The New York Times article, “Welcome to the Age of the Twink,” that Twitter has gleefully torn apart this week is a bit too slight to sustain a full reckoning with the very real questions it raises. In just 600 words for T magazine, Nick Haramis asserts that youthful scrawniness characterizes a new class of celebrity male dreamboat, illustrated partly by the rise of Call Me by Your Name actor Timothée Chalamet, the cast of Dunkirk, and the pop singer Troye Sivan. Most provocatively, Haramis uses the term twink—gay-male slang most earnestly used on hook-up apps and porn sites—to describe this class of boyish men, even though many of his examples are straight.
This transference of homo terminology to hetero folks fits with the week’s other gay-culture dustup over Rita Ora’s “Girls,” in which pop singers appear to try on lesbianism just for drunken fun. Ever it goes: Straight culture steals from gay culture as casually as gay men steal from black women. But while it can be fun to cackle at the gaucheness of such transactions, not all appropriations are equal. Who is harmed, materially, by Times readers partaking of the 2018 brunch-banter cliché that Chalamet would do well at Fire Island? It’s hard to say, precisely. Who is harmed by a popular song supporting the stereotype that bisexual women are really just looking for male attention? Well, all the bisexual women who are fighting to be treated with respect.
Unintentionally, though, the attempted redefinition of twink helps highlight a deeper shift in language, if not body types. It was only three years ago that the media underwent a frenzy over the supposed rise of “dadbod” as the jiggly silhouette du jour. Yet what was actually new? “One by one, from Hollywood to the Hamptons, men have liberated themselves from the flat-stomached emo-boy reign of terror,” said an Observer article back in 2006, which was then echoed in the 2009 New York Times story “It’s Hip to Be Round,” both of which I then quoted in my 2015 argument that dadbod-ness is eternal. Body norms do evolve, and perhaps the male ideal really does swing from one pole to another every three to six years. But it’s more likely what’s cyclical are the trend pieces themselves.
Certainly, if it’s the age of the twink now, it’s been the age of the twink all along. Slender, smooth types have achieved dreamy superstar status at a pretty steady pace over the years—what else to call Andrew Garfield, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Titanic-era Leonardo DiCaprio, Prince, Mick Jagger, or the god Hermes? Yet in the same year that saw Chalamet’s ascension, we also see a mass swooning for Black Panther’s Winston Duke. He’s explicitly a counterexample in physical thickness, and his popularity also underlines a racial subtext to Haramis’s argument: The only black person the article cites in his litany is Jaden Smith, and the racism of the desirability scheme that generated the term twink in the first place is well-documented.
Yet there’s something poetic in the otherwise risible idea that the “emo boy” of 2006 is the hetero “twink” of 2018. Because if anything has shifted with regards to straight men’s bodies, it’s that they have slowly begun to be subjected to the same scrutiny women’s and gay men’s have. When a group of people are not allowed to think of themselves as the cultural “default,” and when individuals’ social cachet—whether within their subculture or more broadly—is tied to sexual desirability, precise and crass taxonomies develop. Gay guys have bears and twinks; queer women have bois and butches; women of all kinds navigate beauty-mag buzzwords as well as locker-room labeling by guys. Only recently has pop culture begun returning the favor for straight men: Talmudically delineating types of bros, dubbing the CBS-sitcom standard as “dadbod,” and, now, opening debate on how to conceptualize waifish, white-boy appeal.
There’s an argument to be made that subjecting straight men to the same objectification everyone else has long lived with is not only fair play, but in fact social progress, representing a new paradigm in which no one identity group is overly centered. But in the Times “twink” piece, it’s clear what the dangers involved are, too. Haramis writes of Sivan that there’s “safety in his slimness,” and says his kind offers “a new answer to the problem of what makes a man.” The implication is that skinniness comes with sensitivity, and maybe even—given the recent cultural accounting of male misbehavior—that it comes with a lower likelihood of being a creep. This is obviously nonsense: Small stature didn’t keep, say, Aziz Ansari from oafish behavior, according to his accuser. But the thinking echoes the way that physical appearance, when overemphasized, gets linked with moral virtue.
Women well know how this works. My colleague Megan Garber recently critiqued the way that in our society,“thigh gaps are treated as evidence of self-control,” “clear skin is assumed to be a manifestation of a calm mind,” and fatness is always a punchline. Overreading the body is a problem for gay men, too: The phenotype of twinkdom is often, recklessly and unfairly, linked with femininity, vapidity, and submissiveness. Chalamet will eventually have to report on the effects of him and his peers receiving a special label. But maybe someday, men and women, straight and queer alike, might come to know how it feels to be more coherently discussed as people, rather than as meat.