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Hurrah for Rat Boy Summer Has the hunk finally had his day?

Josh O'Connor, a tennis-playing Rat Boy, in Challengers.

Josh O'Connor, a tennis-playing Rat Boy, in Challengers.


June 18, 2024   5 mins

First came Hot Girl Summer, after the US rapper Meg Thee Stallion released a song in 2019 that quickly became an anthem for carefree female sexuality. Then, inevitably, followed White Boy Summer, released by Tom Hanks’s errant son Chet in 2021, which spoke to internet edge lords. Since then, we’ve had Short King SpringAdam Sandler Summer (dressing exclusively in shorts and baggy T-shirts) and, in its final and most bizarre form yet, Rat Boy Summer.

The “rat boys” in this case can only be described as Hollywood’s scamps — Barry Keoghan, Timothée Chalamet, Josh O’Connor, Jeremy Allen White. The “rodent boyfriend” is a left-field choice of partner for the “hot girl” but has a certain something that mainstream beefcakes could never provide — an angular broodiness, a wiry weirdness.

Of course, we must remember that the trend is, at its heart, a joke. This is the phrase that has launched a thousand thinkpieces in the past two weeks; it would be a mistake to earnestly use it as a litmus test for “Gen-Z sexuality” or what not. But what it does provide is a fascinating framework to see how male bodies move within the romantic world. Are men tired of being categorised — or liberated by an alternative to rippling abs and broad shoulders?

Although it’s tempting to frame Rat Boy Summer as a baseless media invention, the concept does speak to many of my peers. One tells me she would “date Roddy the Rat” from Flushed Away if she could. “I exclusively like rat boys because they’re flawed and cheeky,” she says. “Most rat boys have a little sparkle in their eye. Alex Turner [the Arctic Monkeys frontman] is the original hot rat boy, and I won’t hear otherwise.” Throwing in another layer of complexity, however, she adds: “I’m disturbed however that no one is distinguishing between rat boys and bird boys. Jeremy Allen-White is definitely a bird. It’s a vibe thing.” Another friend says she prefers “more feminine” men; “I mean, they aren’t actually more feminine,” she qualifies. “But something tricks my brain into thinking they are.”

One committed rugby WAG isn’t convinced. She has just two words for me: “Thumbs only.” Another shares her sentiments: “I like to feel protected. I think for me I feel weakness when a man isn’t physically strong and doesn’t have much muscle definition. And I don’t like weakness in anyone I meet because I’m mentally strong, so I can’t relate to it.” She laughs, telling me she found her latest conquest at Soho House: “That cesspool is full of rodents but he’s a good guy, actually.”

This could all be easily dismissed as just another Gen-Z in-joke blown up by the desperate media. But desire matters — and holds a mirror up to the times.

There is a clear class element to physical preferences within heterosexuality: the ripped, tanned, Daz-white-toothed Love Islander and the lanky, princely rogues of Made in Chelsea are only the start of it. On Hinge, these two tribes are sure to pack out their profiles with class signifiers. One wears the Stüssy t-shirt, bumbag slung over the chest like a bandolier, Gucci belt glinting in the disco lights of a regional Pryzm. The other sports a Schoffel gilet (logo visible), skiing gear (cheery pint on a mountain) and, if you’re really lucky, an exotic holiday photo (Kenya or Sri Lanka) involving girls in floaty linen trousers. Body type, in this context, becomes another of these signifiers, with stocky muscularity and wispy ease tied in the cultural subconscious to ancient ideas of labour and leisure.

While Rat Boy Summer is just the latest incarnation of this, one distinctive feature is its feminisation: Rat Boy Summer shows how male attractiveness is, for the first time, framed exclusively in ways (however weird or tongue-in-cheek) that relate to the female gaze. No straight men are describing each other as “boys”, least of all “hot rodent boys”: the giggly absurdity of the sleepover, the giddy solidarity of the club toilet, has crept into public lexicon. The primarily male-male signifiers of being sexually competitive have for now at least been shoved to the back of the cupboard (“alpha” behaviour, aggression, being a hustler) and have been displaced by camp fantasies which cast a sly glance at masculinity and make, for a brief summer at least, light of it all.

Think of the endless “types” women have forever been categorised into. “Girl next door”, “femme fatale” and “career woman” have done much for the way women perceive themselves (I cannot put on a cardigan or anything remotely “girl next door” without instantly subsuming the traits of Bridget Jones). “Jock” and “nerd” would be the only comparable stereotypes for men, but they are specifically American and not specifically about sex. Rat Boy Summer signals that men can now be dragged into such categories, as certain corners of online culture (TikTok in particular) are increasingly dominated by the dating stories of young women. This is not to assign it the power of a liberating force — that would be ridiculous — but suggests, if anything, that the power of the internet is inescapable for everyone, touching something as historically impenetrable as the male gaze.

