Leonardo DiCaprio & The Decline of The ’90s Heartthrob

Leonardo DiCaprio remains forever etched in our collective memory as the archetypal 90s heartthrob. The problem is – does Leo remain forever that in his own mind, unable to move on to a more mature self-image (and mature, long-term partner)? And has our culture largely moved on from that 90s male ideal he’s clinging to? Today’s male beauty standards for young guys have something in common with the boyish, sweet innocent looks of the 90s – but there’s also a lot that’s changed.


Do young women still have a thing for Leonardo DiCaprio? The 48 year old keeps making news for only dating women under 25 - and even though he claims to be “bothered” by that reputation and did briefly date 27 year-old Gigi Hadid, he’s been linked to yet another ultra-young woman, this time 19 years-old. Yet even if he’s attracting young beautiful celebrities, this behavior isn’t going over well to a wider audience and is just making the nearly 50 year-old come across as…kinda skeezy.

Leo remains forever etched in our collective memory as the archetypal 90s heartthrob. The problem is – does Leo remain forever that in his own mind, unable to move on to a more mature self-image and mature, long-term partner? And has our culture largely moved on from that 90s male ideal he’s clinging to?

Rose: ”I’m flying! Jack!” – Titanic

Today’s male beauty standards for young guys have something in common with the boyish, sweet innocent looks of the 90s – but there’s also a lot that’s changed. We know so much more about our heartthrobs today. We don’t just come into contact with them via movie screens or magazine pages. We watch the minutiae of their lives, and are able to talk to them directly.

And a consequence of that is formerly beloved 90s heartthrobs like Leo falling out of favor, if the reality doesn’t match up to the fantasy we’d previously been living with. Here’s our take on how relationship with heartthrobs has changed, and how Leo’s 90s version is getting left behind.

Annie: “Any of your pictures ruined?”

Hallie: “Only the beautiful Leo DiCaprio.” – The Parent Trap

The 90s heartthrob like Leonardo DiCaprio, Keanu Reeves, or Luke Perry was clean-cut, and boyish, with a soft, pretty-boy beauty. They weren’t majorly buff, or athletic, or even that strong looking. They played roles that came across as, for the most part, good boys.

Most of the heartthrobs we associate with the 90s were introduced to us as high schoolers. Before Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio was a troubled soul in The Basketball Diaries. Keanu Reeves was a goofy slacker in Bill and Ted. Ethan Hawke an eager student in Dead Poet’s Society. Paul Rudd a preppy kid in Clueless. This was a golden age of high school rom-coms, and TV dramas, and so the guys who were set up as the leading men had to fit into this ecosystem

And the roles these heartthrobs played within the high school context were more often than not pretty innocent. Very rarely did these heartthrobs lead girls astray. They were there to support the female character and help her develop into her best self and the look plays into that. The baby face, the foppish hair. It’s a dreamy, conventional kind of attractiveness. Even the ones who maybe pushed against this mold and played more rebellious characters — Christian Slater in Heathers, or Johnny Depp in Cry Baby — still don’t look too different. They’re just styled with an exciting “bad boy”, pretty boy look.

Jason Dean: “Dreadful etiquette, I apologize.”Heathers

And also, they don’t always stay bad boys. Heath Ledger is the more rebellious high school heartthrob in 10 Things I Hate About You, but by the end of the film he’s changed, and seen the error of his ways. Even someone like Jess Mariano in Gilmore Girls is given more depth and richness to almost explain away his bad boy behavior.

But the reality was that these were famous movie stars who likely weren’t leading the buttoned-up, innocent lives they portrayed. In 1998 film Celebrity, DiCaprio himself plays Brandon Darrow, the epitome of the obnoxious 90s heartthrob. He’s glamorous yet arrogant, insufferable and thinks he’s above the law. This character is no doubt a caricature and a worst-case scenario, but in that era, heartthrobs could retain a perfect movie image while remaining more hidden by the whole celebrity machine.

There are definite similarities between today’s heartthrobs and the 90s heartthrob look. Harry Styles, Timothee Chalamet, Shawn Mendes, Joe Keery, Cole Sprouse — all have a similar boyish, innocent beauty that feels in keeping with the 90s style. However, there are subtle differences that speak to what people want from their heartthrobs now.

A lot of today’s heartthrobs deliberately go against the heteronormativity that felt far more present in the 90s. Beauty expert Laura Kay argues that this softer, more queer-coded performance of masculinity is seen as the antithesis of “toxic masculinity”, and so is desired for that reason. It’s also hard to ignore the influence of South Korean culture in helping to define this aesthetic. Now that K-Pop has gone global, driven by the huge success of bands like BTS, this aesthetic has crossed over and become embraced.

