It’s that time of year again: Keanu Reeves has a new film out. Cue the stampede. Every time the widely beloved 58-year-old actor hits the press trail for a new project, he is greeted with the same heady flurry of sexually charged hero worship. This week alone has seen the John Wick star endure an impromptu marriage proposal from a fan, and field questions about being the “internet’s boyfriend”. Reeves is not the only actor to experience this phenomenon, of course. Rather, he is part of a small substratum of typically middle-aged male celebrities on whom the internet has fixed its kaleidoscopically horny gaze. Pedro Pascal has been social media’s recent anointed obsession, thanks largely to his leading roles in The Last of Us and The Mandalorian. But there are also celebs like Oscar Isaac, Paul Rudd, Chris Pine, Lee Pace – the list goes on.
The way these men are talked about has two layers: they are lauded both for their sex appeal and their apparent moral virtue. They are not just saints in the eyes of the online public, but sexy saints. Sometimes the link between these two qualities is made explicit: search through Twitter, and you will find countless tweets celebrating “how you age when you’re unproblematic”, often featuring a picture of, say, Paul Rudd, placed in juxtaposition with the visage of some craggy-faced bigot. It goes without saying that morals have nothing to do with appearance – indeed, the ageless skin freshness of most celebrities can more likely be attributed to plastic surgery – but it also speaks to a shocking naivety among the public when it comes to famous people. Being charming in front of a camera means nothing. If the last decade has taught us anything, it’s that abuse and predation are rife among male celebrities behind closed doors. Unfettered glorification only serves to protect the powerful. Don’t get me wrong, I’d imagine Reeves is as likeable and genuine as he appears in interviews – but we have no means of knowing this for sure.
There is often an ostensibly progressive edge to the way these actors are sexualised. It can be seen both as a corrective response to the longstanding sexualisation of female celebrities by fans and the media, as well as a subversion of the rigid, beauty-averse norms of traditional masculinity. The fact that Pascal, and others, are often referred to as a “daddy”, a term loaded with history in queer usage, is also not without significance. But none of this changes the fact that it is profoundly awkward to impose this kind of adulation onto famous people. They are left with two options: either play along with it, feeding the beast, or try and swat it away, running the risk of turning social media’s fickle energy against them.
Of course, it’s one thing for a woman to tweet a picture of David Harbour in a swimsuit alongside some caption about “going feral”. It’s another when the cringe-inducing lust of the internet spills over into real life. Increasingly, celebrities are expected to engage with their fans’ bizarre adulation. Pascal, for instance, was shown a number of screechingly amorous tweets about him during a recent appearance on The Graham Norton Show. (It should be noted that this isn’t a trend exclusive to male celebrities – YouTube is replete with videos of celebrities of all ages and genders reading aloud “thirst tweets” as a rather one-noted gimmick.) That Pascal seemed content enough with the shtick is beside the point. It’s unfair – and, frankly, quite gauche – to put people in that position.
John Updike once wrote that celebrity is “a mask that eats into the face”. If you are as famous as Keanu Reeves, or even as recognisable as Pascal is fast becoming, it must be nearly impossible to keep any kind of grasp on your authentic sense of self. The unabashed idolatry of social media fandom has surely made things twice as hard. Are these people unproblematic sex gods? No, they are men. Just normal men. Whether they’re kind or unpleasant, sexy or off-putting, nothing changes this fact. Pretending otherwise isn’t just untrue – it’s unhealthy.