Pedro Pascal, Paul Mescal, Paapa Essiedu, Jonathan Bailey, Will Sharpe, Jacob Elordi, Murray Bartlett, Matt Bomer, Nicholas Galitzine, Andrew Scott, Barry Keoghan. What unites these people (apart from being objectified by a female writer in order of preference)? They’re all internet-meltingly famous for being hot.
Yes, yes, to give them their dues, they’re all very talented actors, but right now their cultural currency is up and its down to a heady mix of sexually ambiguous roles – what some might problematically term straight and/or queer-baiting – and a hell of a lot of memes of them in low-cut tops or red carpet shorts, sporting a spattering of moustaches.
This week, while Instagram and X jousted it out over whether a line-up of the two leads of All of Us Strangers (Mescal and Scott) plus the two leads of Fellow Travelers (Bailey and Bomer) is the most pant-wettingly alluring hip-to-hip known to man or a future Lord of the Rings cast, it became apparent we’re at the pinnacle of us all fancying men not doing determinedly straight man things. Our leading men are not sweeping ladies off their feet: they’re tackling each other into bed.
Whether it’s Mescal and Scott’s lonely neighbour hook-up, Pascal’s cowboy romance with Ethan Hawke under Pedro Almodóvar’s watchful eye in A Strange Way of Life, or Galitzine’s royal double-header (excuse the pun) of a year with Red, White and Royal Blue and upcoming Mary & George, not all of the above are gay, bi or discuss their sexuality at all.
That’s not really what’s at play here. It’s the fact that they’re open-minded: Elordi talking about his first crush being Brad Pitt; Bailey segueing from Bridgerton bodice-ripping to covert gay couplings against the backdrop of McCarthyism. Once upon a time, even the merest whisper of non-heteronormativity and an actor would be locked in a closet by his agent.
Meme power is a key player in this sudden lustful about-turn and one that’s almost built into marketing strategies for new film releases. Fan accounts like @paulmescalpics or @pedropascalfin stir up the frenzy for their hundreds of thousands of followers with unseen, drool-worthy photos simply of a styled thigh.
The Saltburn press tour was one long snog-adjacent, knee-brushing flirtfest from leads Elordi and Keoghan. The sway that cultural commentator Evan Ross Katz has over the internet is never more tangible than when he’s posting pics of attractive men for his legions of followers. Despite having made a career as a writer and podcaster, it’s his position as this year’s daddy designator that has earned him hundreds of thousands of followers and tens of thousands of likes per unashamedly thirsty viral post. But then maybe I am exactly the target market for this.
Because, while this turn of cultural events has been building for a while, my interest started one gloomy day in January 1997, when a 14-year-old with a Robbie Williams habit (and matching haircut) heard the driving chords of Placebo’s Nancy Boy on Top of the Pops.
Seeing Brian Molko, wielding the guitar topless under his wet look suit, was a revelation. With his seductive kohl-rimmed eyes and androgynous black bob, drawling about ‘different partners every night’, suddenly the anodyne boy banders were too frosted-tip, not enough frosted lip.
I was intrigued and beguiled by a different sort of machismo. It’s taken 26 years – through a brief spell of late-Noughties indie sleaze deep Vs – for men to return to wearing their suits without undershirts and it was worth the wait.
Because herein lies the beauty of boys who like to potentially give and receive. Where’s the excitement in simply competing with one half of the population for someone’s affections – why not compete with everyone? I enjoyed the mystery of the fact there was a whole other side I couldn’t be part of, but also the confidence and swagger required to have a go with anyone.
The notion got a bit more interesting in my late teens when my newly out younger brother and I realised we had accidentally kissed the same boy named Patrick on different nights out. We found the innocuous overlap hilarious. When I got to university and began dating a couple of boys who just happened to be bisexual, I realised this existed in the shadows for them. And that so-called friends I casually mentioned it to were much more narrow-minded about it than I’d cared to believe.
Now, thankfully in 2023, sexuality is fluid and the binary narratives are shifting. The toxic tropes of who you can and can’t fancy are dissipating. So in case you need a tip-off, give Evan a follow – he’ll sort you right out.
Saltburn is in cinemas; Fellow Travelers is on Paramount+, with new episodes every Sunday; Red, White and Royal Blue is on Netflix