It’s been a month of insatiable thirst, and while that’s not uncommon on the internet, March had a singular focus: The Last of Us and The Mandalorian star, Pedro Pascal.
NSFW fan edits, horny tweets, and that one clip of Pascal saying, “I am your cool, slutty daddy,” have overrun social media — but not without backlash. No thirsty digital moment stirred more discourse than a clip of Pascal on the red carpet for The Mandalorian Season 3 premiere. In an effort to capitalize on Pascal’s “daddy” moment, a journalist from Access Hollywood asked the 47-year-old actor to read sexy tweets about him out loud. He declined, spurring a conversation online over the role of horny posting in the entertainment industry and fan behavior towards Pascal and other hot, famous men.
One of the quote tweets of the viral video reads, “It’s one thing to say that an actor is attractive. People commenting on your appearance is part of being a movie star. Shit like this weird and actually kind of abusive. Putting people on the spot with aggressive sexual commentary on them is bad.”
Mashable tech reporter Elena Cavender and Mashable social good reporter Chase DiBenedetto spoke to fandom experts to understand the context of thirst tweeting, fandom politics, and male celebrity.
The rise of thirst tweets
Chase: What a mad March… Let’s just get right into it, shall we?
Elena: Being horny on main has been widely accepted since 2018, the same year Buzzfeed started capitalizing on randy fan tweets in their “celebrities reading thirst tweets” series. The viral clip in question of Pascal took the thirst tweets format outside of the highly controlled environment those videos are usually made in, which caused discomfort, but does that make thirst tweeting wrong?
Chase: We talked to Bridget Keis, an assistant professor of film studies and production at Oakland University and a researcher of gender and sexuality in fandom. They said the entertainment industry is constantly at odds with, but also encouraging, this kind of fan behavior. “The industry tries to exhibit control and sort of teach fans how to be good,” they explained, through modeling ideal behavior in things like interviews and online interactions. I’m thinking of the rise of horny or meme-obsessed brand accounts in the same context.
In a similar way, the Buzzfeed series cosigned thirst tweeting, and celebs and their teams often lean into it for a popularity and lucrative advantage.
Elena: Because of the industry’s interest in and ability to profit from overt fan horniness, it’s become one of the most visible parts of fandom. But Nancy Byam, Microsoft internet researcher and author of Playing to the Crowd: Musicians, Audiences, and the Intimate Work of Connection, reminded us that this isn’t the full picture of fandom. “Sexual desire is one of many, many, many stories to be told about fandom and it’s one that gets an inordinate amount of attention. You’re talking about a really, really small phenomenon that’s just really visible. Of course, its visibility makes it worth thinking about.”
Chase: Broadly, the way we talk about everything online has become extremely exaggerated, often sexualized and stripped of its physical meaning.
Elena: In order to convey a modicum of desire in certain spaces online users deploy graphic language. Instead of replying to a photo of your fave with “he’s hot,” it’s “knees shaking, eyes rolling, toes curling” or “just moaned out loud.”
Chase: Navigating horniness online isn’t new, obviously, and fandom has been the site for many marginalized groups to discover and reclaim their sexuality. Fans are just still disagreeing about what role sexual desire and attraction play in online communities.
Fandom and its insular politics
Elena: It wouldn’t be the internet without some internal fan politics!
Chase: Keis explained that celeb-focused communities are constantly redefining proper etiquette and behavior. “Throughout fan history, we see this sort of negotiation happening between industry and fans, but also within [fan] communities, of policing the boundaries of what good behavior looks like. Fans tend to want to police themselves because fans and fan activities are so stigmatized — we only want our best behaviors to be recognized by the general public.”
Elena: Fandom is always exploring what makes a “good” and “authentic” fan and the conversation around thirst tweeting is just one highly public example. Byam gave us more context to that conflict. “Generally, because people who have unrealistic demands of celeb attention and affection are fringe characters, most fandoms are pushing back against that, saying that the person and the projection are not the same thing.”
Chase: Though, as all the viral tweets and TikToks about Pascal (and other internet boyfriends like him) show, social media has rewarded those fringe characters. Keis told us that the mainstream audience for these tweets is missing the larger history. “People still have assumptions about fan culture that we try to distance ourselves from, the aspects of it that seem the most ethically dubious or especially sexual and sort of confusing for mainstream folks,” they said.
Elena: When someone like Pedro Pascal has “escaped” his fandom, like we saw on the red carpet, there is a lack of context for all these debates that have been going on within fandom since its inception and it becomes fodder for general discourse.
