There’s a particular scene in the film “Call Me By Your Name” that made me question my well-established attraction to conventionally masculine men. It takes place on a sweaty night in northern Italy, where a 24-year-old man named Oliver is flailing his arms at an outdoor bar to “Love My Way” by the Psychedelic Furs. Played by Armie Hammer, a literal Ken doll come to life, Oliver is wearing a partially unbuttoned collared shirt that showcases his 6-foot-5 muscular build, a healthy burst of chest hair and a golden tan. He displays all the traits that usually make me swoon: he’s strong, square-jawed, emotionally aloof and confident. I should have been seduced.
But instead, I was fixated on Elio, the pale, scrawny 17-year-old played by Timothée Chalamet, who was 20 when he shot the movie. Sitting at a nearby table, Elio intently watches Oliver with mounting infatuation. Then he takes a long drag of his cigarette and shimmies his way onto the dance floor. Elio, who doesn’t look old enough to grow facial hair, grabs the hand of his female lover, confidently rolls his shoulders in a wave-like motion and with that, somehow manages to exude more sex appeal than Hammer, the man who People magazine recently called the “Sexiest Risk Taker” of 2017.
What in the fresh hell is going on?
After the release of “Call Me By Your Name” late last year, Chalamet quickly seized the title of 2018’s biggest heartthrob. He appeared on multiple red carpets, was feted by virtually every mainstream publication and reached the 1-million follower count on Instagram. Fellow celebrities made their admiration known. With classic tact, Jennifer Lawrence called the young star “hot,” adding that she was “buttering him up like a pig for slaughter” so she could “swing right in there as soon as he’s, like, 30.” (For the record, he’s now 22.)
Fans of all kinds seem to have embraced the young actor’s brand of masculinity ― a more emotional, nuanced variety than what is usually depicted on-screen. My friends, co-workers and I, most of us in our late 20s and early 30s, now spend large portions of our time gawking over the many Chalamet-centric photo shoots that dominate social media. (On Valentine’s Day, when GQ conveniently released a cover story about the boy wonder, a friend of mine remarked on Facebook, “My feeds are almost exclusively made up of pics of Timmy today, not mad.”)
Women are intoxicated by the thin, delicate-featured actor who is, in his own words, “on the cusp of manhood” ― despite a Hollywood landscape still studded with mountainous biceps and rocky six-packs. And men are obsessed with the star, too. After all, “Call Me By Your Name” is a love story between two guys based on a classic queer novel. New York Magazine’s Kyle Buchanan even praised Chalamet for inaugurating a “revenge of the twink” era.
My own crush on the young actor caught me by surprise, because he’s not at all my type. As mentioned, I’ve harbored mainstream taste in men: beefy guys with masculine features and personalities. My indecisive, self-conscious and emotionally intelligent self has always been attracted to decisive, confident and emotionally repressed dudes. “The tension is sexy!” I think I’ve said one billion times to explain the allure of alphas.
In my 20s, I was so enamored with male authority that I dated a series of men almost two decades older than me. And while my current partner is an age-appropriate dork with emotional sensitivity, he’s also a muscular know-it-all who can dominate conversation. At one point four years ago, I was such a champion of manliness that I wrote a column stating, “Masculinity is what separates a conversation with a date from one with my girlfriend. I enjoy a man who can act instead of analyze. I appreciate brazen confidence and a competitive streak.” Oof, I know.
I hadn’t realized how much my views had changed ― or why they had ― until Chalamet came along. After much thought (and GQ browsing), I’ve realized the root of my personal obsession with the actor: He provides a much-needed refuge from toxic masculinity, during a time when the news cycle is consumed with sexual predators and a machismo-laden president. Since Chalamet doesn’t possess the masculine qualities that now feel dangerous to me, he’s become, I think, a safe space for my desire.
Historically, on-screen studs have tended toward the powerful, aggressive types. They can be testosterone-fueled bad boys (Robert Downey Jr. in “Iron Man,” Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in “The Fast and the Furious”), emotionally manipulative narcissists (Daniel Day-Lewis in “Phantom Thread,” Jon Hamm in “Mad Men”) or overly persistent stalkers (the many men in rom-coms who think “no” means “try harder.”)
Since the advent of cinema, women have watched beautiful female actresses swoon over versions of these male archetypes, reinforcing the cultural message that we should be attracted to buff, egomaniacal, aggressive suitors in real life. Because these heartthrobs have seduced the likes of Julia Roberts, Jessica Paré and Jordana Brewster, we’ve accepted misogyny and power exploitation as the building blocks of male sex appeal. And we excuse so much harmful behavior ― sexual aggression, emotional abuse, violence ― as simply part of “being a man.”
Of course, masculine stereotypes have evolved over time. Leading men have progressed from the gun-toting John Waynes, shredded Arnold Schwarzeneggers and suit-wearing George Clooneys to include the less alpha and more nuanced Ryan Goslings, Jake Gyllenhaals and Sterling K. Browns. TV shows and films such as “Insecure,” “This Is Us” and “Moonlight” depict black masculinity, in particular, as sensitive and complex. “Queer Eye,” the Netflix series in which five gay men give makeovers to mostly straight men, is constantly pushing the boundaries of conventional manhood.
But for every more progressive portrait of masculinity is another “Fifty Shades Freed,” “Blade Runner” or “The Wolf of Wall Street,” films that glorify male authority and chauvinism. And for every less jacked actor are young, attractive stars like Ansel Egort (“Baby Driver”), Michael B. Jordan (“Black Panther”), Zac Efron (“The Greatest Showman”) and Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”), all of whom could easily play quarterbacks.
