Why Isn’t Billy Eichner a Sex Symbol Yet?

TV Features Difficult People
Why Isn’t Billy Eichner a Sex Symbol Yet?

In the fourth episode of Difficult People’s third season, Billy Eichner and John Cho make out in the street. What started as a convoluted feud changes gears abruptly when Cho’s ad executive lets slip that Billy is just another “entitled hot actor type.”

“Wait. You think I’m a hot actor type?” Billy asks in surprise. But why the surprise? Can we not just admit that Billy Eichner is sexy already?

Eichner may be best known for his outlandish, aggressive humor on Billy on the Street, but when the id he plays for innocent bystanders fades away, Eichner reveals himself to be quite charismatic. Some of his most fetching features are traditional ones, but his boisterous personality gives them an edge. For all the bitter punchlines and biting tone, he’s actually rather sweet. He jokes about withholding his smile, but when it sneaks out, it’s swoon-worthy.

Never underestimate a man’s ability to wear a suit well, and rest assured that Eichner wears one better than your hottest thirst follow.

Aside from his appearance, Eichner’s persona itself is appealing. Despite the fact that his neuroses and hang-ups are often the joke, he moves with the enviable confidence we tend to demand from our sex symbols. That unapologetically gay personality has helped make him a new comic titan because it’s distinctive, but he also arrives fully self-actualized. Nothing is sexier than someone who knows who the hell they are.

The lack of wide acceptance of his good looks is not for lack of trying. Eichner books magazine spreads and posts shirtless selfies as much as the best of them. Unlike other gay characters, he gets to be seen in a sexual context, like being blown in the gym’s steam room by John Mulaney in Difficult People’s second season—so he has not been neutered like most funny gay men on television. One of his previous Billy on the Street bits even involved asking people whether or not he is hot.

And it’s not because funny men can only be seen as funny. There are enough predominantly funny actors, from Chris Pratt to Donald Glover, that are as equally cherished for their looks as their wit to dispel that idea. But yes, the actors that get to enjoy both kinds of praise are largely straight men (or “straight-acting” gay ones).

Why is it that straight actors can capture our thirst through our funny bone, but someone like Eichner gets omitted from that discussion?

There’s a certain double standard placed on gay comedians that straight men don’t face. Before the culture can decide that you’re both funny and hot, the conversation must place you in one box or the other. And that’s just where the desexualization of a gay jokester begins. Meanwhile, the likes of Pratt are heralded as sexy partly because they are funny.

It’s not just that gay actors aren’t subjected to “this or that” reductiveness in terms of funny-or-hot perceptions where straight actors are allowed to be both. It’s also that gay actors have to adhere to a more masculine stereotype even to be perceived as attractive. Attractiveness and butchness are directly linked in the logic of most popular entertainment, creating the constraint that gay men must appear to be at least a little bit straight to deserve our lust.

Curiously, Eichner’s gayness has been contextualized against heterosexual men, like Cho or Mulaney. One of his early popular gags was educating Conan O’Brien on how to successfully maneuver on Grindr. But the narrative never resorts to “straight goes gay” archaicness because Eichner is acutely aware of the masculine expectation he’s subverting. He controls the joke, and his sexuality stays affirmed.

This defiance itself is sexy. Eichner is deeply aware that gay men’s sex drive is often shoehorned into non-threatening punch lines—if it’s not erased entirely—and he’s said before that he’s determined to fight it.

But you can still see how it weighs on him. It’s a socially ingrained phenomenon that’s incredibly relatable to gay men. As his star has risen in recent years, he’s remained the unapologetic gay in interviews, but more quietly so when it comes to sex. His former clean-shaven boyishness has been traded in for a scruffy buffness, and a more subdued enthusiasm to go with the more macho physique. The Grindr-adjacent jokes are still there, but they carry a less personal context. Maybe he’s pissed off to be another victim of the perception game. He should be.

But in developing a public image ever so slightly closer to the “ideal”—a fitter body, a safer distance from anything that might be labeled “sissiness”—he sacrifices some of what makes him unique. It isn’t an egregious shift, but it’s there, and it’s one that suggests how easy it is to fall prey to expectation. At some point, it breaks everyone’s back.

Like the rest of us, Eichner is a whole lot more attractive when he doesn’t play it cool.

Perhaps his more performatively masculine expressions are done with a wink, an intentional dig at attitudes in gay and popular culture that don’t acknowledge his beauty. By sarcastically referring to his reticence to smile or manly features, he’s also slapping down the very limitations forced against him. It’s more subtle than screaming at strangers on the street, but just as subversive. He might participate in the “masc” image, but he’s laughing at it too.

Still, there’s something honest to Eichner’s occasionally more masculine presentation that makes him an even more interesting figure in breaking down these antiquated ideas. We may be more used to his particular sissy act because that is how we were introduced to him, but that doesn’t mean his more traditionally male act doesn’t also come from a real place, too. Just because it reads as a conscious choice to play it up so butch doesn’t mean it isn’t convincing.

But that duality only makes him more fascinating as a potential sex symbol. It’s not just that he’s funny and hot, but that he can be both while being butch and effeminate. Maybe the reason his sex appeal has gone unacknowledged is not just because the culture doesn’t appreciate duality, but because we haven’t had a gay man occupy that middle ground quite as well as him.

Yet further proof that Billy Eichner is hot: He’s kind of revolutionary.

New episodes of Difficult People stream Tuesdays on Hulu. Full episodes of Billy on the Street are available on truTV.

Chris Feil is a freelance film and TV writer and soundtrack obsessive who has previously contributed to The Film Experience and Decider. Follow him on Twitter @chrisvfeil.

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