crushhood is dispelled enough to see the real person,” pack a punch about the mechanisms of infatuation and fantastical daydreaming. Already lauded as the breezy must-read of summer 2016, Crush is definitively a worthy skim.

However, I found the personal testaments of celebrity-induced giddiness less entrancing than the patterns that encased the authors’ narratives—despite the essays’ surrealist delinking from actuality, many of the essays fell into hackneyed, binary cultural molds that sheath conceptions of desire with gendered roadblocks. Unlike the female authors, many male authors detailed sexual arousal and described preteen sexualities that were firmly rooted in explorations of the physical. Several elaborated on the moment when they first noticed a woman’s tits brush against each other in a viscerally intoxicating motion that ignited an identity-altering obsession with cleavage and masturbation. Stephen King, in a pithy three-paragraph account, devotes a hefty chunk of his text to recounting the lifelong repercussions of his eight-year-old self’s terrifyingly sudden yearning to touch Kim Novak’s breasts. In a slightly more loquacious narrative, Andrew McCarthy describes how, as a fourteen-year-old boy, he “masturbated into a sock, with the discovery of the wonder of the female breast—Adrienne Barbeau’s breasts—dominating [his] vision.” Larry Doyle refers to Laura Petrie from The Dick Van Dyke Show as the “original MILF” (though he does qualify that, as a six-year-old kid, the “F” didn’t stand for you-know-what).

Editor Cathy Alter confirmed my skulking suspicion that the articulation of celebrity crushes might have taken a degree of influence from the gendered expectations confronting the authors. In an interview with StyleCaster, Jinnie Lee questioned Alter about how men and women differently narrated their experiences, to which Alter replied, “It’s difficult to make one sweeping statement, but for many guys… they were physical crushes. That’s what I noticed, which didn’t really surprise me.” In contrast, she describes that many of the female authors recounted letters they wrote to celebrities, posters they hung above their beds, magazine interviews they pored over with friends, and the sense of emotional union—devoid of sexuality—that lay under their celebrity infatuations.

In reading Crush, I was struck by how the discrepant frames for men’s and women’s experiences, interpretations, and articulations of preteen sexuality emerged. The female authors’ descriptions seemed so incorporeal, rooted outside of visceral urges and fleshly stimulation, as compared to their boner-bearing male counterparts. For example, the title “And They Called it Puppy Love” frames Jodi Picoult’s essay on her “perfectly safe” crush on Donny Osmand. She writes, “In my dreams, Donny was clean-cut and asexual, attentive and gentle and understanding.” In an evocative homage to Harry Chapin, Michelle Brafman describes her fixation with Chapin as a conduit for filling unrequited relationships with others, rather than an embodied affinity for the musician. She meets him and he kisses her cheek, but she asserts, “Despite my sanctified cheek, it wasn’t Harry I wanted; it was his ability to make me feel a part of his choir of lonely voices.” Jill Kargman’s description of “getting turned on” by Kenickie from Grease seems all together transgressive amongst the harmonized deluge of sexless celeb fantasies. The sexlessness of the female authors’ narratives led me to speculate the influence of cultural scripts on individuals’ realization and conception of sexuality.

Why did male authors’ experiences seem more self-assuredly physical than the female authors’ experiences? Do cultural norms—that urge women to keep their legs closed, but celebrate men who enjoy numerous sexual partners—affect the way we experience and/or remember our early efflorescence of sexuality? Do cultural scripts impact the ways we talk about our sexuality by encouraging women to be modest in public but giving men a platform to be frank? And might authors selectively prune and play up or play down their narrations of sexuality for the public reception of Crush? Gendered socialization colors the authors’ experiences of coming to their sexual senses as well as their modern-day recollections of preteen arousal and their public expressions of these intimate stories.

Cultural Politics of EmotionAs many feminist theorists have written, the union of femininity and emotions works to mutually suppress the value of the feminine and the emotional; Sara Ahmed captures the sentiment in her book, The Cultural Politics of Emotions, arguing that the “association between passion and passivity… shows us how the subordination of emotions also works to subordinate the feminine.” The isolation of body and emotion, and the traditional association of men with physicality and women with emotional aptitude, derives from a fallacious disassociation of affect and viscera. As feminist philosopher Alison Jaggar argued in her essay “Love and Knowledge: Emotion in Feminist Epistemology,” emotions are both biologically anchored and socially constructed; a somewhat universal human body has the capacity to respond to emotional triggers with physical and incorporeal reactions. Our individualized reactions de-universalize the human body; we learn how to respond from localized scripts and social conventions. While the near-universality of a biological capacity to experience emotional reactions supersedes gender structures, cultural instructions teach us how to respond to affective experiences in accordance with local gender norms. We have the capacity to blush, but we learn socially which situations should shame us, just as we might have the capacity to cry, but we absorb local social scripts that teach boys not to cry.

