An image from the Tumblr 'Your Urban Outfitters Boyfriend".
He’s ruggedly handsome, physically strong, sexually passionate, emotionally sensitive, effortlessly (perhaps even accidentally) stylish, naturally outdoorsy and of course, heavily airbrushed. Meet Your L.L. Bean Boyfriend (YLLBBF), the guy whose official selling point (aside from a sizeable wardrobe exclusively filled with L.L. Bean branded chinos, polo shirts and boat shoes) is that:
He will build you a table and then have sex with you on it.
Doesn’t get much hotter than that.
Mmhmm, it sure doesn’t - unless of course your ideal man-flavour is more likely to be seen getting up to mischief around town sporting skinny jeans and a ironic T-shirt than fashioning furniture out of wood he grew himself whilst wearing 50 shades of beige. If that’s the case, give Your Urban Outfitters Boyfriend (YUOBF) a go.
YLLBBF and YUOBF are just two of a proliferation of Tumblr sites dedicated to celebrating ‘the ideal man’ in his various guises, as realised when frisky female imaginations brush up against the likes of menswear catalogues, historical photographs, lycra-clad sportsmen, bearded indie songwriters and Ryan Gosling. A recent article for The Cut has documented the rise of these ideal boyfriend Tumblrs, exploring the rather oddly framed question of whether they represent “fantasy or fun” before concluding, quite obviously, that they’re both. But there’s much more going on than that, which is where it gets interesting.
Predictably, there were a few disgruntled comments under The Cut’s article.
“Really?” one guy (who’s clearly never read a book, flipped through a magazine or watched a film before) asked, “What's a real guy supposed to do when he can't compete with the perfect delusion women like this create? I bet if we guys had perfect girlfriend sites, women would go out of their bleeping minds and say how sexist, blah, blah, blah men are.”
A better-read commenter suggested that Tumblr’s ideal boyfriends are just the hetero woman’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
If Feminist Ryan Gosling had weighed in, he might have posed a question along the lines of:
And Feminist RyGos would have a point (as he always does): most of the men we see in ideal boyfriend Tumblrs conform to a standard of attractiveness that can only be described as wealthy, white and... well, conventionally manly. Regardless of whether you agree with the assertion that simply directing your desiring gaze towards a man is itself a feminist act, it’s possible that the online 'ideal man' fixation only reinforces a pre-existing system of desire that is still oppressive towards women.
This brings us to the million dollar question: to what extent do these ‘ideal boyfriend’ sites accept and legitimise the masculine ideals they represent?
Before I dive into the answer, I think it’s important to draw some lines. Tumblr being an overwhelmingly visual medium, the network of blogs contains innumerable examples of pure unadulterated objectification - of both sexes - celebrating disembodied bits from the beard to the box gap (NSFW), and enjoying the hot mugs of criminals and celebs (just google “f**k yeah [insert celebrity name here]”).
What distinguishes the so-called ideal boyfriend sites from the rest of the drool-fodder on Tumblr is the way their creators appropriate images from particular sources - often commercial brands - and then add a snippet of story to match. It’s not just about what the guy in the picture looks like, it’s the fantasy the image evokes about the kind of man you’re looking at, and how a relationship with a man like that might look and feel in your wildest, silliest dreams.
The story is not just important because it adds context to an otherwise pretty boring (yes, even if smoking hot) image. It’s important because in the best examples, it elevates our fantasy to the level of farce and makes a mockery of the very ideals we admit to be drooling over.
Sure, these ‘boyfriends’ are two-dimensional fantasy objects, but unlike the Manic Pixie Dream Girl who’s wriggled her way from our screens into our psyches, we don’t kid ourselves into believing Mr L.L. Bean and his ilk are anything more than tools of consumerism, selling us clothes with a side of American Dream - even as we admit to being complicit in the dream-weaving.
Ideal boyfriends aren’t just a case of equal opportunity objectification, of reversing the gaze of desire and flipping it onto men, of wreaking our revenge for such crimes against women as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and post-Renaissance nudes. They don’t allow us to just accept, uncritically, the systems of desire that deem certain men attractive (and by implication, create rules about the types of women who deserve their attention). Rather, they present a complex and often hilarious critique of the systems that produce heterosexual desire and make subjects and objects of us all.
Or as Feminist Ryan Gosling might put it: