Sheesh, What’s It Take to Make a Teenage Heartthrob These Days?

July 5, 2010
By | 2 Comments

Amidst the fever pitch of Eclipse fever, I’ve found myself deep in microfiche archives of 1950s Photoplay. During the post-war period, the gossip industry was attempting to reconcile itself to a rapidly changing Hollywood.  The studio system was slowly collapsing; there was a brand-new, brash legion of television personalities; existing stars increasingly refused to play by the rules that governed appropriate behavior (including submission to the fan magazines) during the studio era.  Many, including Rock Hudson, Doris Day, Janet Leigh, and Tony Curtis, continued to cooperate fully with the fan magazines, “writing” articles and granting full access to their personal lives.  Yet other newly minted stars refused to play the star-making game.

These stars – Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift in particular – forced the fan magazines to alter their approach.  In classic Hollywood, these stars would have been fodder for cheesecake profiles: “What Marlon Looks for in a Girl,” for example.  But Photoplay and other mags had to negotiate the fact that Brando had no taste for “glamour girls,” hated Hollywood, laughed at criticism of his “dungarees” and “moccasins without socks,” and even pleasured in stymieing the best efforts at turning him into a heartthrob.  When approached to appear on the cover of Life, he laughed “Now why would I want to do that?”  Louella Parsons, Elsa Maxwell, and Hedda Hopper were forced to devote their columns to explaining why, exactly, a young, handsome, talented man wouldn’t want fame, a beautiful young wife, and a Cary Grant wardrobe.

I can’t help but see the same tension at work in efforts to promote this summer’s most viable leading man – Robert Pattinson, star of Twilight: Eclipse and (industry fingers-crossed) a newly bankable star.

Pattinson, like Brando, is allergic to publicity.  He may resemble a 19th century romantic poet, but he’s clumsy, has an awkward sense of humor, and goes off on esoteric tangents in interviews. He publicly admitted to rarely washing his hair.  He makes fun of his pasty, unchiseled physique.  When Seventeen asks him the last thing he bought at the store, he replied, “toilet paper.” When Details put him on its cover this Spring, declaring the British actor the face of the “Remasculation of America,” he explained that he was “allergic to vaginas,” voiced his “delight” in lymphatic filariasis, and, concerning the near-violence that breaks out when he appears in public, declared “I find it really funny—if I got shot, I would literally be in hysterics. I would be like, ‘Are you serious? Jesus Christ, get Zac Efron!  He’s got more social relevance than I do.’ ”

One might argue that Pattinson’s refusal to publicly confirm a relationship with co-star Kristen Stewart in fact ups his heartthrob quality: he keeps his fans just this side of fulfilled, hoping for the fantasy of their romance or the bliss of having Pattinson/Edward Cullen for themselves.  But a skilled heartthrob would know how to milk KStew/RPatz, tipping off paparazzi during their romantic beach getaways and “just happening” to get caught walking out of a engagement ring store.

Pattinson’s lack of heartthrob ‘skillz’ are especially obvious when contrasted with his smooth, six-packed co-star, Taylor Lautner.  In Twilight, Lautner’s werewolf  alter-ego, Jacob, is positioned as Edward Cullen’s polar opposite; in the star universe, Lautner is Pattinson’s inverse as well.  Where Pattinson is reticent, awkward, and British, Lautner is confident, cool, and so very American.  His every appearance and word is carefully choreographed to elicit maximum girl squee-age; he has a mega-watt and super white smile and takes himself very seriously.  He truly is “The Teen Tom Cruise,” which is just another way of saying he’s the latest in a long line of stars, from Rock Hudson to Cruise himself during his heyday, who knew how to let Hollywood do its star-making work.

Pattinson plays the role of teen heartthrob poorly, but that certainly doesn’t mean that he won’t be a star.  Rather, the media – whether in the form of fan mags, gossip blogs, glossies, or academic blogs like this one – will be forced to grapple with why, exactly, someone who seems to do such a shoddy job at being handsome, princely, or even normal has nevertheless attracted the unadulterated devotion of millions of fans.

