A man after your own heart - who do women fancy in 2016?
Does the type of man that a woman desires change with the tides of time? Suzanne Harrington charts the evolution of female attraction and deconstructs heart-throb status
Published 16/11/2016 | 02:30
What constitutes a heart-throb? We have long been asked what women want - the latest answer from American women, inexplicably, appears to be Donald Trump - but what do we desire? What turns us on, and how much of that desire has been moulded by culture?
From shop girl romance novels of the 1900s to contemporary mummyporn via the bonkbusters and chicklit of the late 21st century, women's fictionalised desire tends to be derided by critics - even the genre names are derogatory. 'Chicklit' suggests florid tripe of no literary merit - from Jackie Collins to EL James, popular books that centre around fictional female desire get hammered as trash; pre-raunch, Barbara Cartland and Mills & Boon were similarly dismissed. And yet the great literary male icons are products of the female imagination: Heathcliff, Mr Darcy, Mr Rochester, Rhett Butler. All dreamed up by women.
So who and what do women fancy? Does female desire change over time? Vary according to economics? A brilliant new book, 'Heartthrobs: A History of Women and Desire', by cultural historian Professor Carol Dyhouse, looks at that little understood and unexamined phenomenon, the female gaze.
We all know about the male gaze, right? Women have been objects of it forever. But as gender equality continues to gain ground, so too has our freedom to express our desires; we are no longer passive recipients of the male gaze, but active gazers in our own right. This has always been the case - women are as endowed with human sexuality as the next man - but have traditionally been discouraged from acknowledging it, even to ourselves. Not anymore.
So who catches our eye, and why? And what's the difference between the kinds of men that men assume women fancy, and the reality? Prior to economic independence and social liberation, women could not choose men purely on the grounds of sexual desire; there was the meal ticket element too. Women had to be pragmatic in their choices.
Nor do we all fancy alpha males. (Formerly known as 'cave men', this slowly changed after World War II to 'alpha male', borrowed from zoology to denote everything from dominance and leadership to boorishness and violence. Think Jeremy Clarkson.)
Carol Dyhouse reminds us that many golden age movie heart-throbs, onto whose images female audiences projected their desire, were gay in real life: Rock Hudson, Dirk Bogarde, Richard Chamberlain, Montgomery Clift. It didn't matter - women were busy fantasising and projecting their desire onto handsome screen faces.
Dyhouse suggests that the only difference between Byronmania and Beatlemania is technology. While 19th-century young women could only swoon over copies of Byron's written word, and fill in the gaps with fantasy, 20th-century Beatles fans were able to gaze at pictures of the band while listening to the music in the intimacy of their bedroom; at concerts, there would be thousands of other young women similarly aflame with levels of desire that horrified their elders.
"Technology has reshaped patterns of desire and consumption," writes Dyhouse. When air travel began to go mainstream, for instance, the dashing pilot became an object of female desire, taking the romantic lead in films and novels. Economics played an even more significant part - as women in the early 20th century began earning their own money, they spent much of it on magazines and movies; "shop girl romance" fiction was churned out, featuring a slew of dashing prototypes - "sheiks, sultans and foreign princes, captains of industry, film stars, aristocrats and airmen." At the cinema, women gazed at Rudolph Valentino playing The Sheik.
Because female sexual desire remained socially outlawed - women were still decades away from being represented by the likes of Samantha in 'Sex and the City', or as Marie Stopes put it in 1918, "most women would rather die" than admit feeling horny, despite their desire being "a physical yearning… as profound as hunger for food" - the outlaw abduction fantasy abounded.
Highway men, pirates, sheiks and exotic foreigners all got around the 'civilised gentleman' stereotype by being 'other'; from Errol Flynn to Johnny Depp, it seems women love a hot pirate. Valentino and Omar Sharif dialled 'hot Arab' up to 10. Adam Ant, dressed as a dandy highway man, instructed us to stand and deliver. As for vampires, from the creations of Bram Stoker to Anne Rice via the 'Twilight' phenomenon, it seems women go nuts for the ultimate 'other' - the undead.
With the advent of the teenager in the 1950s, female desire started to become more socially overt; by the 60s, the cat was out of the bag. Social theorist Barbara Ehrenreich identified Beatlemania, writes Dyhouse, as "a form of libidinal self-expression for girls who had long been expected to keep a lid on their passions and to be demure".
Meanwhile, their mothers - 50s housewives, cooped up indoors after their temporary wartime equality had been nailed back in its box - turned to pills to alleviate the monotony, and doctors became heart-throbs. Dr Kildare, Dr Finlay, Doctor in the House - for frustrated lady pillheads bored to death by enforced domesticity, the handsome doctor became a fantasy figure in lieu of the absent husband.
As women's liberation made inroads in the 1970s, some feminists began suggesting that women might wish to rethink their romantic projections: "You start by sinking into his arms and it ends with your arms in his sink". Academics like Germaine Greer began questioning the traditional quest for Mr Right, and suggesting that romantic fiction was, writes Dyhouse, "a kind of hallucinatory drug that rotted women's minds".Instead, 70s women were treated to 'The Joy of Sex', a supposedly liberating 'gourmet guide to sex', but essentially a love letter to the penis, the male illustration resembling, comments Ariel Levy, "a werewolf with a hangover". Far more significant were the works of Erica Jong, Nancy Friday and Shere Hite, which looked at female desire up close and personal, unfiltered by male interpretation.
The 70s also saw the beginnings of the modern boyband and pop idol - from David Cassidy to Justin Beiber, through Bros to One Direction, their cute non-threatening image appealed to young teenage girls not yet seeking demon lovers. The most significant difference between then and now - apart from feminism permitting girls and women to voice their desires instead of pretending not to have any - is the internet.
Just as elders reacted in alarm at the increased consumption of popular novels a century ago, so the internet is often viewed as a Pandora's box of unleashed sexuality, where heart-throbs can not just be blue-tacked onto bedroom walls, but followed on Twitter.
Female-friendly porn sites cut to the chase in acknowledging that our sexuality, while different from men's, is very much present and relishes a good download. Yet dreams of domestication remain - '50 Shades of Grey' character Christian Grey has been described as "Mr Darcy with nipple clamps".
Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of contemporary female desire is the emergence of the 'soulmate' ideal; the man we fancy need not be a breadwinner, a power monger, or a protector (unless that's your thing, of course). The idea that a man can be a woman's soul mate, her equal, her partner - until you get to the bedroom, where they can be anything you want them to be, and vice versa. Consensually, of course. That's the real turn on.
Who do women fancy in 2016?
Benedict Cumberbatch, below, despite his posh alien persona, has a fanatical following of scary fans known as 'Cumberbitches'.
Aidan Turner, who plays Poldark in the TV remake, won 'Glamour' magazine's Sexiest Man of 2016, proving the eternal appeal of the piratical.
Jamie Dornan, the baby-faced BDSM enthusiast from '50 Shades', came second, with distinctly unrugged Tom Hiddleston third.
Ed Balls featured in a Mumsnet thread, but let's not go there.