THE HIMBOS ARE COMING!
THE HIMBOS ARE COMING!
They're gorgeous. They're sexy. They're dim as donuts. So why are some of America's smartest women lining up to date them?
by Deborah Michel
"You like Keanu Reeves?" my husband asked in disbelief. "How can you possibly like Keanu Reeves?"
We had just seen the movie Speed, and my reaction to its young star had transformed my husband into a study in bewilderment. "Keanu Reeves is stupid! Even the characters he plays are stupid." (Anakin McFly would like to step in here to inform readers that Mr. Reeves has an IQ of 160 and is therefore probably smarter than both the author of this article and her husband. Thank you. Going away now.)
This was not an observation with which I could quibble. I mean, just listen to Reeves, to that lackluster Keanu-speak monotone. And look at him, at that stiff Keanu-stomp gait. And consider the parts he plays. Speed, when you come right down to it, is a movie about a not-so-smart swat-team member. Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure was about two really not-so-smart high-school guys. And let's not even talk about Point Break, wherein Patrick Swayze played Reeves's wise old mentor.
Stupid? Reeves himself is the first to agree. "I'm a meathead," he has said. "I can't help it."
Then again, what my husband, along with just about every other intelligent, hardworking, successful man in America, doesn't understand is that Reeves's mind-boggling blankness doesn't detract from his appeal in the slightest. On the contrary, it is his appeal. And, more significantly, not his alone. If today's cultural indicators mean anything at all, Reeves is merely the tip of the iceberg -- a single example, if not the definitive one, of a whole new breed of men. I'm talking, of course, about the male bimbo -- and his apparent, unstoppable advent.
Understand the Keanu Curve and you understand a major cultural phenomenon. To begin with, Reeves is no longer merely a hunky actor. He was a college-level course ("The Films of Keanu Reeves") last year at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. He is also featured in the art of not one but at least two Southern California artists -- Keith Mayerson, who has done a series of watercolor "Keanu Sightings," and Richard Hawkins, whose Keanu magic-lanterns were on view in the recent "Pure Beauty" show at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art.
Mayerson, who has clearly given his subject a lot of thought, says that Reeves embodies a new type of masculinity, one that women today obviously find very appealing. "He assumes the masculine role in films, but it's not an aggressive masculinity, like Clint Eastwood's. He's always passive, like in Speed where he runs around catching balls other people throw at him." In most of his movies, Mayerson notes, Reeves is not the seducer, but the one who is seduced.
That Reeves, a high-school dropout, has also done film versions of Shakespeare and Laclos does nothing to make him seem smarter. He's fascinating in these costume dramas -- fascinatingly awful, for he is unmistakably a creature of his time. "He moves through these films," says the 28-year-old Mayerson, "the same way Generation X moves through society as a whole: clumsy, inarticulate, not even making the effort to fit in." Nonetheless, the eye is inexorably drawn to him, much as matter is supposedly drawn into black holes.
Men are dismayed to learn the fixation on Keanu is not purely physical. Explains Mayerson, "If your girlfriend really likes Keanu, it's threatening, not because he's better-looking but because he represents a way of being a man you don't want to admit. He subverts the patriarchy."
So that's why men get bent out of shape when women date male bimbos.
Almost every smart woman I know has a dumb man in her past: an art-historian friend dallied with "tanning-salon man" in Paris; a novelist once went out with a male shoe designer who couldn't spell her name, let alone much else; a filmmaker acquaintance of quite ordinary prettiness has broken the heart of not one but two male models. Even Seinfeld's Elaine has dated male bimbos on two separate episodes: a moving-van driver and a man whom she dropped after his face was marred in a rock-climbing accident.
Of course, women have always been attracted to good-looking, dumb men -- just as men have always been attracted to women more notable for their appearance than their brains. Lately, however, the supply of these men -- call them himbos (the catch-all phrase coined by Vogue magazine), hunks, beefcakes, boy-toys, stud puppies, or (as does one friend who has dated her share) fool-around guys -- has dramatically increased. This leads one to conclude that the demand for them has too.