Chalamet’s “Call Me By Your Name” character is neither powerful nor aggressive. In “Lady Bird,” he plays a more traditional, heteronormative heartthrob, with tousled hair, a brooding stare and the kind of rebellious streak every self-professed nerdy girl in art school admires. But in the former, the young actor is a sensitive prodigy who transcribes classical music by ear and loves to hug his mother. Elio fumbles through first-time sexual experiences with a woman, a man and a piece of fruit; falls in love, gets his heart broken and learns big life lessons. In contrast to the Hollywood hunks who put on steely, fearless attitudes, Elio is openly scared, needy and confused, dissolving into tears on numerous occasions. When his father delivers a monologue about accepting pain in life, Elio listens with rapt attention, tears pooling in his eyes.
Sure, the character has some conventionally attractive features ― the fact that he’s European, trilingual and smokes cigarettes doesn’t hurt his universal sex appeal. Nor is he a perfect gentleman toward women. After Elio falls in love with Oliver, he neglects his female love interest, whom he recently slept with for the first time. (They later have a tearful makeup session and vow to be lifelong friends.) But on the whole, Elio’s not the type of man women have been taught to like.
Instead, Hollywood tells us time and time again by TV shows and films that masculine men ― the ones worth pining after ― should be stronger than us in every way. They should have more professional power, more physical power, more powerful egos and more command over their emotions. Hollywood has instilled the idea in female viewers that sensitive men with no-pack abs who don’t sit at the head of the table are effeminate, weak and not worthy of our affection.
In real life, Chalamet continues to defy traditional stereotypes of masculinity. He comes across as an earnest, emotional and precocious young man who seems to have a healthy perspective on his rising fame and power. In interviews he gushes with excitement ― “If I explode, everybody forgive me,” he told Ellen ― and is self-deprecating, laughing nervously after his own answers and asking, “God, what am I talking about?” Chalamet constantly defers to Hammer during press appearances ― “Armie tells this story better than I do” ― and calls the actor his “brother” and “mentor.”
While other young male stars seem more preoccupied with projecting a kind of familiar machismo ― Ansel Egort told Elle that to pick up dancers at his high school, “you just have to walk up to the eighth floor and you can get one” ― Chalamet has embraced being a goof. He fell off a chair during one interview and jumped out of his seat to dance in another. Saoirse Ronan, his “Lady Bird” co-star, told The New York Times the actor’s nickname is “Pony,” “because he’ll come up to Greta [Gerwig] and me and nuzzle us.”
I was already craving a new, less-threatening kind of masculinity when Chalamet’s Elio appeared. In the past few years, I’ve fully realized how the masculine qualities I used to glorify are the root causes of so much pain and abuse. Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein and the many other predators exposed by the Me Too movement used male power as a weapon to oppress, harass and assault women. We’ve started a dialogue on how less serious demeanors such as gray-zone sexual encounters and mansplaining feed a dangerous system that allows men to feel entitled to our bodies.
A man who constantly demeans women and has 16 sexual misconduct accusations to his name now sits in the White House, due at least in part to the cultural reverence for male megalomania and aggression. Trump has used his authority to defend other powerful male politicians accused of domestic violence, child abuse and sexual harassment, laying bare a cycle of enablement. His presidency has emboldened the misogynistic “alt-right” and men’s rights activists, groups full of guys who crave dominance over women and people of color.
It’s no surprise that women are angry, and that we’ve poured that anger into marches and movements. I’ve also channeled this rage into my personal life. I now see how some of my past relationships with older guys ― one of which was with a former boss ― were based on toxic power dynamics. I call out my boyfriend when he cuts me off to explain something or flaunts his authority. I tell my friends to ditch any men who talk incessantly about themselves, apply too much sexual pressure or say demeaning things as a way to flirt. I’ve started to condemn the very traits I used to find magnetic.
Of course, the archetype for a better man is a lot to put on one person. And it’s very possible the young star will let me down ― as we’ve learned from Charlie Rose and Louis C.K., even “good men,” the ones who say the right thing in public, can still turn around and act like predators behind closed doors.
Yet I’m hopeful that Chalamet and other men who are coming of age during the Me Too movement might have a healthier relationship to power and masculinity. His first big awards ceremony, the 2018 Golden Globes, was defined by actors and actresses wearing black and speaking out about sexual misconduct. Chalamet told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that he brought his older sister to the event, who told him: “You’re part of this new wave, you’re a millennial, you’re the new generation and you have to be talking about [gender discrimination].” In the same conversation with Amanpour, he said that while masculinity is “supposed to be [a] stiff upper lip or moodiness or Brando or alcoholism or whatever,” “Call Me By Your Name” sends the message that “it’s fine to just be [emotional], and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Even the way the actor’s handled his mistakes are promising: after receiving blowback for appearing in Woody Allen’s upcoming movie, Chalamet vowed to donate his salary from the film to charities that fight sexual harassment and assault. In an Instagram post, he wrote: “I want to be worthy of standing shoulder to shoulder with the brave artists who are fighting for all people to be treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.”
During a time when women are grappling on a daily basis with the many ways that men have failed us, it’s at the very least comforting to dream of a better, Chalamet-filled future. The fact that at 22, he’s already begun to reckon with how guys abuse their power means that maybe, just maybe, he won’t grow into the type of man who masturbates in front of women just because he can.
And the collective infatuation with the young actor hopefully means we’re moving away from a culture that fetishizes toxic masculine traits ― for the sake of both men and women. As we desperately search for a model of masculinity that doesn’t view authority as carte blanche to harass and abuse, my Chalamet obsession feels like progress.