The answer, in part, is that some teen heartthrobs are products of what people think girls and women should like.  The Jonas Brothers, Zac Efron, Taylor Lautner.  And others, including Pattinson, like Brando and Dean before him, touch on something that we didn’t even realize that we necessarily liked.  Something odd and unexpected, something nostalgic or novel, something charismatic or comforting, or, as Hedda Hopper described Brando, “pure man,” whatever that may mean in a particular cultural moment.  So instead of thinking of what a weird heartthrob Pattinson seems to be, perhaps we should reconsider what many thought true of the tastes and desires of today’s heartthrob-hungry girls.

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2 Responses to “ Sheesh, What’s It Take to Make a Teenage Heartthrob These Days? ”

  1. Jennifer Stevens Aubrey on July 5, 2010 at 2:36 PM

    Annie, A very interesting post! The comparison with the 1950s teen idol publicity is spot-on, and it shows that the teen idol publicity machine is the same as it ever was. In my day, it was Ricky Schroeder and Kirk Cameron who willingly plugged into the teen idol machine versus River Phoenix and Johnny Depp who did not. Certainly, there is merit to NOT participating, and this is the road that Pattinson is probably trying to take, while still placating the Twilight franchise.

    I have two observations about the case study of Taylor Lautner and Robert Pattinson. I think your argument astutely addresses how, to the non-Twilight fan, Pattinson seems such an unlikely idol. But from the POV of a Twilight researcher, I have a hard time disentangling Lautner and Pattinson from their characters in the Twilight Saga. Lautner’s easy-going and sun-shiney personality fits right within the bounds of Jacob Black. So he is the industry’s golden child of teen idol-dom because he is so smooth and polished, but he is able to do this without appearing as schmaltzy as Cameron and Schroeder b/c we would expect nothing less of Jacob Black.

    Likewise, Pattinson’s awkward personality and pasty physique are forgiven by fans who so desperately want him to be a stand-in for their adored Edward Cullen. Fortunately Edward, like Pattinson,is misanthropic and sometimes esoteric and who has little patience for human trivialities. (Like Pattinson and his publicity trivialities.) And the “allergic to vaginas” comment is, out of context and from an objective point of view, offensive. But fans who conflate Pattinson as Edward forgive this comment; Of COURSE he is allergic to vaginaS. He only wants one vagina: Bella’s, I mean, just as good, Kristen’s. :-) In this vein, Pattinson gets away with a lot. I loved Kristen Stewart’s comment on this to EW:

    You could say, “I just took a s*** on the Queen’s face,” and people would be like, “Oh, I love him! I love him!”

    My other observation about Pattinson is that his endless self-deprecation and awkwardness also work for him because they make him accessible to young girls, probably more accessible than Brando and even Depp. He is the opposite of aggressive masculinity. Rather, he is “aggressively humble” as Pattinson described his character Edward, to Oprah’s producers. In effect, Pattinson humanizes Edward.

    I am fascinated by how all of this is playing out, and I am wondering when (or if) fans are going to react as Pattinson continues to distance himself from the franchise. Thank you for an intriguing post!

  2. Anne Helen Petersen on July 5, 2010 at 8:15 PM

    Thanks for your excellent response, Jennifer. I *absolutely* agree with you re: conflation of RPattz with his Edward ‘alter ego’ — an idea that equally applies to Kristen Stewart/Bella (and one that I’ve blogged about as well: http://www.annehelenpetersen.com/?p=534).

    Pattinson’s non-aggressiveness is key — like Justin Bieber, he represents a sex…but without the act, infused with romance, which can be enormously comforting/attractive to a teenage girl (or grown woman, as the case may be).

    Pattinson’s choice of roles as he distances himself from Twilight will be key — it seems, for now at least, that he’s choosing pretty mainstream, quasi-Edwardian roles, as evidenced by his current role in *Water for Elephants.*