Ratted out: Phoebe Maltz Bovy on the end of feeling a need to ask if every contrived pop-culture trend is good for the Jews

The rare story from the NYT that's important enough for TMZ.

As an expert (self-proclaimed) in the female heterosexual gaze, I took note of the trend of the “hot rodent man.” Does this mean you’re attracted to the friendly mascot from Orkin Exterminator Co.? Maybe you do, maybe he’s tremendous, but no, “hot rodent man” refers to what is essentially the male equivalent of jolie laide, or ugly-pretty, even if the initial New York Times discussion on the topic says it is something else.

These are men who do not look like Ken dolls, but who are not (to use another typically gendered-female term, of rodent origin) mousey. It’s dark hair and pale skin—assuming white or otherwise light-skinned men—rather than blond hair and a tan. It’s apparently a whole thing online among the young people, enough so that the less-young are now taking note.

Now, the crucial angle: What does this mean for the Jewish community?

Very possibly, nothing at all. A certain type of hipster is having a moment. Some of these men are Jewish. Most are not, and most Jewish men are not that type. But we in Jewish media are if nothing else trained at finding the Jewish angle on everything, so I do not begrudge The Forward writer Mira Fox attempting to draw such connections.

The “hot rodent man” trend is, per Fox, “good for the Jews,” even though, as she points out, antisemites have caricatured Jews as rats.

“Conventional Western male beauty standards have often emphasized a certain, well, Aryan look. Chiseled jaw. Blond hair. Broad shoulders, broad chests, tall, muscular. Meanwhile, traits stereotypically associated with other ethnicities are often considered negative. The rat trend indicates an expanding idea of sex appeal. Indeed, many of the hot rodents are Jewish, Italian or Irish—’latecomers to whiteness’  as the New York Times’ style team put it. And a larger, less white idea of sexiness indicates a diversifying society in a way that can only help minority groups.”

There’s a part of me that absolutely eats this sort of thing up. I want to get into the weeds on this, debating whether there ever meaningfully was a beauty standard applied to men, or whether the figure of the romcom nebbish (thank you Woody Allen) meant that a man’s not measuring up to such a standard if anything has long made him a more plausible romantic lead. When I think, “Chiseled jaw. Blond hair. Broad shoulders, broad chests, tall, muscular,” I picture a man who’d be a hit in certain crowds of other men, but not necessarily one who’d be cast as the love interest or the sitcom dad. I want to really dig in on whether looking stereotypically Jewish has held back men in terms of media representation, or just women.

I want to live in the year 1996 or 2015 or whatever and have that conversation.

It’s not clear to me, though, what the place is for subtle is-it-antisemitism? conversations, for is this good for the Jews? representation discussions, in 2024. When overtly antisemitic acts abound, when synagogues and Jewish schools in Canada and beyond are regularly attacked, when Jewish cafés or artists with even the most tenuous connection to Israel are condemned as Zionist and put on lists and treated as acceptable locales to yell at and graffiti because after all this and this alone is (or so some appear to think) what frees Palestine and allows for the glorious peaceable utopia of life in a Greater Palestine run by Hamas. (Note: this isn’t my vote for how things should go down.)

When you have a left (not all the left; not just the left) that has decided it’s open season on local Jews, it’s hard to care about the nuances of whether a dark-haired, pale-skinned hipster type is Jewish-coded or more like John Lennon-coded and last I checked he was not one of our kind.

The entire Jewish-media think-piece model, all the focus on complex readings and positive versus subtly negative representation, feels like something from another time. A relic. I wish it weren’t one, and not just because I would like nothing more than to debate whether hot ratty boyfriends have a Jewishness angle. But here we are.

For more original Jewish culture commentary from Phoebe Maltz Bovy subscribe to the free Bonjour Chai newsletter on Substack.

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected], not to mention @phoebebovy on Bluesky, and @bovymaltz on X. She is also on The CJN’s weekly podcast Bonjour Chai.