J-Hope: “I own Snoopy clothes and pajamas.” – BTS GQ

The elephant in the room of 90s heartthrobs is the fact that they were all white, with a few exceptions like Will Smith, Denzel Washington, or even someone like Usher who moved between music and film. But today we’re seeing a greater diversity of heatthrobs in all senses – backgrounds, looks and body types.

As well as the softboys, we’re also in an era of uber-ripped, ultra-masculine guys like Jason Momoa and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. Yet even they showcase a more sensitive side than, say, Sly Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger did back in their heyday . If there is a common denominator in terms of today’s heartthrobs, it’s less about what they look like, and more about who they seem to be inside. John Krasinski’s heartthrob status feels inextricably linked to his role as Jim Halpert in The Office – a person who was kind and respectful, and clearly adored Pam. And this feeling people had toward Jim and Pam has translated into how people see John and his actual wife, Emily Blunt. They seem like one of the good couples, which makes him more attractive.

As we have come to know celebrities more closely, with social media eroding those traditional barriers that used to separate us from artists and movie stars, there’s more focus placed on who they are as people. It’s exactly this new paradigm which has caused us to re-evaluate some of our older heartthrobs — or be critical over who gets elevated in the culture.

The boyish qualities of 90s heartthrobs means that, effectively, they had a short shelf life. Most of the ones who’ve endured have aged well physically, but have also managed to showcase an attractive personality. Heatthrobs like Paul Rudd and Keanu Reeves are all still handsome guys, but maybe more importantly, they seem like nice guys.

Mark Dacascos: “He’s so kind and humble and collaborative and welcoming, all the good things you hear about Keanu? They’re true!” – John Wick 3 Cast Interview

And we’ve seen how this scrutiny of personality has stopped potential heartthrobs in their tracks. Armie Hammer seemed on course to be a future Hollywood romantic lead, but his reputation has nosedived after allegations of abuse. James Franco was another who felt pretty beloved, before the revelations of him texting underage girls caused people to see him in a different light.

On the other hand, George Clooney illustrates adapting to the new heartthrob standards well. He was undeniably a 90s heartthrob — handsome in a classical, old fashioned kind of way, buoyed by on screen roles where he was funny, charming and lovable. But he was also a famed and known bachelor. The fact that his heartthrob status has endured feels very linked to his personal life changing. His marriage to Amal, and how gushing he is over her in public, almost works to justify his former life, because it feels like now he was just waiting for the right person to come along. Meanwhile, the fact Leonardo DiCaprio hasn’t settled down and still continually dates young women has kinda turned him into a joke

Part of why DiCaprio’s behavior feels problematic is because he’s no longer a young boy-heartthrob, so it boils down to a question of how we want older people to act. The playboy lifestyle, while exciting and maybe accepted from young men, ends up feeling a little tragic the older they get. We still idealize the idea of looking forever young in our culture, but it’s no longer seen as attractive to forever act that way as well. Freddie Prinze Jr is another 90s heartthrob who’s less in the spotlight today but is still pretty beloved, in part because he settled down and stayed the course with Sarah Michelle Gellar, and together they feel like a power couple we can believe in.

Freddie Prinze Jr: “Laugh! If they stop making you laugh, your days are numbered.” – Entertainment Tonight

DiCaprio, instead, has explicitly chosen not to do this. When he and Gisele Bundchen dated on and off from 1999 to 2005, it was reported that Gisele was ready to settle down with him – but he wasn’t, and she went on to have a family with Tom Brady. Mischa Barton later revealed that she was told as a teen to sleep with Leonardo in order to help her career. So there’s a sense that Leo has repeatedly refused the call to get serious even with the most appealing of partners, and that he’s made sleeping with young women into a longstanding, fairly cynical routine. Is that what we find attractive or aspirational in men today?

Heartthrobs perform a certain kind of masculinity, and our idea of masculinity changes through the generations. Now, there’s been a gradual unpicking of the more negative side of masculinity, a mass education on feminism, queerness and intersectionality, and maybe a recognition that being A Man doesn’t — and shouldn’t — equate to not being in touch with your feelings, or not being emotionally intelligent. It’s fair to say we probably expect more and better behavior from men now. Some older heartthrobs have stepped up to the plate, while others have floundered, and been cast aside.