Thoren Bradley can be found in dozens of TikTok videos chopping wood in his backyard in rural Northern California, surrounded by evergreen woods with a swimming pool of sky overhead. The 29-year-old is colorfully tattooed with a well-groomed beard and gym-honed physique that frequently inspires viewers to leave lustful comments, such as “just here for the hard wood.” Often, he’s wearing black Carhartt overalls and a clinging white tee, but sometimes he forgoes the shirt.
He’ll raise his axe over the top of his head and bring it down on a cross-section of tree that splits in one fell swoop. It’s typically set to a cinematic soundtrack—in one, country singer Chris Stapleton croons, “You’re as sweet as strawberry wine.” He might saunter shirtless into his cozy homestead to lounge with a pair of scruffy dogs next to his wood fireplace. In his charming kitchen, he dices bell pepper and fries up eggs, before doing the dishes, shirtless. Bradley paints doors, replaces lights, and lays wood flooring, which he then mops himself.
These homesteading videos have earned Bradley nearly 2 million followers. Several of his wood-chopping clips have tipped 1 million views—a recent one boasts 3.4 million.
Bradley’s videos are remarkably popular, but he’s just one of countless men on TikTok producing content that falls within the romance-to-thirst-trap spectrum. These creators aren’t just offering straightforward eye candy, many specialize in titillating their audiences emotionally. They dabble in the erotic and the romantic, often explicitly targeting an audience of straight women. As short and PG-13 as these clips are, they are rich in fantasy, escapism, and aspiration. Men lip-sync scenes from The Notebook, act out moments of love at first sight, and offer up the point-of-view experience of a handsome man in a suit bringing a bouquet of roses to the door. Many flirt with raunchier fare, snapping their belts at the camera, mouthing lines from Netflix’s infamously terrible 365 DNI, and, occasionally, humping the bed like a boy band member at the turn of the millennia.
It’s a hectic virtual collage of Hollywood archetypes, sexy Tumblr GIFs, Fifty Shades of Grey, and that 2007 joke book Porn for Women, which pictured men vacuuming and cooking dinner. Some of these creators intersperse POV eye-gazing clips, where they seem to stare right into the viewer’s eyes, with relationship advice or daily livestreams where they commiserate with women about their treatment by men.
This TikTok genre could be seen as yet another artifact in the never-ending debates around “female desire” and “what women want.” In many ways, though, the videos are more telling of their creators. Grappling with the tenuousness of modern masculinity, the men who film them are working around enduring demands of toughness, stoicism, and aggression, alongside unsteadily shifting expectations of beauty, sensitivity, and domesticity, traits typically associated with women. This may seem like a positive evolution of gendered possibility, and yet Bradley is routinely met with commenters’ injunctions around what it means to be a “real man.”
Of course, traditional masculinity is defined in dichotomous opposition to traditional femininity. Judging from viewer responses, any hint of commingling is just as liable to be celebrated as shot down as unmanly.
There is an inherent tension even just in stepping in front of the camera—tension that surfaces within creators and in the sometimes punishing responses to their content. As the art critic John Berger famously said, “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” But these men are asking for women to look at them, and they are to various degrees stepping into the passive object role. In performing a masculine fantasy, especially while centering themselves in the frame, there is the ever-present and highly subjective threat of a misstep. It’s a tightrope walk of heart-eyes and laugh-cry emojis, popularity and diminishment, connection and alienation.
As Bradley puts it, “I’ve been living on this line my whole life of what masculinity even fucking means in the first place.”
I was probably watching a baby cow running in a field or a woman sneaking into the shower with her husband while wearing a Halloween mask when I first stumbled into the realm of POV eye-gazing clips. Suddenly, there was this tousle-haired 2o-something man staring into my eyes, raising his eyebrows subtly, like he was trying to tell me something. He looked away coyly, then he looked back, as the corner of his mouth trembled into a shy half-smile. It reminded me of my pubescent early-internet downloads of movie trailers: I would isolate small scenes of romantic intrigue—double-takes of attraction, lust at first sight—and rewind and rewind and rewind. These weren’t big moments of rapture, but rather the everyday, relatable spark of attraction.
There is a subset of these POV experiences created by teen boys for teen girls, but my feed was soon taken over by videos produced by men for women.
Jacob Rott, a 21-year-old university student in Germany, specializes in videos simulating these prosaic experiences of flirtation. In one, he pretends to spot a cute new virtual classmate on Zoom while singing the lyrics, “I can’t stop myself from looking and noticing you, noticing me.” His videos have captions like, “Pov: fell in love with a stranger” and “pov: you’re my girlfriend.” Similar creators film themselves checking out or lusting after the viewer, sometimes confessing love. Often it’s lip-synced to a scene from a movie or TV show—a popular one being a moment of unreciprocated longing on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. “I try to make videos with content people can identify with,” he says. “That’s the key to getting interaction.”