Rat Boy Summer is also part of a wider project of making sense of the chaos of personality. The timing is important here: female tastes seem to be privileging unthreatening, low-testosterone men at a time when harmony between the sexes has hit a real low. While some women still certainly prefer hunks, it may be that less manly types — or “ectomorphs” — are associated with virtuous “feminine” qualities such as sensitivity and openness (this is, needless to say, a false equivalence). I myself have always found the “protective” vibe of hench lads instinctively offputting. There’s something about the performative alpha-ing, the “don’t worry babe, I’ll square up to him on the dancefloor”. A twinkle in the eye is infinitely more appealing than manly aggression. Of course, equating slender wrists and pretty faces with “being nice to women” is, as I have learned, a mistake.

So, what do men themselves think? In 2021, Bony to Beastly, a bodybuilding website, conducted a survey of 423 straight women, showing them four male “body types” — ranging from, you guessed it, bony to very beastly indeed. Despite the website’s entire MO being the virtues of being really muscly, the most attractive type, according to the survey, was “athletic” — a tennis player-type build and the second skinniest, with no evidence of ‘roids or obsessive chicken breast consumption. Some 51% of women chose this, with 43% going for “strong”, a moderately muscly man.

The survey then goes on to poll respondents on particulars — preferences over leanness, neck size, “v-taper physiques”, whatever that means. The conclusion? “They [women] prefer men who are in much better shape than average but not as lean and strong as most men wish to be. Certainly not as muscular as most bodybuilders. Think of the bodies of soccer players, rugby players, and mixed martial artists.”

“Every dog has its day, and every rat its summer.” 

The comments under the article show us, albeit from a strange and small corner of the internet, how some men talk about their bodies with one another. “I wish this study could have ended with the participants getting scolded for their ableism and bigotry,” sniffs one. “A weird question: how big are those butts?” ask another, who goes on to enquire about specific measurements for the ideal behind. A third reads: “Skinny guys with fat wallets win in the end.” One can only imagine a bloke writing this in between gulps of Huel, forcing a smirk as a single tear rolls down his Gigachad cheek.

The frenzied defensiveness of these remarks tells us something: that many men, in an increasingly isolating world, are joining women in seeing bodies and conventional attractiveness as barriers to social fulfilment, even love. Of this, the greatest evidence is incel culture and “looksmaxxing”. Rat Boy Summer may be an ultimately empty TikTok invention, and the media’s recent obsession with it symptomatic of an unease about masculinity. But perhaps it can at least be a comfort to these men stalking the forums of bodybuilding websites, anxiously moulding their bodies to imagined female ideals. For it shows, if anything at all, the full range of human fanciability. Every dog has its day, and every rat its summer.


Poppy Sowerby is an UnHerd columnist

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Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
1 month ago

Rat Boy Summer
We prefer to be called Murine Corpsmen.

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
1 month ago

“… guys with fat wallets win in the end.” That’s all there is to it, end of story.

jane baker
jane baker
29 days ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

I should think so.

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
1 month ago

I enjoyed that. As an aging ectomorph I feel sort of validated.

Rob N
Rob N
1 month ago

The same thing can, of course, be said about women. Most women, apparently want to be skinny while most men want their girlfriends curvier.

For bodybuilding the drive is, mostly, internal, the attraction to women, in general, a secondary bonus.

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
1 month ago
Reply to  Rob N

Isn’t part of the internal drive for body building due to wanting to be attractive to women?

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
1 month ago
Reply to  Dennis Roberts

‘Men’s Health’ always has articles suggesting that all the effort will (probably) pay sexual dividends but I’ve come to the conclusion that (just like women and beauty) it’s just as much about doing it for yourself and those hints are a cover so men don’t feel too girly worrying about how they look.

jane baker
jane baker
29 days ago
Reply to  Rob N

Your Daddy’s rich + your Mom is good looking.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
1 month ago

Homo Sapiens didn’t succeed compared to the rest of the animal kingdom due to an advantage in either strength, speed or agility.

We succeeded due to greater brain power.

Okay, some might say “yeah, and look where that got us” but that would be a trite missing of the point.

That process will only accelerate now, for better or for worse. Even in war, muscle is increasingly redundant and no match for technology. In evolutionary terms, “rat boy” is the clear winner.

