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Leonardo DiCaprio taught us about sexual relations - good and bad

Leonardo in 2002, wikicommons

Leo is a once in a lifetime crush for a generation of women

We are first introduced to Leonardo DiCaprio in Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of Romeo + Juliet on Verona beach at sunset. The camera settles on the legs of our hero, before panning upwards to reveal him brooding in translucent golden sunlight, smoking and composing love poetry. He is wearing a suit that seems incongruously adult; blond strands of hair hang over his baby blue eyes, as Thom Yorke listlessly sings “I want to be someone else or I’ll explode.” 
I don’t need to re-watch the film to describe that moment. It is etched into my consciousness, as it is for so many women who were born in the mid-eighties. Lurhmann’s film is often celebrated as a triumphant Shakespeare adaptation, but rarely is it acknowledged as the culturally significant moment it really is: the moment Leonardo DiCaprio was introduced to the world as a Hollywood heartthrob, a moment that would define the sexuality of millions of women everywhere. As a former teen fan of DiCaprio, Roxanne (now 32), told me; “The shot of him smoking in Romeo + Juliet with the sun behind him was our generation's James Dean on a motorbike or Elvis in uniform.”


You simply can’t talk about the sexuality of (hetero and bi) women now in their late twenties and early thirties without talking about Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s hard to overstate what a dominant romantic figure he was in our teenage lives. For many of us, he permitted us to explore desire, fantasy and admit to one another that we had sexual feelings. Leonardo DiCaprio was the lens through which our sexuality was developed. 28-year-old Joana remembers “posters being put up for the first time (before it was all horses and hamsters) and Leo would be passionately kissed on the mouth.”
In the 1990s, DiCaprio was almost like a cult figure exclusively for adolescent heterosexual girls. For 29-year-old Louise “it was kind of like Beatlesmania. We just were obsessed with knowing things about him (his mum is German; he grew up in LA). We just watched hours of his films – Titanic and Romeo and Juliet, but then we all had copies of The Basketball Diaries and What's Eating Gilbert Grape. He was a benchmark for us, the one boy we all loved.”

Dangerous but safe

There was something about the characters DiCaprio played in Romeo and Juliet and Titanic in particular that seemed to trigger delirium in teenage girls. He played those roles with a kind of wild energy that mellowed into non-threatening romantic love whenever the female lead was on screen. In Titanic, it is Kate Winslet’s character Rose who initiates sex between the pair and observes that DiCaprio is “trembling” afterwards. In Romeo & Juliet, a battle-scarred DiCaprio sneaks into Juliet’s bedroom and melts into her arms after fighting Tybalt. 


In those films, DiCaprio exhibited untamed masculinity alongside safety and unconditional love. The fact that the relationships the film depicted were short-lived made them seem fragile and urgent. Those qualities allowed girls to go absolutely crazy with desire for him. He belonged to us but he was unattainable, he was dangerous but safe; protective but vulnerable. 
I spoke to a lot of women about the effect DiCaprio had on them. “I LOVED him,” was the most common response. 28-year-old Elle says, “We've grown up with him. He made his progression into adult roles seemingly alongside our sexual development.” Anyone who found the hype surrounding his overdue Oscar win excessive doesn’t understand that many women of my age feel a personal connection to DiCaprio. He has helped shape us. He feels familiar.
If DiCaprio was so important to teenage girls, it’s useful to ask whether his influence was positive or negative. As Karyn Fulcher of the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society puts it, “Adolescence is a period of fairly intense learning about sexuality and relationships, and the feelings that might seem insignificant to adults are an important part of that learning process. Crushes and first romantic and/or sexual relationships help young people discover who they find attractive, learn how to communicate well with potential partners, and figure out what they want out of sexual or romantic relationships in the future.” 
In some ways, DiCaprio was a helpful presence in our teenage lives. Girls are usually encouraged to compete with each other for male attention, but in DiCaprio we united over our nascent sexual feelings. The fact that we would never meet him meant that we could never seriously fight over him, in sharp contrast to our relationships with our male classmates, which often divided us. His presence gave us a relatively harmless way of dealing with a time of extreme change and allowed us to own our sexual feelings and explore them independently.

Unrealistic expectations

But it wasn’t all positive. Romeo and Jack Dawson (his character in Titanic) taught us that love is at its best when it is intense and ultimately tragic and that we could tame unruly men by loving them into submission. It’s debatable to what extent DiCaprio’s characters created or simply reinforced these romantic tropes, but his films were probably the first time many of us had ever seriously come into contact with them. Thirty-one-year-old Anna saw Romeo & Juliet when she was 12: “Brooding, poetic, troubled, passionate... the way he played Romeo definitely influenced what I find attractive, and probably gave me unrealistic expectations of relationships.”


DiCaprio’s strikingly Aryan looks ensured that our standards of beauty were definitively white. 28-year-old Sarah says, “as I got a bit older, I realised that – bar a brief, passing interest – boys who look like [Leo] are generally not interested in girls that look like me. I'm brown, with brown eyes and frizzy hair and they were the perfect Aryan boys. That was a pretty harsh lesson to learn, especially when your parents and other adults tell you you're pretty and you think you're alright. No one explains how white supremacy works in this respect.” 
It would be ludicrous to argue that DiCaprio singlehandedly created our notions of attractiveness and romance – his success in those years largely depended on the fact that those tropes were already in place. But it would also be remiss to suggest that his presence didn’t consolidate those tropes for women of my age, given the unique part he played in our sexual development. Would women like Sarah have learned such a brutal lesson about the inherent racism of beauty standards without the overwhelming presence of an Aryan pin-up in her life?
Society does many disservices to adolescent girls, and one of them is to consistently dismiss their feelings as frivolous. Our crushes had an unrealistic intensity that seems embarrassing now, but they were important nevertheless. Leonardo DiCaprio is a figure that helped millions of girls explore big questions about love and sex at a time when they were extremely impressionable, and that makes him one of the most important cultural icons of the late 20th and early 21st century. The girls who loved him may have grown into women who have binned the scrapbooks and taken the posters down, but perhaps Kate Winslet’s promise at the end of Titanic rings true: we’ll never quite let go.  


Ellie Mae O'Hagan is a journalist writing mainly for the Guardian and Independent. She also works for the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (Class), a think tank focusing on the labour market and inequality.