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Imaginary Idols Redux

Adam+Lambert+AdamtwtpngYesterday, March 27, 2014, NBCUniversal announced that Television Without Pity would be shut down, effective April 4, 2014. There is a lot to be said about TWoP’s role in developing the critical voice of enthusiasm with which many of us still speak about the popular culture we love (and love to hate). And, beyond its larger cultural significance, TWoP was personally important to both Sarahs of Avidly– both of us found a home there as we figured out how to participate in smart fandom, and Sarah Blackwood ended up writing for the site for a few years in graduate school. Below, we are republishing Sarah Mesle’s piece about Adam Lambert, American Idol, Twilight, TWoP writer Jacob Clifton, and the history and present of sexuality which originally appeared in Avidly in January 2013.


This week, in January 2013, it’s worth pausing to commemorate a watershed inaugural moment of four years ago—a moment when America made a space for an erstwhile outsider at the center of its cultural life.  I speak, of course, of the moment when Adam Lambert beat Danny Gokey, progressing to the American Idol finale.

Despite what you may think, the outsider that interests me is not necessarily “the gay singer.”  Instead, it’s “the fan girl.” As American Idol slouches into its tragic thirteenth season (Adam’s half-victory was so consummate, I think, the show died spiritually thereafter), one of the things we can surely expect is a slew of people and pundits deriding the show and, especially, its female fans—those girls who cathect, grotesquely, sexually, onto strange, half-made objects of idolotry.  What is wrong with them, we wonder?

Let me posit this: nothing is wrong with them. Those fangirls have the potential–as they did in 2008–to do something very right. At least, that’s how I’ve come to think about the issue, given my own history with three unobtainable idols: Jacob Clifton, Edward Cullen, and yes, Adam Lambert.


Idol 1: Talk Hard

Sometime around the turn of the millennium, my friend Melissa introduced me to the website Television Without Pity. TWoP-style recaps were new, then, and I discovered they were the perfect medium for me to interface with the show Dawson’s Creek, which I loved unironically even as I knew it was stoooopid. Which is to say, I loved Dawson’s Creek in a way not dissimilar from the way I loved a lot of boys growing up, boys whose every gesture meant something important to me even as, I well knew, those boys were dumb.  Or maybe they were not dumb.  But whether they were dumb or not dumb had actually nothing to do with the ways and whys of me, unrequitedly, loving them, which was all about me figuring my own shit out.

Anyway, even after I stopped loving Dawson’s Creek I kept reading Television Without Pity because I had discovered this writer on there, Jacob Clifton, who was like a magical agent of television revelation. Smart, invested, over the top: a huge personality parcelled out word-by-word through my fawned over computer screen.

dawsonApril of 2005 I sent Jacob Clifton a fan email that might be the most embarrassing thing I have ever written, which is saying something, and I would post it for you here now except that I wrote it from a grad school email account that has since been closed (truth!). There may have been some sort of comparison made between Jacob Clifton and Mark Hunter.

I was so embarassed by this fangirl behavior that I confessed it to a friend, who admitted that she too was enamored with Jacob Clifton!  JACOB CLIFTON!!! we said to each other, wide eyed. We were both comfortably thirty-something and in satisfying relationships. Yet this virtual swooning went on for quite some time, as in, until now. Key to this story is that, for most of the time my friend and I were JACOB CLIFTONing ecstatically together, neither of us had ever met or even tweeted with him; he existed entirely in somewhat crazed descriptions of television shows, only some of which I watched.

What I learned from this is that you shouldn’t ridicule fangirls for choosing inaccessible objects when you chose yourself, as the object of your own fangirl love, an object whose physical person you have never seen. And I learned this, too: all of the qualities that made my infatuation seem, on the surface, immature and embarassing and ridiculous were also the very qualities that made it a) a terribly interesting topic of conversation with my lady friend and b) sort of, though not relationally, and also not even exactly sexually, but still, somehow: hot.


Idol 2: Your Perfect Scent

I read Twilight on Whitney and Jen’s couch. It’s a lucky happenstance that I discovered Twilight in a slumber-party atmosphere hard to come by in your thirties: the sheer brilliance of the book might not have been as apparent to me if my every readerly squeal had not been echoed back to me by two equally stirred friends. I remember being curled in the corner of the couch while Whit and Jen made dinner and looking up at them, again wide-eyed: “SHE IS HIS PERFECT SCENT.” And Whit and Jen staring back at me, nodding vigorously, I KNOW, I KNOW, all of us quite hushed (our kids were sleeping) but very all-caps in our intensity and body language.

Let me remind you of the key details of Twilight, volume one: this girl Bella encounters a dude who is a vampire, Edward Cullen, who is not only hot but the hottest dude imaginable, and here’s the thing, Bella’s body exudes this vampire’s perfect scent.  The mere proximity of her body makes him wild with a deep, sucking, desire: she is his perfect object of desire! But, brilliantly, he loves Bella and doesn’t want—I mean, he wants, but he also doesn’t really want, but then, he does—to let loose his desire, and leave Bella all ravished and taken and sucked.

