“Women are not in love with me but with the picture of me on the screen. I am merely the canvas on which women paint their dreams. “
Rudolph Valentino – 1923

Silent movie star, Rudolph Valentino, was the sex-object of the very first widely recognized instance teen idol hysteria. Gael Sweeney, author of The Face on the Lunchbox, connects Valentino’s remarkable self-awareness with the larger teen idol phenomenon:

“Idols…are more unstable mas­culine figures because, unlike stars, they depend on the gaze of women. Their masculinity is troubled and often feminized, their roles problematic, their attitudes verging on camp. Idols often have fanati­cal, even cultlike followings, usually made up of women, gay men, or other disempowered groups. In his book, Stars, Richard Dyer discusses the “partic­ularly intense star-audience relationships [that] oc­cur amongst adolescents and women [and gay men who] all share a peculiarly intense degree of role/identity conflict and pressure and an . . . exclusion from the dominant articulacy of, respectively, adult, male, heterosexual culture” (37).”

“Rudolph Valentino, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Elvis Presley are all idols presenting flawed or ambiguous sexuality. In her article on Valentino, Mir­iam Hansen discusses ways in which that idol was reviled by the mainstream press for his image as a male vamp, something both foreign and feminized,and because Valentino literally made a “spectacle” of himself, posing a threat to “natural” and reticent American virility (23-24). Valentino, like all idols, not only accepts the gaze of the female spectator but encourages it. This makes idols subversive of the dominant order: If a woman is not just allowed but inspired and stimulated to look at her object of de­sire with pleasure equal to a man’s, then that domi­nance is threatened.”

Below is a controversial rape-scene from his most famed film “The Shiek”:

Obviously, this clip, while…let’s say…of interest, isn’t exactly empowering. Yet the real life Valentino is a central figure in girl-culture history, and his encouragement of their spectatorship and pride in being a woman-elevated figure in Hollywood, was certainly feminist.

Valentino died at the height of his success at age 31, where 100,000 women are said to have caused riots at his funeral, some even (legend has it) committing suicide in the chaos. Whether or not this is true, the sheer excess of the women in this legend is a transgression of womens’ ascribed roles in Hollywood lore.

In “researching” Valentino, I was amazed how queered he was in iconography. I know that the silent movie stars all wore makeup etc. etc., but these images are especially gender-bending:

Valentino is a man who lived a celebrity without precedent. How much of the construction of the “teen idol” is socio-historical (based primarily in Valentino’s androgynous template), and how much of it is intuitive, or– though I despise the word– “natural”? Why was the first teen idol a movie star and not (as is much more common) a music star? Was it because Valentino predates rock ‘n’ roll/pop? Can Valentino be seen as a historical figure in rock ‘n’ roll, having set the standard for the ideal fandom?

Most important: with the 19th Amendment ratified in the United States 1920, was Valentino’s meteoric rise in 1921 somehow connected to the anxiety/energy surrounding women’s liberation?

Questions, questions, questions and yet all I know for sure: the guy was cute.

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