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The Rise of the Himbo: Why Playing Dumb Is Working for Ryan Lochte

Ryan Lochte turns 28 today. He has achieved a tremendous amount for such a young age, rising to the very top of the international swimming world and racking up 11 career Olympic medals.  And yet, if this highlight reel of his interviews is to be believed, he thinks that seven times four comes out to 21. Can he really as slow out of the pool as he is fast in it?

Who cares, seems to be the answer for the many, many women who have joined the internet's informal Ryan Lochte fan club this week. In fact, if he is? All for the better! That hilariously dumb jock persona seems to be part of the appeal for plenty of them. (OK, if we are being painfully honest, I should probably say “us.” I can’t stop watching that video.)  On New York magazine’s Cut blog, the ladies have gleefully compiled a slideshow of cheesecake shots of Lochte, accompanied by his “deep thoughts” from Twitter. “Always reach for the moon cuz if u slip up u will still be a star!! #Jeah.” There are lots of equally Greek-god-proportioned men at the Olympics, but none have gotten the attention Lochte has, and that doesn’t have to do only with his appearances on the medal stand.

“Jeah,” by the way, is Lochte’s personal catchphrase, stolen from Young Jeezy. (He generally seems to favor rappers who hit their stride during his late college years. Draw your own conclusions on what this means about the pace of his emotional maturation.) Jeah is like something Aziz Ansari might come up with to punctuate his Parks and Recreation character, Tom Haverford, at his most absurd;  Jezebel uses it as the first of “10 Reasons Why Ryan Lochte Is America's Sexiest Douchebag.” Other highlights included his pride, at age 27, at finally being over the college dating scene, and his mom’s explanation of why he prefers one-night stands. “A sick, sad part of me read about Ryan’s gregarious genitalia and felt momentarily encouraged—MAYBE THAT MEANS THAT HE’LL SLEEP WITH ME—but then my hormone haze dissipated and I realized that 1- I’m engaged to marry a guy who I like an awful lot and 2- Gross,” wrote Erin Gloria Ryan on the site. Lochte is feminism’s guiltiest pleasure.

Lochte is not as dumb as he’s playing on TV. Setting aside the unavoidable fact that elite athleticism requires intelligence: Any competitive swimmer does plenty of mental math to calculate his splits in practice every single day. Lochte knows his multiplication tables. Look at the gleam in his eye, and the expectant way the reporter asked the question. He also knows his brand—and that brand is himbo. As Lauren Bans explained in GQ recently, “It’s not like idiots only recently became amusing. But none of them were quite as blatantly objectified as today’s himbos. We’ve been building toward this moment, and now we’ve fully embraced the existence of the insipid-on-the-inside, bronzed-on-the-outside male sex object. Turning on the TV these days is kinda like being at a bachelorette party. Never have the lusting-for and laughing-at impulses blended so seamlessly.”

Bans was writing in part about Magic Mike, the Steven Soderbergh movie about male strippers in Tampa that was really more about the frustration of the blue-collar man in this post-decline economy than it was about assless chaps. (Well, maybe it was equal parts economic parable and occasion for jokes about a penis pump as the film's best supporting actor?)  Fellow Floridian Lochte could easily be cast in the sequel; his personal style, the white-boy-does-hip-hop, looks an awful lot like what Channing Tatum’s character favors in the film. There’s a world of economic difference between endorsement-rich Lochte, with his 130 pairs of sneakers, and  a struggling exotic dancer in Ybor City with a tricked-out truck and $13,000 in a safe (and as anyone knows who saw that movie, Magic Mike is neither dumb nor a douchebag), but both reminded me of what Susan Faludi, writing in the 1990s, labelled “ornamental masculinity”—“objectification, passivity, infantilization, pedestal-perching, and mirror-gazing” in the face of the disappearance of opportunities for “real” expressions of manly manliness.

I encountered the Faludi phrase recently in Hanna Rosin’s excellent The End of Men, a rigorously reported update to the Faludi, out next month. Her sweeping argument, laid out in The Atlantic a few years ago, boils down to this: In all spheres, women are rising just as fast as men—particularly working-class men—seem to be sinking.  Lochte might be plenty buoyant himself, but he’s still a product of whatever it is this new gender dynamic has done to the way many young men think about themselves in relation to the world. And so are the women reveling in his blank stare and bare chest.