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How Benedict Cumberbatch Became Everyone’s Imaginary Boyfriend
How did Cumberbatch become the blank slate onto which our unnervingly candid desires were scrawled?
BY ALANA MASSEY
Back in 2009, Leomaniacs, as DiCaprio’s fans are identified, set a gold standard for Real Person Fiction (RPF), the divisive genre within fan fiction that focuses on celebrities themselves rather than the characters they portray. Fan sites were littered with messianic allusions and sexual encounters as told by non-native English-speaking virgins. The infamous “Pussy Posse” of the '90s New York club scene made appearances. He ate his on-record favorite foods post-coitus and dramatically broke up with supermodel girlfriends for special fangirls. Leomaniacs just really painted you a picture.
And then in October, GeoCities shut down and took the best of these smutty collections to their shadowy digital graves.
I scoured the web for years, seeking the heirs apparent to Leomaniacs. The Gyllenhaalics and the Directioners made respectable showings, with Midwestern imaginings of hip New York and anatomically-baffling gang bangs set in American high schools, respectively. They paled in comparison. But earlier this year, an unlikely star burst onto the international scene and brought with him a following dubbed the “Cumberbitches.”
In mid-December, Caitlin Moran thought it would be funny to have the stars of the hugely popular Sherlock series read their own erotic fan fiction at a preview of Season 3. The stunt fell terribly short and not only because it veered into mean-spiritedness, but because erotic fan fiction is old news. I love the stuff, but it’s old news. But a new breed of fan fiction with the RPF genre is worthy of note, as it relates to the nature of celebrity and fandom: The Ultra Domestic, Mundane RPF in which Cumberbatch stars frequently.
The illegitimate child of a Bengal monitor dragon and Conan O’Brien, Cumberbatch has that certain je-ne-sais-Quasimodo sex appeal that talented but strange-looking performers sometimes develop after several good roles and charming interviews. They are often British and never female. Since I am being mean, I should say on record that I. Would. Totally. Hit. That. After all, I didn’t land at the most delightfully perverse RPF dedicated blog I’ve ever seen, Imagine Benedict Cumberbatch, by accident.
On the site the Cumberbitches use the prompt “Imagine Benedict Cumberbatch…” to lay out their fantasies. But instead of the standard narratives of attention, courtship, and super-sexy sex, most of the submissions are teaser glimpses at intimate and often boring moments with him. Erotic elements are a common thread but smut is reserved for “Wicked Wednesday.” And while the smut skews entertainingly in a BDSM direction (thanks 50 Shades of Grey), it is the content on the other six days of the week that makes this phenomenon more curious.
There is Very Human Boyfriend Benedict: “Imagine Benedict Cumberbatch suggesting you make a blanket fort together;” “Imagine Benedict Cumberbatch becoming addicted to video games;” “Imagine Benedict Cumberbatch farting. We all do it. He does it too.”
There is Doting Father Benedict: “Imagine you are hugely pregnant and Benedict Cumberbatch is painting your toenails, rubbing your back, and brushing your hair;” “Imagine Benedict Cumberbatch playing pirate with his children;” “Imagine Benedict Cumberbatch with gray hair, holding your first grandchild for the first time.”
And finally, there is Understanding Depository of Your Dark Secrets Benedict: “Imagine Benedict Cumberbatch finding out you’re infertile after months of trying for a baby;” “Imagine Benedict Cumberbatch coming home to witness you in the middle of having a panic attack, they’re rare but sometimes they just happen and you can’t explain them, Benedict drops everything to calmly gather you up in his arms and whisper that its all going to be okay; ” “Imagine Benedict Cumberbatch loving you. You have flaws. You don’t think you’re good looking enough for him, you don’t think you’re glamorous or posh enough for him. All you are is you. Nothing more and nothing less, and yet he loves you with all of his mind, body and soul...”
It is an unnervingly candid collection of thinly-veiled projections of unrequited emotional and romantic desires. How did Cumberbatch become the blank slate onto which these desires were scrawled? I reached out to fans for answers. It turns out his fans are exceptionally kind and generous toward one another, even when they are uncomfortable with the volume of RPFs about him.
Catarina, a Swedish fan who is more of a Martin Freeman girl, explains his appeal, “He comes across as a bit of a dork, which pulls a bit at those maternal strings (well, mine anyway.) He’s funny, he seems very sweet (have yet to hear anyone having a bad experience when meeting him), and in a good light he looks absolutely gorgeous.”
In the aggregate, these micro-fictions make up what a fan named Frida calls “the communal daydream” about something that we all indulge in privately anyway: intimacy with strangers. Frida, an RPF consumer rather than creator, says, “RPF is, in the end, a fictionalized version of a celebrity based on the things they choose to present to us. It fulfills a very human desire for connectedness and intimacy in a way that does not actually jeopardize the safety of the public figure in question.”
The issue then, lies with what Cumberbatch chooses to present. It is a lot. Not anticipating his rise to A-List status, he has openly discussed a desire for children. He speaks respectfully about his ex-girlfriend. And in the aforementioned Moran profile, he offered a rare glimpse into family life that a more established star would have known better than to reveal.
In it, his mother implores Moran to find him “a bird” as she prepares a roast whiles his father makes gin and tonics in a cottage decorated in owls. There is even a cameo by Kate Moss’ country house! The whole thing was very English. It is candid, charming, and oozing sincerity, much like his other public appearances.
Naomi, the editor of popular fan site CumberbatchWeb, who receives but does not publish fan fiction, says the piece, “did a wonderful job of capturing him and made him seem very warm, very friendly, and very kind and which probably propelled him to the top of the fantasy boyfriend list.” It offered a scene into which fans could insert themselves, complete with likeable in-laws and a cozy place to spend Christmas.
It is not hard to see the reciprocal relationship between celebrity personas and the fictions they inspire. Jake Gyllenhaal has a beard and takes you somewhere vaguely cool. One Direction confuses you sexually and has confusing sex with you. Leonardo DiCaprio fucks supermodels on yachts and is as a larger-than-life god figure. Benedict Cumberbatch is a humble feminist who lunches with his parents and happily picks up your Klonopin prescription and holds your hand during IVF.
Naomi says, “Fanworks are written by fans for fans for them to appreciate. They don't really stand up to the gaze of the outsider.” But in an online economy of shares and reblogs, outsiders are regularly brought in to gaze, often in horror.
The curators of the blog are admirably defiant of their haters, mostly those who find the site embarrassing to “normal” fans. They post the enraged pleas to take down the site and the webmasters gleefully refuse. There is a certain amount of bravery involved in revealing the twisted fantasies and crippling insecurities that we heap onto our imaginary partners, famous or otherwise.
So go on and get fucked by a Cumbertentacle, have a baby or two hundred, and grow old together indulging moments of kink and self-doubt. The rest of us will be just outside, gazing in and pretending not to be nearly as lonely as all of that. After all, why have a roll in the hay when you can build a lifetime together, fictional or otherwise?
Sherlock Season 3 premieres on January 19th in the United States.
Image via BBC.