cheryl strayed

Behold the “Sexy Chill Dream Guy”

From 'Nashville' to 'Game of Thrones,' Michiel Huisman is servicing TV’s strongest female characters. Should we feel guilty for objectifying him?

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He shows up at just the right time, with just the right hair—long enough to be rebellious, short enough to be unmistakably masculine—and just the right beard and just the right smolder in his eyes. We know what he’s there for the second we see him; he is there to give our heroine the sex she needs and deserves. He will be passionate in the right places and respectful in the right places. He will support her as a unique and strong person.

And when it’s over and it’s time for our heroine to do the important things she must do to be our heroine, he will disappear conveniently until he is needed again, like a baby on a sitcom. He is the Sexy Chill Dream Guy, and he is a type being pioneered by one brave actor, Michiel Huisman—known for providing empowering sexual escapades to the likes of Connie Britton’s Faith Hill-like character on Nashville and Reese Witherspoon as hiker Cheryl Strayed in Wild. In Game of Thrones this season, his warrior character, Daario, is happy to talk through battle plans with the conquering Khaleesi in bed after some great sex. (Extra points for the naked stroll around the bedchamber.) And his bedroom eyes do no less than inspire Blake Lively to consider giving up immortality in The Age of Adaline, which opens tonight.

Objectification is never ideal, and I’m not a fan of reverse sexism just for the sake of turnabout—a lot of the reaction to Magic Mike, for instance, made me squeamish. But if we’re going to have a go-to male character trope, this one seems like a great sign for women.

Male film and TV characters have had their Manic Pixie Dream Girl officially since the term was coined by Nathan Rabin, writing for the AV Club in 2007. “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures,” Rabin wrote. He was referring to Kirsten Dunst’s stewardess character in Elizabethtown, but Zooey Deschanel soon became the poster girl for the MPDG. She was so doll-like but sexy, so dude-cool but feminine, so free-spirited and, above all, quirky, that nebbishy, aggressively relatable leading men found their ability to truly let go and love when they laid eyes on her.

The term Manic Pixie Dream Girl was so dead-on it inspired a backlash. Some critics wondered if naming this type only reinforced it. It has since been deconstructed, no more so than by Deschanel’s works: In 500 Days of Summer, she played a woman who seemed like an MPDG, but actually demonstrated the dangers to young men of seeing a quirky free spirit as nothing more than your personal one-dimensional salvation. In New Girl, she plays a quirky free spirit with many other dimensions, and with the self-knowledge to realize her quirk and free-spiritedness can be just as irritating as they are inspiring.

So is it different when it’s a male stock character? A Sexy Chill Dream Guy, who gives our favorite heroines orgasms and supports them as strong individuals—produces their albums, helps them hatch battle plans?

We’ve seen Sexy Chill Dream Guys before the rise of Huisman, but they have been rare creatures. I remember loving the 1997 movie Contact so much because it was about a fearless female scientist played by Jodie Foster—who in her rare spare time slept with man-candy Matthew McConaughey. He was, quite strikingly, playing the role usually reserved for “the girl.” Catherine Shoard at The Guardian coined the term “arthouse stud monkey” in 2009 to refer to a similar breed popping up in some indie films. And the “Feminist Ryan Gosling” Internet meme basically made the handsome actor into a paper-doll version of a Sexy Chill Dream Guy. But even romantic comedies, which explicitly target women, have long managed to put their male leads on equal footing with their heroines, while the action movies that target men almost always include a female “love” interest in scanty clothing with an even scantier inner life.

Turnabout sexism may not be fair play, but it also doesn’t hold nearly as much weight as the centuries of objectification that women have suffered, in real life and fiction. It’s going to take a lot more than a sensitive, sexy male character without his own plot to undo patriarchy. So the Sexy Chill Dream Guy is a relatively good sign for female depiction in film and TV; he is a symptom of female characters so empowered that they don’t have time to waste on getting and keeping men. What’s particularly great about Huisman’s characters is that they dismantle the idea that women can’t “have it all,” at least when it comes to kicking ass and also getting some. The heroines he courts aren’t forced to choose between the “feminine” ideal of attracting a man and the “masculine” success of killing it at their jobs or hiking the entire Pacific Coast Trail. They’re not shamed for the few-strings-attached sex they’re having in their down time. And they’re not forced to pine for him afterwards.

That said, the sex with him often is quite important for our heroines. On Nashville, he provided Britton’s Rayna James her first post-marital sex (while also producing the edgy new album that made her a more independent artist and, eventually, a label head). On Game of Thrones, the Khaleesi hasn’t had a lover since her very hot, but very unequal, pairing with the late Khal. With the Khal, she was learning about sex through him; he always dominated. Her relationship with Huisman’s Daario is a coupling of sexual equals—and outside the bedroom, she’s literally his boss. In Wild, he’s barely onscreen, but his one-night stand with Cheryl represents her transition from sordid sex addiction to healthy, unencumbered sexuality.

Rabin eventually apologized for even coining the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl, so often was the term repeated—and used to dismiss female characters, or even entire human actresses (named Zooey Deschanel). I don’t think we’ll ever have to apologize for the Sexy Chill Dream Guy, which is exactly the point: Because we still live in a sexist society, we need him in a way we definitely don’t need the MPDG. Michiel Huisman, thank you for your service.

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