What does the sudden popularity of Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte—a “beautiful idiot”—say about women’s desires?
It is the year—or at least the Olympic Games—of the “himbo.” Though his medal total in London fell short of the astonishing standards of his teammate, Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte has rocketed to fame in 2012 on the basis of two things: his striking looks and his reputation as, in the words of Jezebel’s Erin Gloria Ryan, America’s “sexiest douchebag.” In the New Republic, Noreen Malone calls Lochte a “hilariously dumb jock” whose exceptional hotness trumps the dimness for which his mouth provides irrefutable evidence. He is, she says, “feminism’s guiltiest pleasure.”
Lochte’s combination of washboard abs and cretinous, perhaps calculated puerility (he made headlines as much for admitting he pees in the Olympic pool as for his medal triumphs) is hardly sui generis. Rather, the athlete Ryan calls “fratty as fuck” is the latest example of what Lauren Bans calls “himbos.” Writing in GQ earlier this year, Bans defines a himbo as a “man who is more attractive than he is smart. A bimbo with nuts, to put it testicularly.” Think of the hunks of shows like Jersey Shore; think of what many people assumed about the male stripper movie, Magic Mike (though the title character turned out to be far more complex than the himbo stereotype.) Though women’s attraction to lantern-jawed simpletons is not new (think of Miss Jane Hathaway on the Beverly Hillbillies remarking about Jethro Bodine: “I like my men big and dumb”), Bans is right that we’ve arrived at the “Golden Age of Himbodom.”
On the one hand, the ascendancy of the beefcake numbskull is partly good news. If straight women can publicly acknowledge that they’re turned on by men with ripped bodies and no other redeeming qualities, we can at last put to bed the hoary old myth that “women aren’t visual.” The lie that women invariably need a satisfying emotional connection in order to be sexually aroused can finally be allowed to die a very public death. In our national conversation, we’re beginning to recognize that the kind of sexual feeling we once ascribed solely to males is simply part and parcel of being human. Women aren’t becoming more like men, in other words. We’re just getting a long-overdue reminder that women are people too.
The himbo embodies what Susan Faludi calls “ornamental masculinity,” a façade of traditional manliness. His popularity may symbolize women’s independence—the more women can do for themselves, the less they need to depend on a man for financial support. Feminism’s admittedly incomplete successes have allowed more women than ever to choose relationships with men based on desire rather than necessity. Women may have always lusted after washboard abs (if they existed, and could be seen), but knew that making romantic or sexual decisions based upon a chiseled body was dangerous. More important to find a good provider who wouldn’t be abusive; expecting a hot body to boot would be a fanciful over-ask. With a nod to Miss Jane, until recently, only very privileged women have been able to act on their yen for men who are “big and dumb.”
Yet there’s another side to the rise of the beautiful idiot that Ryan Lochte’s apotheosis represents. As Bans points out, himbos “aren’t so much evening the score as making it easier for dudes to get laid by doing less.” It may be that women today are free to objectify men as they never were before. But what’s striking about so many of these men, Lochte included, is their laziness. Not physical sloth; sculpted bodies take real work in the gym and in the pool. The himbo’s laziness lies in his sense of entitlement, his expectation that he can have sex anytime he likes by doing little more than lifting his shirt to display his magnificent abs. The message to women is unmistakable: “If you want equality, fine, but you get to do all the real work. I’m just gonna stand here and look hot.”
While the himbo may raise women’s expectations of what men’s bodies can and should look like, his behavior lowers those same expectations for male sensitivity, kindness, and ambition. While his body invites lust, his crudity and shallowness serve as warnings about what will happen to women who act on their desires. It’s the updated version of the old slasher movie trope, in which the “slutty” girls are the first to die. In horror movies, pretty young women pay for their wanting with their lives. The himbo offers a subtler version of the same message: “You can fuck me if you want, but don’t be surprised if I then treat you like the asshole that I am. You’ll have only yourself to blame.”
Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college’s first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. A writer and speaker as well as a professor, Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and son in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his eponymous website and co-authored the recent autobiography of supermodel Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted. You can find him on Twitter at @hugoschwyzer.