If emotions are overdetermined to connote femininity, perhaps Crush’s male authors’ hyper-focus on ejaculatory impulses attempts to compensate for dabbling in emotional elocution. The male authors’ articulations of their emotions require physical (dare I say phallic) justification, whereas girls’ romance-based emotions are disconnected from bodily impulses (and the emotional patterns of genderqueer folk are, per the binary, unmentioned). To relink body and emotion would muddy the expected frames for male and female preteens’ experience of desire, and reconnecting the emotional, romantic aspect of crushes with visceral stimulation would also oblige us to rethink the assumed innocence and chastity of young women.

The many narratives in Crush provide a lush ground to explore the pathology of young women’s sexuality. Stephen King’s account of realizing the sexual majesty of cleavage at age eight does not set off alarm bells, but if an eight-year-old girl saw a penis on TV and realized a sexual awakening of her own, we would freak out (and call a psychiatrist). The homogenous imposition of sexual demureness on girls’ identities is a Puritanical remnant that is still headily imbedded in our conceptions of young sexuality. A social expectation of chastity—in fantasy and in actuality—effectually smooths the real-life messy variations in girls’ sexual desires, scrubbing clean the mucky, cum-y, porous, and fleshly desires girls may experience. Expressing these visceral and affective aches risks social expulsion and the scrutiny of medical professionals.

And while much messaging exists today that disrupts the Puritanical traditions in this country, the pressure to conform to these gender scripts—be sexually desirable but not actively desiring—still exists, particularly for girls. Crush shows us that the stereotypes of women as “sexualized object” rather than “sexual being” impact the male and female authors’ notions of sexuality.

From my own girlhood, I certainly recall daunting pressure to achieve the prescribed sexualized chastity necessary for performing femininity. I wore low-cut shirts and danced with boys, but on terror of social expulsion, I never told anyone about masturbating until I went to college. I saw many girls socially outcast for “slutty behavior,” and girls sent home from school for sexually provocative outfits. When I started having sex, I was shamed for trying to get a birth control prescription, learning that the notion of “knowledge as power” fails if you can’t exercise it. Pernicious parameters of girls’ sexuality are still alive and well.

Precarious Life_ButlerAs Foucault says, paradoxically, we are a society that talks about sex all the time—particularly, about how to control the sexuality of preteen girls, but we retain a façade of shock when confronting blatant displays or references to sexuality, particularly when directed by girls. Girls’ sexuality has a long tradition of pathology—young girls who masturbated were (and are still) treated as deviants and perverts, rather than self-guided explorers of new, rousing territories, the way that we perceive boys who masturbate to be. As Jenny Block wrote in Jezebel, society worries about our sons’ sexual health if they don’t masturbate, but we often don’t even consider masturbation within the realm of possible behavior for daughters, let alone an indicator for sexual health. Imposing a homogeneously desexualized innocence on pubescent girls—which, often, aims to protect them—essentially negates their sexual agency and teaches them to reproach the fluids, emotions, and impulses of their own bodies.

To be clear, I am not arguing that all girls with a celebrity crush are sexually precocious, or that all girls suffer from the rigid restrictions of an everlasting Puritanical moral code. Rather, I am arguing that boys are afforded the possibility of physical sexual exploration without the label of pathology or perversion that masturbating girls assume. As illustrated in the gendered narrative channels in Crush, the social expectation for girls to wait chastely for romance infiltrates the privacy of our fantastical musings as well as our public accounts of sexuality. We have a cultural squeamishness with female masturbation, particularly as an exploration activity for preteens.

As a collection of reflections on the ways we construct narratives surrounding nascent fantasies of sex and desire, Crush is important to feminist theorizing through its exposition of the influence of cultural gender norms on our articulations of our sexualities. The editors claim that “these crushes, like prehistoric insects trapped in amber, remind us of who we were, in all our brace-faced, unencumbered glory, when anything and every was both possible and futile,” but the collective voices evidence gaps in girls’ access to corporeality of fantasy, rather than simply the emotional pleasures of romance. Was everything ever possible for the girls, even in their private daydreams? In her book, Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence, Judith Butler writes “we’re undone by each other,” and fantasies allow us to undo ourselves, by ourselves, through daydreaming of another. But she also warns us that, “the foreclosure of fantasy—through censorship, degradation, or other means—is one strategy for providing for the social death of person.” Why does society give room for boys’ sexual fantasies but forsake girls? We know girls are fantasizing, learning about sex, and masturbating—so why can’t girls claim their fleshy fantasies? To lift the censorship, degradation, and foreclosure of girls’ fantasies, we may have to investigate the gendered limitations on how we think about early loves, impulses, celebrity crushes, and maybe, sexually stirring gentleman pirates.

Kate is a Boston-based freelancer, who recently transplanted to Mumbai. She's currently working at an anti-human trafficking NGO. More from this author →