Why so? For one thing, there is the sense that an interlude with this sort of man is outside of everyday life -- a break from the war of the sexes, and a relief. That's part of a himbo's charm: how delightful to be able to dispense with games simply because you know you can win them so easily. You're not angling for marriage, commitment, financial stability, or children -- and more important, you don't have to worry that he thinks you are. "It's kind of like owning a golden retriever," explains a friend, a wine expert who dates such men frequently. "They're sweet and nice to look at, and they're dumb enough to go along with whatever you want."
But unlike men, women get very little public ego gratification from dating a bimbo. Think about it. If a man of any age appears with a beautiful blonde on his arm, he is the recipient of nudges, winks, general admiration. Her brain power is irrelevant; indeed, it can even be a drawback. She is a commodity, and he is seen as having earned (or, at the very least, bought) her. Other men respect this. She is living proof of his power, wealth, success.
If a woman, however, shows up with an extremely attractive man, especially a much younger one à la Roseanne or Cher, she gets no such affirmation. And as soon as it becomes clear that he is -- how to put it delicately? -- as dumb as a post, confusion turns to disdain. "Pathetic," says one old friend who has made his way through a number of giggly blondes. "Aren't women who are out with men like that embarrassed?" marvels another who has no qualms about a girlfriend whose grammar he has to correct.
The truth of the matter is that most women aren't comfortable being seen out with men of any sort who happen to be more beautiful than they, so men shouldn't be so surprised to hear that the male bimbo of choice isn't always the best-looking guy in the room. According to self-proclaimed superficial-man-about-L.A. Gary Joynes, "It's not all about looks. Some of the best-looking guys I know in L.A. never have girlfriends. It's more about making women feel a certain way about themselves -- making them feel good, feel attractive. You have to be kind of slick and have a certain amount of surface charm."
Paradoxically (or so it might seem), one of the attractions of dating a male bimbo is that you can be pretty sure he usually goes out with women more gorgeous than you. Instead of being intimidated (as you would be if he were your equal), you're flattered. He could have anyone, and still he chose you. "If you're an intelligent woman," says my art-historian friend, "you typically go out with men who value you for that. But when a male bimbo likes you, you think maybe he sees a different, flashy side you didn't know you had, and that's fun."
Eventually, you're pretty sure, he'll move on to someone more attractive, but that doesn't bother you in the least. Who wants to date a male bimbo forever? Writer Diane Shader Smith learned early that dating dumb men has little to do with the long term, except where memory is concerned. "I remember in my sorority days, when it was time to ask someone to a formal, the older girls would say, 'Make sure you get someone who looks good for the picture, because the picture will last longer than the guy will.'" While it lasts, though, you enjoy that fascinating glow that comes from feeling wittier and more erudite than usual. OK, OK, so he doesn't fully appreciate the wit or erudition. It's enough that your ego is boosted, the better to cope with the next real relationship.
"It's a funny thing, being smart," says Joynes, who is, although he often tries to hide that fact. (He is also an extremely talented jazz saxophonist who just happens to be working as a personal trainer at the moment.) "After a few months," he says, "you can't help it -- your girlfriend will start to say, 'Hey you're a nice guy, and really smart.' And that's not exactly what you want to hear. It's the beginning of the end. Like once on a party cruise, I was talking to these two women. We were getting along great, I thought. And one of them said just that: 'You know, you're a great guy, smart, from a good family' -- and then she splits. I mean, what was the point? She split."
Diane Shader Smith, who is now married to a lawyer, offers a possible explanation. "A guy who's intelligent and high-powered carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. Male bimbos know how to have a good time. Another thing they're better for is sex. They're not worrying about waking up early for that important meeting."
Sometimes, however, even women who knowingly get involved with male bimbos are amazed at their vapidity and self-absorption. "All I wanted was to have sex with the guy," says an exasperated young Ph.D. candidate. She was talking about her latest himbo, an aspiring screenwriter cum security guard who later kept her on the phone for an hour talking about. . . himself. "He didn't ask one question about me," she complains. "I even tried bringing myself into the conversation -- as a test -- but he automatically reverted back to himself." To top it off, he hadn't even written a screenplay. "But," my friend adds ruefully, "he's quite sure if he did, he'd get it read. He knows so many people in town."
