Tracy Clark-Flory did an exciting project on Salon this week. She asked for reader submissions documenting their first celebrity crushes, from diary entries to emails, instant messages and fanmail. It’s accompanied by a smart piece about how she was looking through some old stuff, and accidentally stumbled upon a love letter intended for the Boy Meets World star Rider Strong. It’s a charming tale in many ways, but on a more somber note, Clark-Flory illustrates how such bits of nostalgia may sometimes be just what we need to cling to when life gets rough:
Then I found the unsent love letter and it instantly transported me back to a time when my greatest fear was that Rider Strong might not love me back. It made me wistful for that innocence and simplicity, but it also made the complexity of adulthood — particularly the extremes of life: love, sex and death — seem that much more exquisitely beautiful. The appeal of such a relic goes beyond a good laugh or even providing a perspective on our romantic and sexual development.
She’s really onto something here. And while I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t find any secret love letters to Zac Hanson or Jonathan Taylor Thomas if you could go through my 1997 diary, nostalgia for a simpler time is plenty visible in my Early Gay Crushes series, that personal experiment in Freudian self-examination. And you can see a pattern; the earliest crushes (JTT, Brad Renfro, Joshua Jackson) were the easy ones, before my awareness of heteronormativity and implicit anti-gay bias factored into how I felt about them. They might have been confusing, but in an exciting way, unlike some of the later ones, when I knew (at least implicitly) that these feelings probably had to mean I was gay.
Apart from the particular personal details attached to each of these crushes, though, today I appreciate them most for what they say about the age I grew up in. At heart, I will always be a product of the 1990s. For people just a handful of years older than me, the formative crushes may have been River Phoenix, Johnny Depp or Matt Dillon, and for young people today they may be Zac Efron, Taylor Lautner or Nick Jonas. But for me, they are like a time capsule of 1994 to 1997; from JTT to Zac Hanson, Joshua Jackson to Ryan Phillippe, Brad Renfro to Leonardo DiCaprio. I wouldn’t trade them, or what they meant to me, for anything.
That said, sometimes when the past catches up with you, it can be a little harder to keep to these positive memories. By chance, I rewatched the Chevy Chase comedy Man of the House (1995) on TV tonight. Simply put, it’s about Ben (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) who is trying to sabotage his mother’s new boyfriend (Chevy Chase) in every way possible, no matter how hard he tries to act like a responsible stepfather, and no much to what lengths he goes to make sure Ben knows that he won’t just abandon them, like his Ben’s father did. This movie was the sole reason why I crushed on Jonathan Taylor Thomas back in the day. I’d never seen a single episode of Home Improvement, but I immediately identified with his character, in a way that I’ve later come to understand could only be described as a celebrity crush kind of way. It was an emotional connection, probably more than a physical attraction. The sum of that meant it became one of my most rewatched movies ever.
It doesn’t hold up very well, but I’m not sure it was even supposed to. First, at that age, if the movie was reasonably entertaining, I don’t think its particular qualities would have made much of a difference. JTT probably would have won me over anyway, and my experience with divorced parents moving on to new relationships made me identify with the premise. Second, it’s a fairly generic family comedy, with a sentimental bent. It doesn’t portend to say anything original or crack jokes you haven’t heard before in some form. In that sense, I guess, it achieves what it aims for.
In the final scene, Enigma’s smash hit Return To Innocence plays in the background as the movie reaches its predictable happy ending. It’s a surprisingly fitting comment on everything this movie means to me today. Because the memory of the movie is more important than whether the movie itself is good or bad, and because Jonathan Taylor Thomas is more important to my memory of the movie than the movie, it is really a return to innocence. This could be the last time I watch Man of the House, but like Tracy Clark-Flory’s love letter to Rider Strong, what matters is what the movie represents. Whenever I long for a simpler time, I will continue to bring back memories of a time when Jonathan Taylor Thomas was at the center of my pop-cultural universe.
Update, April 24: The results are in.