About a Boy

Leo. Leonardo. Leonardo DiCaprio. The name is like a hit single that you hear everywhere, that you find yourself humming, that you hate or love because of--or despite--the hype demanding your love. By now the fever around this song has become so highly pitched that articles are written to simply repeat the tune: Leo. Leonardo. Leonardo DiCaprio. The charge for writer and reader comes from participating in the massed world chorus: Leo adores his pet lizard. Leo shrinks from fame. Leo goes unnoticed in Cuba (as intimated by a seemingly unironic photo caption in Entertainment Weekly).

The teen-girl magazines understand their role: They simply repeat facts, photos, and the magic name. Cultural commentators attempt to find some meaning in the tune's ascendancy and end up revealing both their biases and their susceptibility (as I will do). EW pens an avuncular "Letter to Leo"--mostly, it seems, for the pleasure of assuming such intimacy--and concludes: Grow up to be Tom Cruise. Maureen Dowd, in the New York Times, writes a one-note gripe about Leo's girlishness--"Kate Winslet looks as if she could deck him"--while transparently replaying the facts, the photos, the magic name. Columnists worry about their obsessed daughters, claiming that their own idols, who have come swimming back to them through this latest fever dream, were never so perfect and so doomed.

But teen idols have always been boyish and girlish and perfect, according to the standards of their day. And doomed, by definition: because the fetishized quality of their boyishness (its girlishness, if you will) is a great open-heartedness, an intense emotional and physical vulnerability that incipient manhood will soon--is supposed to--bury. Even Tom Cruise's pumped salesmanship fell apart under Rebecca DeMornay's sophisticated seductions; the "You complete me" of a grown-to-manhood Cruise does not resonate like Risky Business's implied "You slay me."

It's essential that Kate Winslet look as if she could deck Leo. She should be able to hurt him--body, mind, spirit--and to help him, with body, mind, spirit. Just as she opens to the potential of him hurting and helping her. Because this drama is directed to emotion-wracked teens, the hurting and helping become a matter of life and death. And they are, actually, to these 13- and 14-year-olds. At stake, in the person of the gentle, sexy, slightly fragile boyish man, is the possibility of keeping hold of the best of both masculinity and femininity--of not splitting parts off to fit the "appropriate" gender. Splitting, of course, constitutes the basic drama of junior high, and the biggest carrot encouraging girls to girlishness has traditionally been male approval. Imagine a boy wanting instead to help you live--all the parts of you! Imagine him asking you to save him, by saving yourself.

Junior-high boys, meanwhile, suffer immense pressure not to act sensitive or weak. The notion that a boy might want help must seem nigh on impossible. It makes sense then that Leo, with his wide-ass cheekbones and lion eyes, his pillow lips and sharp jaw, appears so beautifully alien, like some fledgling offspring of Kate Hepburn and ET. His baby blues can gleam green. His awkward body, tall, convex, and slightly muscled, seems equally mutable. In the two movies that made his name sing, Romeo and Juliet and Titanic, the directors surrounded him with water, shot him next to and through water, drowned him in water (and tears)--as if he were part amphibian, a pale creature new to land, a fetus even, who might not be able to breathe long outside the salty womb.

Among teen idols, Leo does raise the beam in the androgyny hop. I'm thinking this is because he exists at a time when people have complicated many of the defining signs of past genderwear. Men sport earrings; and women, jeans and suits. A boy has to look incredibly pretty to smear into girlishness. But the key to Leo's gender-blend may have less to do with appearances. Perhaps it's his tenderness--the tenderness of his Romeo and his Jack, I mean--that most makes his characters strange in this world, that most dooms them. It's not that Jack couldn't beat up Rose, but that he wouldn't think of doing so.

Back in 1982, the poet Judy Grahn asked in "Beauty, sleeping (Who shall wake us)":

Who will be all knowing
and the prince ifwe don't
make him happen, somehow
groom him for his task
to rouse us from the suicidal
slumber.

I want to believe that all the 20th century's fevered teen-idol dreams are, at their heart, acts of brave invention. This one, sing the sleepy girls, this prince is he who could wake us. Outside their dreams, he doesn't exist, so they slumber on. Still, each generation remembers the dream as they raise their sons. And the mother's dream pushes the daughter's dream further, and the daughter sleeps more lightly. The sons of our mothers' dreams walk now in the world. And so we nurture our long awakening, a prince at a time.

 
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