It’s important, says Rott, to create scenarios that are “based in reality” but also have an element of fantasy—say, running into your crush and having them get flustered, too. Rott says that the majority of his fans are between the ages of 18 and 24. But it isn’t just early 20-somethings watching these kinds of videos.
Other creators, including James Joseph, a 33-year-old actor and model in Hollywood, find themselves with a fanbase of married women in their 30s and 40s. During quarantine, Joseph had to start filming most of his acting auditions himself at home. “Since I’m already in front of my lights with my camera on a tripod, why not just make some TikTok videos?” he said of the thought process that led him to start an account a couple months ago.
Soon, he says, “I fell into the niche of having a large female following and figuring out what they wanted,” which led to what he calls “cute little scenes.” Joseph often dresses up in a sharp suit—in a couple he brings roses to the viewer, as if on a first date. In one, he simply walks in the front door to a Michael Bublé song, and tells the viewer, stunned, “Wow, you look amazing.” He lip syncs to Ryan Gosling saying in The Notebook, “Tell me what you want and I’ll be that for you.”
Many of the TikTok scenarios on offer adhere to traditional heterosexual scripts quite literally, as in the case of lip-syncing Hollywood films. Given that, it is unsurprising that the popular standouts of this genre reflect a fundamental bias: Judging by the videos algorithmically served up to me, it is overwhelmingly white. For all the talk of TikTok democratizing entertainment, my feed mirrors fixed notions of just who gets to be a leading man.
Not all of Joseph’s content obviously draws on his acting: One of his most popular videos, with 5.7 million views, shows him simply switching, through the magic of editing, out of a t-shirt and sweats into a sharp tuxedo. “They love, love outfit changes,” he says. “They just like a well-dressed man.” These outfit changes, though, tap into romantic types that are highly familiar to Joseph, who has auditioned for Hallmark films and appeared on the covers of romance novels.
He speculates that the appeal for viewers is the fantasy of having a relationship with a thoughtful, well-dressed man. But, much as he is acting on TikTok, he isn’t falsely portraying a romantic illusion, he says. “It is genuine,” explains Joseph. “Opening doors and things like that, chivalry, those are the things I believe in, and that, in my life, have been welcomed with open arms. Not a lot of men do that, and I like to keep it alive.” Keeping it alive has gained him nearly half a million followers, roughly 90 percent of them women, he says.
That said, one of the most popular themes in this realm taps into more dominant and aggressive visions of masculinity. “My audience likes the character that I portray—being confident, looking at the camera, licking my teeth, smiling,” says Dean, who has filmed videos with themes of kink. Anything relating to 50 Shades of Grey does well, he says. In one popular video, he lip-syncs these lines read from a poem, “I will destroy you in the most beautiful way possible. And, when I leave, you will finally understand why storms are named after people.” In another he mouths, “Have you ever looked at someone... and fucked the shit out of them in your head?” One of Dean’s signature moves is slowly running his tongue over his teeth. “It tends to be quite a turn-on for some people,” he says. “Maybe it looks suggestive, it looks sexy?”
Recently, Dean posted a video with a younger friend and fellow TikToker, while pretending to be father and son. All they did was stand next to each other and look into the camera smiling to a soundtrack of a woman singing, “Let me show you what you’re missing: paradise.” Meanwhile, text on-screen read, “Father & Son Duo.” Viewers loved it. “I’m so glad I’m at the age where I can gladly and comfortably say I would love to be RAILED by both of them,” wrote one woman. Another said: “I’m not sure if I wanna be a step mom or daughter in law.”
Somewhat contrary to the faux father-son eye-winking and lip-syncs about destruction, Dean also hosts twice-daily livestreams where he chats with his mostly women fans about the challenges of life, including mistreatment by men. “A lot of men out there, the way they treat women, it’s disgusting,” he says.
This recalls the 2019 documentary Jawline, which follows the 16-year-old up-and-coming influencer Austyn Tester as he livestreams with his teen girl fans, talking to each as if she were his girlfriend. At a culminating meet-and-greet, his fans are portrayed as “uniformly depressed,” as the New Yorker’s Doreen St. Félix put it. “Some admit to cutting themselves. They say that, at school, they’re bullied,” wrote St. Félix. “But Tester doesn’t treat them like the other boys do. He loves them, through the screen.” While Dean’s fanbase is comprised of adult women, there is a similar dynamic at play: many are seeking out the kindness, consideration, and attention that they have not found in real life, specifically with men.