Chase: We also asked Keis about the sense of anonymity online, even among well-known fan accounts. “Many of us spend a lot of our free time recreating on the internet, but we don’t perceive the internet as real and tangible. The things we say aren’t real and don’t have real consequences, so a thirst tweet is allowed, because it’s just fantasizing.” The online receipts attached to posts aren’t as big of a worry as real-world consequences. “We’ve all grown up socialized to how to handle those behaviors in ways that we haven’t necessarily been socialized to manage in internet-based interactions.”
COVID and the “Eternal September”
Elena: Not to bring up the pandemic…but it ushered in a new period online where new, regular internet users started being confronted with extremely online individuals. Amanda Brennan, a meme librarian and senior director of trends at digital marketing agency XX Artists, likened this moment to the “Eternal September” of 1993. During the 80s and 90s first-year college students got internet access every September, and they hadn’t learned how to speak or understand internet culture yet. After September 1993, people started joining the internet all the time.
We haven’t figured out what to do about hot, powerful men.
“So it became September constantly, because people were constantly joining conversations that maybe they didn’t understand, or not learning the etiquette around the ways that you communicate. I think COVID was another Eternal September of everyone coming online because a lot of people went from zero to 100 — from not being online to being online constantly,” Brennan explained to us.
Chase: That’s so real.
The effect of accessible, online celebrities
Elena: The conversation around thirst tweeting is a very specific example of the Eternal September at play. The growth of fandom during the pandemic exacerbates it, too.
Chase: Definitely. Our current social media moment has shifted it — more access to celebs means more pressure, Byam said. “Now we have this media that allows people to be continuously available to their audiences, and the very fact of that means that there’s a continuous pressure to [connect]. That pressure to be engaged is a new kind of labor that has ramifications. The expectation that you ought to be online engaging your people, showing them these more private moments, has opened up a constant need to negotiate boundaries, part of a much broader blurring of boundaries between work and home, professional and personal, public and private.”
Celebrity is really profit-driven, too, as we brought up to Byam. “In order to be professionally viable, displaying some kinds of private phenomena seems to be increasingly expected,” she told us. “If they’re not connecting with their audiences online at any given moment, are they leaving behind a marketing opportunity that could be crucial to the future of their career?”
Technology, and the ways that fans have used it, have exacerbated a lot of boundary disruptions.
Elena: When does a celeb become a commodity? Do they choose that for themselves?
So, has the thirst tweet gone too far?
Chase: When we were discussing this story, something we kept coming back to was the question of consent — people who were upset with the treatment of Pascal discussed it, too. As fans post thirst tweets and horny edits, the general audience is fitting that content into the post #MeToo conversation about sexuality, privacy, and power.
Keis talked to us about this in terms of “male bodily exploitation,” explaining that we’re still debating where non-female presenting people fit into the conversation. “As a culture, we just don’t have a good, agreed-upon model of how far we are willing to allow men’s bodies to be exploited and fetishized… which is increasingly bizarre in a society that also wants to recognize multiple genders and multiple sexualities.”
Elena: Basically, we haven’t figured out what to do about hot, powerful men.
Chase: I sure don’t have the answer.
Both Keis and Byam told us that fans and audiences even have different opinions on who holds the power in the industry.
Elena: Being in the entertainment industry has always been partially about selling sex, and there’s tension over the acceptable ways to sexualize male bodies, especially since they are “clearly the individual in power,” so how harmful could objectifying them on the internet really be?
Chase: Byam says that so far we’ve relied on legal definitions to help guide our behavior. “The law sets boundaries, and groping is actually assault,” she said as an example. “So that’s not OK. Sending too many love letters? There is a point where a court will intervene on that one. But most of it has to be negotiated.”
Elena: A recent example of the law setting a clear right and wrong in fan behavior was a fan groping Paul Mescal, the subject of much online thirst, outside of the theater in London where he’s starring in A Streetcar Named Desire.
Chase: Some sides of the online discourse pose that posting on social media — in bringing fans closer to celebs and bringing celebs into the world of thirsting and memes — can go just as far off the rails.
Technology: fandom friend or foe?
Chase: Talking to experts about this new iteration of celeb boyfriend discourse, they seemed to be unfazed by the “daddy-ification” of Pascal and the culture of thirst tweets — it’s something they’ve seen before, going on for decades now, and something we will continue to witness.
Elena: And the thing that allows for these cyclical conversations is technology’s disruption of social interactions. Byam put it best: “Technology, and the ways that fans have used it, have exacerbated a lot of boundary disruptions, and it’s on all of us to negotiate appropriate boundaries. Technology is always disrupting our boundaries, and giving us the possibility to say, ‘Oh, that doesn’t feel right.'”
Chase: It remains to be seen if we’ll ever decide on what those boundaries are. When the next celeb hottie faces the lust of the internet, we’ll see you back here.