Time of death: 9:02 a.m., Nov. 1, 2018. The day the British magazine i-D published a conversation between Harry Styles and Timothée Chalamet, and online fandom promptly combusted.
The pair trended on Google; publications ranging from Vanity Fair to Lainey Gossip to Jezebel reblogged the interview under such giddy headlines as “My Boyfriend and My Son Have a Conversation”; fans everywhere collapsed with sighs of breathless adulation and ALL-CAPS swooning. The conversation between “the hottest actor on the planet” and “music’s most charismatic popstar,” as the i-D piece put it, might as well have been born from the collective fever dream of online fandom at large.
The interview was fine—a fun take on the “celebrities interviewing other celebrities” genre of entertainment journalism—but the content itself didn’t warrant the outsize reaction, including my own. It was enough just to get Styles and Chalamet on the same phone line. What is it about these two that makes them so irresistible as a duo, demanding the attention and adoration of thousands of fans?
The similarities between the two stars are hard to miss. There’s the physical: tall, lean frames with dark mops of hair and sly, boyish faces. There’s the sartorial: namely, the androgynous floral suits, the Chalamet version of which was explicitly inspired by Styles’. Then there’s the cultural mythology: both young heartthrobs of a distinctly modern cast, defined less by the swagger or brawn of decades past than by a particular strain of sensitivity and political awareness that seems fitting for the age of #MeToo. From fans’ reactions on Twitter, it’s clear that the oft-repeated claims that Styles and Chalamet “represent a new masculinity” is a large part of the appeal, with many applauding how the two men spoke about manhood in the interview:
[Chalamet:] I want to say you can be whatever you want to be. There isn’t a specific notion, or jean size, or muscle shirt, or affectation, or eyebrow raise, or dissolution, or drug use that you have to take part in to be masculine. It’s exciting. It’s a brave new world.
But entangled within that “new” reading of masculinity, there’s another element at play, which binds the stars and lingers behind their magnetic allure to largely female fans: projections of queerness. Both men’s stardom was born in proximity to nonheteronormative romance. For Chalamet, that would be his breakout role as a teenager in love with an older man in Call Me by Your Name, a part that continues to inspire fan art and fan fiction a year after its release. For Styles, the proximity is even closer: fans who fixate on shipping him with his fellow One Direction band members and continue to speculate about the singer’s sexuality, encouraged by Styles’ own ambiguity and vocal support for LGBTQ inclusion and equality.
Not long ago, such flirtation with queerness could sink a young star trying to make it in entertainment. Before Brokeback Mountain, as Aaron Hicklin wrote in Out a decade after Ang Lee’s “gay cowboy” film was released, “the idea of a straight A-list actor playing a gay role in a hit movie seemed far-fetched.” To be open and out in public was nearly impossible. Even now, attitudes in showbiz haven’t completely changed: “He’s pretty fey,” a sixtysomething Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voter said of Chalamet to Vulture in a recent story. “He might be the next Anthony Perkins, rather than the next Leo [DiCaprio],” referring to the Psycho actor who had remained closeted all his life as if Chalamet’s persona were a limitation. The lines are blurrier in music, but boy bands didn’t exactly embrace ambiguous sexuality in the recent past, either. ’N Sync’s Lance Bass didn’t come out until 2006, long after the group’s peak popularity.
But if industry insiders are still playing catch-up, largely female fan bases like Styles’ and Chalamet’s have long latched on to queerness, real and imagined, as a core tenet of their culture. In a survey from fan fiction site Archive of Our Own, the majority of the 10,000-plus respondents were female (a mix of queer and heterosexual), but a majority of the site’s fanfic involved male/male slash relationships. That has been the norm for some time. As it happens, the most popular fan fiction on another site, Wattpad, involves the boys of One Direction; you also needn’t look far to find more adventures of Elio and Oliver, the lovers from Call Me by Your Name. The interview with Styles and Chalamet, and the attendant chaos it prompted, may simply represent a mainstreaming of this subculture, with young female fandom writ large adopting its rites and preoccupations. Perhaps our times have finally caught up to fan fiction.
The reasons why so many women tend toward slash fantasies are complicated and myriad: There have historically been few fleshed-out female characters with whom women can identify; it’s unorthodox, and thus exciting; it’s a way of reshaping masculinity, exploring ideas about sexuality and romance, and negotiating a true “relationship of equals” outside the real-life boundaries of women living under patriarchy. Fans want to be with these idols of a new kind of masculinity. That means boundaries pushed and few limits to what they can do—and to what we can imagine.
So really, it should be no wonder that fans erupted in !!!! and aldkfjsd last week, treating the summit of Styles and Chalamet like the fateful culmination of a long and hard internet campaign to bring the two together. There were imagined scenarios, videos, efforts to retroactively find the clues in their relationship. The source material itself, after all, was rife with suggestions. As one obsessed-over exchange in the interview went:
H: Uh huh. Alright. What do you wear in bed?