Dean went through a devastating divorce, he’s been through therapy, and he’s gotten in touch with his feelings, he tells me. In one TikTok clip, he tears up while taking his cat to the vet. Some of Dean’s fans consume just his raunchy content, some watch just the tender stuff, and a few overlap with both. “I think it’s refreshing for women to see that I can be sexy, I can be suggestive, but at the same time, they can have a conversation with me about emotions,” says Dean, who also posts motivational clips. “You can have the greatest, filthiest, naughtiest sex of your life, but you still want the man to open the door for you and buy you some flowers and come in and kiss you on the forehead.”
The axe-wielding Bradley accompanies his most popular wood-chopping fare with occasional tidbits of advice on relationships and self-esteem. “Clinging to somebody’s redeeming qualities just to stay in a relationship is kind of like buying a house because you really like the Persian rug that was in the den... the whole thing has to make sense for you to stay,” he says in one. In another video, he tells the camera, “When that person that was underperforming finally left your life, it got better, but lingering on that disappointment and anger is keeping you from feeling what better actually is.”
Taken together, this wide-ranging genre reveals women’s fantasies of being wooed and worshiped, wanted and taken, heard and understood.
It’s notable for a man to center himself in the camera’s frame in this way: they are surveying and cultivating themselves, frequently for women. Of course, a version of this is on display on countless dating profiles: the intentional construction of a desirable self alongside a flash of abdominals. But these TikTokers are presenting themselves as, not just worthy of a hypothetical right swipe, but as the worthy object of a woman’s entertainment, fantasies, or aspirations. Many accounts fall somewhere between Hallmark movie and pornographic OnlyFans.
While these creators highlight their own beauty, whether it’s a pair of intense blue eyes or a six-pack, they typically rely on storyline. Some dabble in broader viral trends of unrepentant horniness, like the silhouette challenge, which saw people stripping down with a signature filter. I would be remiss to not mention the pussy-eating challenge, which sees men flicking their tongue to an impressively fast beat as a cunnilingual boast. The most consistent frisson, though, is one of context: the boy from class who can’t stop looking at you, or the man in the woods scrambling up eggs for a breakfast by the fire.
Researchers studying self-reported responses to heterosexual pornography, or “visual sexual stimuli,” have found that “both men and women project themselves into the scenario,” but that “men may be more likely to objectify the actors within the stimuli.” Reviewing related research, the same study speculated that women may pay more attention to context and non-sexual details, like clothing or background, “allowing for the creation of a social scenario.” Of course, if this is true, a host of social and cultural factors are undoubtedly at play, including gendered notions of men as sexual spectators. The question is never just what women want, as though that emerges in a vacuum, but what they are taught to want and what they feel safe wanting.
Dean has an OnlyFans where he posts nude photos, but his audience there is almost all men. In contrast, his TikTok fanbase is overwhelmingly women. “I think women want a more personal interaction,” he said.
Inevitably, a man offering himself for a woman’s consumption in this way threatens popular notions of masculinity. Many of these TikTokers toy with the “men act and women appear” maxim, tweaking the levels. The wildly popular Bradley often captures himself voyeuristically, his gaze ignoring the camera in favor of the wood-chopping or floor-sweeping task at hand. This seems a frequent requirement of the genre: Men act and appear. Still, Bradley says women will leave comments like, “This would be a lot manlier if you didn’t turn it into a TikTok.” His videos are sometimes met with explicit gender policing: Bradley shaves his legs to appear in fitness photoshoots, and it garners disparaging responses from some commenters, while others find it sexy.
It’s typically women who deliver criticism in his comments. “You’re finding these weird polar opposites of perspective of what a man should be or is,” he said. Some proclaim his muscular, wood-chopping image an example of “toxic masculinity,” while he says others, not infrequently, remark things like, “That’s not a manly man. Men don’t have abs. Men aren’t tan.” Being the subject of such public masculine parsing can be challenging. “If I was somebody who was any more insecure, if you caught me at around 19 or 20 years old, I would be really struggling right now,” he says. “It’s an everyday struggle for me to even figure out what being a man means.”
These men are rewarded with views and follows for traditionally masculine traits, from muscular physiques to chivalrous overtures, alongside displays of emotional intelligence and domestic responsibility. That alone is experienced by some as a careful, uncertain balance. “The world that I grew up in, masculinity was all about going to work, getting your hands dirty, you get a 9-to-5 job right when you graduate high school. Your aspirations are low, make the paycheck come home,” said Bradley, who got his master’s degree in exercise physiology and works as a strength and conditioning coach at a university. “You’re a man if you don’t complain. It’s a big part of the DNA of who I am.” At the same time, he says, “I do my dishes, I wash my clothes, and do stuff the stereotypical man isn’t exactly proud of doing.”
