2016 is a good year to be a Rami Malek fan. He starred in a critically acclaimed TV show; he wore a blue tux (and then a white tux); he won an Emmy. His adoration came in the wake of many of the internet’s other so-called boyfriends: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston, Oscar Isaac, Idris Elba—just to name a few. No doubt, Malek will continue to be a respectable (and handsome) actor for years to come.
But he’s not the internet’s boyfriend.
The internet’s boyfriend is, I’m sorry to say, still Justin Bieber.
Hear me out! I know we all have favorites. But if we’re going to put a collective internet stamp on it, our taste just hasn’t evolved past the popular kids: Bieber, Harry Styles, Nick Jonas, Zayn Malik, any man who was once a boy crooning a nondescript love song.
What’s an “internet boyfriend”? Earlier this year, Sulagna Misra coined the term to name the rising tide of lesser-known male celebs who seemed to be popping up in every adoring listicle and accompanying GIF. These internet BFs were “a paragon of enlightened masculinity, constructed by committee.” For Misra, Malek is a clear paragon. And she dreamed, for The Toast’s If X were Y series, that Malek as an IRL boyfriend would “know that you actually love when he wears collared shirts under sweaters, and he’d wear them all the time.” I deeply agree that if “Rami Malek were your boyfriend, he’d text you in the middle of the night freaking out because his computer wasn’t working,” but Malek is still just an internet sidepiece—the cute guy you have a crush on at work, who remains as mysterious as your 401k.
Just like introducing your friends to an IRL boyfriend, having to explain why a man is worthy of your time renders him an automatic non-heartthrob. You may think you’ve found the diamond in the prestige-television rough, but your boyfriend is still a B-lister until he’s hit thousands of “love u daddy” @-replies (per hour!).
I would never comment on my personal fave The Rock’s Instagram to tell him I love him, because I don’t want to leave a trail that Us Weekly could find if he ends up leaving his girlfriend for me. But would I confess something, anything, to Harry Styles? Probably! To his fans, he’s ascended to that terrifying tier of fame in which it feels like he belongs to us. Once the fans have such a deep hold over you that you need to take a break for exhaustion or turn off your Instagram, you’re ready to be an internet boyfriend. If Justin Bieber were your boyfriend, he’d fly you around on his jet and then you’d end up in court-mandated couples therapy.
That true marker of success lives on Bieber’s Twitter timeline. In contrast, Malek’s fans are downright sweet. After SNL parodied his show Mr. Robot, a fan pointed out that a shout-out from SNL was just a twinkle in his eye a year earlier. Another gushed, “I love that people are finally recognizing your talent !!!” Even the psychos seem friendly: “HOW HAVE YOU BEEN RAMI?? HOW WAS YOUR DAY??” True internet SOs would never ask their boyfriend how he’s been; the whole point of the internet is that you can learn everything about someone without ever having to communicate with them. Harry Styles fans already know exactly how he spends his days.
Plus, it’s no fun to court a boyfriend who legitimately doesn't see himself (or want others to see him) as a heartthrob. These ungrateful hotties don’t seem to want career bumps in the form of swooning fandoms. Unlike our real boyfriends, they’re too busy worrying about craft. Asked about his unique fandom last year by Rolling Stone, Oscar Isaac tried to play along, while kind of negging all his gushing press: "The Internet never struck me as being into monogamous relationships… It's very promiscuous, the Internet." (Incidentally, in the same Rolling Stone story, Isaac insisted that not only is he not a celebrity, he doesn’t quite have a grasp of what one is. “I'm an actor, not a star,” he told the mag. "I don't really know what you mean when you say 'star,' 'movie star,' that stuff.”)
When the geniuses at Vulture forced Rami Malek to listen to fanfic about himself, he steered the conversation back to work. “I look at [being called a sex symbol] and think the show must be doing really well,” he said. Boring and serious: Is that what you look for in a boyfriend? Never forget our first boyfriend Ryan Gosling, who wasn’t too pretentious to read aloud Hey Girl memes and is still making promos that hinge on Hey Girl years later.
As far as I’m concerned, craft is not the point of an internet boyfriend.
Here’s what I do want:
- For him to be a blank slate upon which I can project my fantasies
- For him to wink at me via GIF
Take a post–One Direction Zayn Malik, who ran head-on toward his sex symbol status. He told Paper he wasn’t trying to focus his first solo album on sex, but he gets laid so often that it came out that way: "I just found out that a lot of situations that I was in were quite sexual situations—all of the time… I enjoyed singing about [sex], clearly." Malik (and, well, his PR team) want us to be attracted to him. Rami Malek just wants us to know that, yes, he’s working.
These men of Hollywood have not yet been put in a Hunger Games–like scenario for our virtual attention, affection, and disposable income. But, really, there can only be one answer to the quiz “Who Should Be Your Boyfriend?” I took it and got John Stamos. Oh well.