How glorious it must be to be a himbo in this himbo heyday. You almost have to feel sorry for someone like Sylvester Stallone, a should-have-been himbo who had the misfortune of rising to fame in an altogether different social climate; a decade or so later he probably wouldn't have felt the need to wear those silly look-at-me-I'm-an-intellectual glasses and take up painting. And poor Samson, a Biblical-era himbo if ever there was one -- if he'd lived in the 1990s, he could have surrendered power to his (smarter) girlfriend without such dire consequences. Remember: when Keanu cut his hair, his career only got better.
Distressing as it is to have to bring him up, romance-novel cover boy Fabio was really the first of the modern-day himbos -- a proto-himbo of sorts. Large numbers of women still revel in his hair, his body, and a stunning stupidity that cannot be explained away by the language barrier. But even Fabio is just a himbo-in-formation. Although in interviews he has advocated (in his own sweet, limited way) respect for women and the need to cater to their romantic fantasies, his allure rests just as much on his brawn and manly, take-charge persona. I like to think of him as a kind of latter-day Jane Austen figure -- straddling two opposing eras (although she, amazing woman, probably managed it with her knees together).
Today, hyphenates abound among himbos, many of whom are the male equivalent of AMWs (actress-model-whatevers). Other popular himbo professions are bodyguard (as in Roseanne's Ben Thomas) and restaurateur (the Whiskey's Rande Gerber, Brett Bolthouse of Babylon fame), not to mention "model-dater." There is, in fact, an entire new novel dedicated to this last group: The Shallow Man, by Coerte V.W. Felske, which is due out this summer and very well may be the Bright Lights, Big City of the nineties. The novel is a veritable himbo how-to book, complete with tips on how to pick up women. (Fittingly, Shallow Man does not find redemption by forswearing his shallow, model-dating ways, as did Jay McInerney's protagonist.)
Of course, real himbos don't have to try very hard. Let's face it, if you were a smart woman, wouldn't you want to go out with a himbo too? Smart women, after all, are the most likely candidates to be disappointed by smart men, who often seem completely unaware of a central, if often unspoken, tenet of modern love: mutual respect. "The problem with smart men," says Joynes, "is that they're arrogant. Because they're smart they think they don't have to be anything else." It's not for nothing that "stupid" has become a term of approbation, first in hip-hop, now in hipster circles.
As always, economics is at the bottom of it all. More and more, women are attaining the power and financial wherewithal to control their own lives. They don't need smart men. Sometimes they go out with bimbos for the same reason men do -- because they can. Many non-himbo men find this disappointing. "You know men are capable of such stupidity, but you like to think women are morally superior," sighs attractive-but-smart TV writer Stephen Godchaux. "You want to give them more credit than that."
"Women don't really respond to men like that, do they?" handsome-but-well-educated political cartoonist Steve Kelley asks hopefully. "Isn't it just a matter of getting back at us, to show us what it feels like?"
But a clever few sense which way the wind is blowing and act accordingly. With typical linguistic inequality, however, when men do it, it's not called playing dumb, it's called "acting spacey." Attests Joynes, "I was hanging out with this guy the other day, he went to Harvard and works in the entertainment business. He will not talk about his education. It's like, if people know that about him, he'll have to behave in a whole different way -- and not being in a bar picking up girls."
Clearly, these are transitional times. Every now and then, though, we get a glimpse of what the future may hold. My exercise instructor recently chopped off her seven-year-old son's Dutch-boy locks in favor of a buzz cut à la -- who else? -- Keanu Reeves in Speed. When she was finished, she asked him, "So what do you think?"
The boy studied himself in the mirror, then announced, "I look stupid."
Her face fell. "You don't like it?" she asked.
"Nah," her son replied. "I love it!"