It’s an even trickier balance when a man is asking to be looked at. “He wants attention, he wants likes, there’s obviously something off about him,” says Bradley of the criticism he fields in comments threads.
In a recent video of Joseph in a suit, several commenters seized on the fact of him wearing loafers without socks. “GET A PAIR OF SOCKS ON!!!,” wrote one woman. “asking for a redo *with socks,*” commented another. Then he filmed a new version of the clip. “With socks,” he wrote, followed by a socks emoji and a sweating smiling face. Another popular TikToker posted a video of himself rubbing, seemingly naked, against his bed. While several woman responded with heart-eye emojis and the like, many others did the equivalent of pointing and laughing. One woman tagged several friends to write, “this ruined my day so I’m ruining yours.”
These critiques, which range from the superficially sartorial to the deeply gendered, seem an extension of the everyday experiences of women, who typically occupy the passive role, but they also specifically engage uneasily with tensions around masculinity and objectification.
Sometimes, they take on the sexually aggressive nature of catcalling. A 2013 study on behavior at “male strip shows” suggested that women are often emboldened to “act wild, assertive, and free to perform their gender differently than they do on a day-to-day basis.” It’s what scholars call “gender role transcendence.” The researchers write, “When women experience gender role transcendence they behave in ways that mimic male stereotypes, and act contrary to how they would in the presence of their husbands, partners, or boyfriends.” It’s transcendence of an assigned role, but not of the script.
Women’s raunchy TikTok commentary is common enough to have spawned its own genre: The creator behind the popular account @savagemomlife, which boasts 1.8 million followers, specializes in highlighting women’s outrageously thirsty comments. Often she’s summoned with at-mentions multiple times in the threads on videos that fall within the thirst-trap-to-romance spectrum. In one such video of a man seemingly ready to make love to his duvet cover, a sampling of viewer comments: “Pretty sure I just felt my tubes untie,” “I don’t usually chase anyone but for you I’d put my crocs in sports mode,” “I unexpectedly started to ovulate after seeing this 1000 TIMES,” and “boy u gotta stop my kitten is sore!!!!!” Joseph says of commenters, “Oh my god, they really go in. They’ll say things like, ‘I’m pregnant now after watching your videos.’ I try not to respond to any of those comments.”
Unlike the other TikTokers, Bradley’s audience is nearly evenly split between men and women, but it’s the latter who are often most visible in his comments threads, making remarks like “I need a ventilator” and “You are getting all the housewives in trouble.” A popular remark: “theRe is Absolutely nothIng speciaL about this CoMmEnt” (i.e. RAIL ME). Married women in particular are his most vocal demographic, he says. A common trope is women remarking that their husbands are wondering why they’re hearing the same snippet of audio over and over again as they play his videos on loop. Jokes about infidelity are common.
Reading through these comments is to witness women raunchily pushing up against the boredom and disappointments of domesticity.
As much as the men I spoke with said they didn’t feel objectified by fans’ attention, several did express feelings of alienation. “Sometimes I think they’re too good,” says the 21-year-old Rott of the positive messages he gets from women fans on TikTok. “At the beginning, it was a very good feeling.” Now, though, he says, “It doesn’t make me happy like it did at the beginning. It makes you kind of cold, emotionally. It’s hard to keep up the emotion.” Recently, he’s been getting as many as 15 fan messages an hour.
“I know they just want my outward appearance,” he said. “They don’t know anything more about me. I didn’t tell them about me or my ambitions or my opinions.” Fans will even send him marriage proposals. “It’s not me,” he says of the image they’re lusting after. Similarly, Joseph says, “I like it when people are like, ‘Oh, you’re so creative’—that I like more than just, ‘You’re hunky’ or whatever,” he says. “They realize that I’m creative. I like those.”
Bradley is a realist about what draws in his viewers. “I don’t think a lot of people give a shit about what I have to say it’s just, ‘Take your shirt off and show us what you look like,’” he said. “The videos where I give people my opinion or share some of my expertise are never going to do as well as the videos where I’m shirt off, doing stuff outside. It is what it is.” He adds, “It’s assumed that I’m really fucking stupid most of the time.” His hope, though, is to use the shirtless wood-chopping videos to pull in a smaller percentage of viewers who are receptive to his messages around healthy relationships and self-acceptance.
“I keep sneaking it in, hoping that it will grab a few people,” he says. “I have to increase my platform to reach more ears, change more lives, and the best way for me to do so is with a bigger billboard. There might be something sinister about me taking advantage of the system, but that’s gonna be the way I get my voice out there.”
(Updated 3/2/22 with new details)