I will never have a “real” relationship Edward Cullen not only because he is imaginary but also because I am not, at the end of the day, Team Edward.  I am Team Perfect Scent. Team Perfect Scent is all about desire that you don’t have to fulfill: you can just talk about it, while figuring shit out. So say what you will about Stephenie Meyer’s prose and the travails of feminine passivity: until we have the vocabulary and a political wherewithal to recognize what Meyer named in the phrase “my perfect scent,” then we will not be able to talk about the very important shit that girls are doing when they freak out about Edward Cullen or RPattz or the Beatles or the New Kids on the Block, or in my case, Bono and a bunch of nameless beloved dudes and unseen Jacob Clifton.

To my mind, not only is Twilight not “about” stalkerish pair-bonding, it’s not finally about pair-bonding at all. It’s about Bella having a real boyfriend who, through the logic of Meyer’s brilliant fantasy, is also an imaginary boyfriend! She gets to have the unbridled freedom of sexual imagination while also rubbing on this hot dude’s chest, because Edward (like no real boyfriend ever would) will always protect her from the dangerous possible outcomes of desire. I mean, hot. Also, Bella gets to tell us all about it, and we get to listen, as though we were curled up on her couch, BFFing all over.


Idol 3: Every Inch of my Love

Okay, so Adam Lambert. The thing that was most shocking about Adam Lambert was not that he was gay but rather that for a brief shining moment he was not gay but just hot. Actually, he was always something that people call gay, in that he had sex with men and had had an emotional coming out moment with his mother.  But there was this moment when he was blowing the American Idol hive mind with hotness while also not coming out as gay, and that brief period was this really great moment when American Idol was the queerest thing going because it was, really, like, sexuality can be anything. Anything. Even if Adam Lambert was not exactly your cup of tea–and in many ways he isn’t mine–it was hard not to be aware that something amazing was happening.  Adam Lambert, it seemed, was everybody’s perfect scent.

Here’s how this essay comes together. Jacob Clifton recapped American Idol, where he sometimes talked about his imaginary love affair with Dawson Leery, and Adam Lambert was on American Idol, in a way that reminded everyone of Edward Cullen (who is imaginary) and Robert Pattinson (who is imagined to be Edward Cullen).

Adam Lambert’s first American Idol voting performance—he sang the Rolling Stones’s “Satisfaction”—was not only gayer than all the other performances, it was also hotter and better. While gayness has a long, troubling history on American Idol–on this the topic, Jacob Clifton is the best–Adam Lambert brought such profound hot gay betterness to the table that the only way anyone could talk about it was by referring, immediately, to Edward Cullen/RPattz. Why compare an American Idol contestant to an imaginary vampire?  I think it’s more than the guyliner. I think America, as a spontaneous collective, found “Edward Cullen” to be a useful cipher through which to talk about Adam Lambert because both those dudes became focal points for an unbridled girlish sexual energy that can come into play when there’s no one to have actual sex with.

But then, what is sex, after all?  The Adam Lambert/“Edward Cullen” comparison makes us think about that too. Because our culture uses this word “sex” to talk about both a physiological act and psychological experience.  And what if, as a psychological experience—one that is intensely connecting, and is both self-generating and self-shattering—a girl might find more and better “sex” while screaming at Adam Lambert than she might in the genital contact available to her? Fangirl sexuality shows us a world of sheer attractive possibility—a world where we can think beyond the limiting categories of “gay” and “straight” and even “real” and “not real.”

It’s like the song “Satisfaction” itself.  Such a tantalizing contradiction. The lyric repeats “well I try and I try and I try and I try,” apparently getting no where, while the music escalates pantingly to ultimately, bangingly, underscore the final climatic assertion, “I can’t get no!”  The lyrics insist on the denial of “satisfaction;” the music reaches a fevered jouissance. In “Satisfaction,” it seems, “getting no” is no obstacle to getting some. So, too, in fangirl sex.

Girls project love onto distant objects so they can bond with each other and so they can do the work of self-discovery that comes from intensely relating to another person. Because girls are very vulnerable (to pregnancy, disease, stigma, rape, Todd Akin, etc), this intense relating is safer, and even better, when the object of desire isn’t actually there. That our impoverished sexual vocabulary makes these girls seem ridiculous might say more about us—and the world we requires girls to live in—than it does about them.

What I am saying here is that girls who don’t have sex have a lot to teach us about what sex could possibly be. And I am also saying that girls, in apparently the most mass-produced and heteronormative public spectacles, are writing a history of sexuality that is—to take a word valorized by a left-leaning public intellectual culture that perhaps too often leaves girls by the wayside—profoundly, joyfully, queer.


Sarah Mesle: A little judgy.


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  1. TWOP Was incredibly important, the archives contain some of the best writing on the internet, and Jacob Clifton is God. The woman who recapped 7th Heaven was awesome too.

  2. John j Owens commented on Avidly:

    TWOP Was incredibly important, the archives contain some of the best writing on the internet, and Jacob Clifton is God. The woman who recapped 7th Heaven was awesome too.


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