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6 July 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 5:45pm

What’s behind the affectionate fetishisation of Louis Theroux?

The sexual appeal of older, geeky men points to the dynamics of power and gender.

By Polly Evans

“I wanna see you wiggle wiggle, for sure” is a line taken from Louis Theroux’s attempt to make up a rap song in an episode of the third series of his Weird Weekends. You can find this line printed on a T-shirt accompanying a drawing of Theroux, seductively pictured naked with nothing but a fluffy scarf preserving his modesty – one of the many pieces of merchandise to capitalise on a strange sexualisation of the popular journalist.

From the T-shirts with captions such as “I wanna go Theroux you”, to the “No context Louis Theroux” memes page – which presents images of Theroux accompanied with “no context” phrases dripping with sexual innuendo, like “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours”, or “I would like to see your bedroom” – the internet has succeeded in turning ostensibly dweeby Louis into a red-hot sex symbol. 

While Theroux’s nerdy, self-effacing British charm appeals to both genders, there is something about him that excites the sexual imagination of young women in particular, turning mere idolatry into something more – a kind of fetishisation. We’ve seen this same type of sexualised, girlish obsession directed at other male figures of power who share a similar geeky, loveable appeal – figures like Tennant’s Dr Who, Ed Miliband, and even Corbyn to name a few (take a look at the hashtag #SexyJezza if you don’t believe me).

Ed Miliband in particular boasts a massive fangirl following – a movement pioneered by the affectionately named “Milifans”. Hordes of teenage girls continue to use the Twitter hashtag to publicise their gushing infatuation with the ex-Labour leader, posting selfies of themselves next to Ed and gleefully re-posting his “sassy” political tweets. When asked the question of what it is exactly that makes Ed so sexy, many have said it’s his “hungry eyes” – the infamous penetrating stare that has been captured on camera and posted to YouTube accompanied by the song Careless Whisper (or Drake’s lyrics “I got my eyes on you”, a personal favourite).

But apart from Ed’s seductive stare, what do we hold accountable for the fact that these men, both aged 47, are gifted with the ability to drive some women even crazier than conventional pin-ups like Brad Pitt, or even younger nerdy British figures like Daniel Radcliffe?

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In an article where Theroux is hailed as a national treasure, LADbible hit the nail on the head when it described how Theroux’s charm centres on his being “extremely awkward, almost virginal on occasions.” It’s certainly true that, although Louis’s job often requires him to engage in a sexual discourse, particularly when interviewing subjects such as porn stars, he generally reveals very little of his own sexuality – leaving a fair amount to the imagination.

The same goes for figures like Miliband, for whom any kind of speculation about his sexuality is considered wildly inappropriate, and so of course is completely compelling. These powerful male figures that are devoid of any outward show of sexuality appear to be like kryptonite for many women – they exude a kind of innocent, virginal pull that is completely incongruous with their power and high status, and so perhaps incites in women a kind of perverse desire to dominate and defile. The act of fetishising is an act of domination, and perhaps, for some women, objectifying powerful men in this way is an act of empowerment.

Yet I’m not quite convinced that the fangirl attitude we see directed at these men is truly empowering – at its core, this girlish obsession feels much more like a concession to power. Men like Ed Miliband and Louis Theroux don’t lose their agency through being objectified in this way, and despite being sexualised, their intellect is still respected and their voices listened to. Those that fancy Ed Miliband do often display an interest in his politics, and I’m sure that most of the girls that gush over Theroux still watch his programmes. For their fans, these men’s peculiar sex appeal is just the icing on their rich and well-rounded cake. 

This starts to feel even more like a gendered issue when we consider how female figures of power aren’t fetishised in the same way – although the likes of Caroline Lucas and Nicola Sturgeon are hugely popular, they aren’t subject to the same kind of intellectual fetishisation.

At face value this sounds completely agreeable – and it’s tempting to think that we’ve reached a point in time where we’ve become deeply cautious of sexualising women in power at the risk of undermining their authority. But a part of me wonders whether a respect for women’s authority is the real reason behind the fact that, outwardly at least, female intellect doesn’t seem to generate the same feelings of awe-inspired lust as when exhibited by male counterparts. It’s seems more likely that there is another reason behind this – perhaps the fact that female power poses a higher threat to society than male power, and so isn’t venerated in the same way, or perhaps it’s do to with the way that historically, older women aren’t seen as sexually attractive in the same way as older men.

But returning to Miliband and Theroux – there is a key characteristic shared by these men that most female figures of power lack. This is that they exude warmth and familiarity. Louis and Ed both come across as sweet, humble, bumbling guys who generally appear happy in their own skin, nice-looking guys that you can trust – and this must factor into their ability to charm.

Unfortunately, women in power are required to be steely, not sweet – iron ladies who don’t earn respect by being your friend. The Facebook page “Obama/Biden memes” has gained more than 100,000 likes, mainly for content that revolves around a constructed “bromance” narrative. In some of the memes, Obama has to stop Biden trying to hold hands in public, or the former president restrains his reckless deputy from playing pranks on the future White House residents.

It’s hard to imagine a similarly playful or amiable narrative being constructed around Hilary Clinton and one of her colleagues.

The way women across the world are crushing on men like Louis Theroux and Ed Miliband seems fairly harmless – these young women and girls could never pose a tangible threat to such powerful men, and their attitude towards them doesn’t come across as leery or undermining, as it could do were the genders reversed. Yet you have to wonder if female public figures will ever be treated with the same contagious affection as men, and whether it will ever be possible for us to lust after their intellect in the same non-threatening way.

I’m willing to wait – and in the meantime, I’ll busy myself by super-imposing another picture of Ed Miliband’s face on to David Beckham’s body.

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