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
1 month ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

Perhaps brain power is the key to success as a species, but within Homo sapiens it was generally the males with physical advantages that rose to the top (until things like hereditary kingship developed).

The general preferences of attractiveness, from either sex, aren’t going away anytime soon, because they are innate.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
1 month ago
Reply to  Dennis Roberts

Except… the female of the species, as noted in the article, has greater variation in their preferences than might be expected – especially by muscle-bound male types.

If it were otherwise, intelligence wouldn’t be a selective advantage. I’m not suggesting all males with above-average intelligence aren’t also muscular; nor that intellect precludes fitness, but the article also refers to athleticism. An intelligent male will usually seek to keep himself physically fit, even if not the musculsr type.

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
1 month ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

Of course there variationin desirable characteristics, from both sexes, but how much of that is to with variation of those stating what they desire? The phrase beggars can’t be choosers springs to mind.

jane baker
jane baker
29 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

Fat slobs and skinny weirdos are out of the ball park but it’s the man who makes you laugh, actually even a fat slob or a skinny weirdo is in with a chance if they’ve got a bit of wit about them. It’s not muscles it’s wittiness.

Georgivs Novicianvs
Georgivs Novicianvs
1 month ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

Muscle may matter a bit less, but stamina and resilience still do. If you use warfare as a case study, it is still foot vs foot in the trenches, with some exceptions (the Americans can afford a bit of sophisticated warfare no one else can). Ukraine 2024 is not that different from Flanders 1915. The importance of physical ability is not going anywhere.

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
1 month ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

Rat boy isn’t winning for the simple reason rat boy (and hot girl) are not having children. They are the end of a culture, not the stepping stone to a new generation. The largest and only growing groups of humanity today are still rooted in cultures that are far more violent and physical.
The USA’s technological empire has found itself increasingly unable to keep control of large swathes of the less technological world. Pragmatic withdrawal or not, rat boy and hot girl don’t have the resilience to resist capitulation. The world is now arriving in the USA but not to meekly assimilate with rat boy and hot girl.
In the UK, rat boy and hot girl are already a minority, albeit one over-represented amongst the chatterati. Meanwhile, in South London and North Manchester overlooked there grows an almost completely different civilisation, one far more traditionalist and natalist.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
1 month ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

I used “rat boy” in inverted commas for a reason. It’s just this year’s tag, but my point is about the tendency for intelligence over time to confer an evolutionary advantage – hence the rise of Homo Sapiens. Your point is about the present, i.e. short-termism. If that were to change to become the evolutionary pathway (via many generations) then you might have a case.
By the way, i’m native to North Manchester…

Walter Egon
Walter Egon
1 month ago

*sigh*

Ben Jones
Ben Jones
1 month ago

What is this nonsense? Besides, Barry Keoghan is shredded AF.

John Riordan
John Riordan
1 month ago

Christ almighty, no wonder GenZers seem to be in a permanent state of apathy and mental exhaustion.

Howard Clegg
Howard Clegg
1 month ago

Jesus, that made depressing reading. Do gen z really put that much intellectual horsepower behind such a meaningless metric? We are all well and truly fucked.

Thomas Wagner
Thomas Wagner
29 days ago
Reply to  Howard Clegg

It will pass. Like a kidney stone, it will pass — and be replaced by something equally mindless.

David Morley
David Morley
1 month ago

That’s a long article to just say – we are all in a terrible confused muddle over stuff that used to be pretty straightforward.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
1 month ago

I found this article fascinating in that she made something very real sound very shallow! Maybe that is my age showing!

jane baker
jane baker
29 days ago

Best Summer Celebration Song Ever….”if her Daddy’s rich take her out for a meal,if her Daddy’s poor,just do what you feel… The Lads Anthem. We’ve all seen those noisy, rowdy,good natured bastards outside that country pub. Good thing no one actually hears the lyrics of pop songs. It’s the overall sound that matters.
Mungo Jerry telling it like it is,always has been,and always will be. Ensuring the Me Too movement will always get sign ups.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
29 days ago

One of the great joys of heterosexuality is that neither side has the slightest idea what the other is actually thinking. Yet we all spend a lot of energy pontificating about exactly that.
This is why I like Ms. Sowerby’s essays. I’m never really enlightened, but always entertained.
More, please!

Ted Glen
Ted Glen
28 days ago

Any extreme or obsession is detrimental. A little bit of self awareness is good. It keeps you reasonably well presented, fit and healthy. Social Media encourages obsession though.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
27 days ago

The UK has one of the least attractive male population in the world. Can we at least encourage them to aspire to be better