Faye Dunaway and Steve McQueen in The Thomas Crown Affair. PICTURE: Instagram

Heartthrobes: A history of women and desire by Carol Dyhouse.

Steve McQueen on a motorcycle or Paul Newman in blue jeans that match his eyes. Oh, and who could forget a the young Elvis that made any girl go weak at the knees. Colin Firth playing Mr Darcy carried a double-whammy of appeal sex and money, while some women swoon for powerful politicians, even if they’re not handsome.

Your own heartthrob might be Brad Pitt or the English actor James Norton.
In Heartthrobs, social and cultural historian Carol Dyhouse draws upon literature, cinema, and popular romance to show how the changing position of women has shaped their dreams about men. PICTURE: Instagram
Fantasies about male sex symbols are surely as old as humankind. I’d bet the hunkiest caveman drew long looks from the cave girls across the way. Historian Carol Dyhouse would probably say that the caveman’s attraction hinged on his prowess as a hunter. Bring home the bacon, darling, and I’ll see you in bed.

Dyhouse points out that men have always looked at women as objects so why not turn the process around? Her aim is ‘to explore ways in which patterns of romance and fantasy have changed over the last century, reshaping women’s ideas about what they find desirable in men’.

To do this she takes the reader on a rollicking ride through movies, history, literature, romances and popular music, checking out the appeal of men as diverse as Rudolph Valentino and David Cassidy. According to Dyhouse, the lean post-war years made women long for Prince Charming figures who would sweep them away from drudgery, at least, in their dreams.

In the Fifties, popular Mills & Boon titles featured doctors and nurses because handsome medical men had everything: looks, status and healing hands. But what about a different sort of heartthrob? Certain women have always hankered after pirates, brigands, highwaymen, tough warriors and even vampires.

Horrible Heathcliff epitomises the anti-hero who treats women badly. This is the allure of the dark side just a short step away from the transgressive fantasy of being taken by force. When Daphne du Maurier described a man as ‘a menace’, she meant he was unsettlingly sexy. When Lady Caroline Lamb famously summed up rakish Lord Byron as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’, she was tapping into the perennial allure of the bad boy that many women can’t resist.

The terrible Fifty Shades Of Grey trilogy sold in trolley-loads, and for all its shocking frankness, it tapped right into another, more lurid fantasy.

In the end, of course, the ‘bad’, rich hero is redeemed by the love of a good girl, again. After all, Elizabeth Bennet stood up to Mr Darcy’s nose-flaring, snobbish arrogance and fell in love with his estate Pemberley along the way. To hell with wet shirts Jane Austen knew that power and money are the most potent aphrodisiacs of all.

Though Carol Dyhouse’s intention is to show how women’s romantic and sexual fantasies change throughout time, it seems to me they stay pretty much the same. Women used to send Lord Byron locks of their hair; Dirk Bogarde used to have his trouser flies sewn up to keep him safe from women’s groping hands at film premieres; girls (and older women) throw their knickers at pop stars on stage. Unbridled lust is not a male prerogative.

This is a terrific book to argue with as well as enjoy. When Dyhouse writes, ‘as the 20th century drew to its close, women wanted more from their ideal men than integrity, bread-winning and credit cards; they wanted equality, partnership and communication’, I wanted to riposte: ‘Well, some, Carol!’ What about the ladies who flocked to see the ripped Chippendales, grabbing at the men’s crown jewels like so many screaming birds of prey?

She ends with a hopeful thought: ‘Maybe we can look forward now to a future in which men and women see each other less as gendered objects . . . and, instead, strive to relate to each other as individuals’. Hmm! In the real world women swoon over film stars and male models in ‘tighty whities’ . . . just as they always did. Gold-diggers want money, political groupies are turned on by power, half-dressed girls go to pubs and clubs to ‘bag’ a footballer.

Meanwhile, some of us are content to stay at home with husbands who may not be rich, mean or brilliant — but know how to build beautiful bookshelves with a great, big drill.

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