Benedict Cumberbatch: Why are so many women falling for his charm?
The Sherlock star shattered the hopes of his legion of female fans by getting engaged to girlfriend Sophie Hunter, but are his unconventional good looks everyone's cup of tea? Two of our writers have their say.
Frances Burscough: 'Women wanted to both mother him and ravish him... and then he ruined the fantasy'
This has been a catastrophic year for heart-throbs. Since the beginning of 2014, three have been stolen from us in sickening succession. First, we lost Brad - once and for all - to Angelina; then George Clooney (the most stalwart singleton of them all) succumbed to the eastern promise of Amal Alamuddin; and, if that wasn't enough, now it seems Benedict Cumberbatch is off the imaginary market, too, having pledged his troth to a rather obscure yet unbelievably jammy actress named Sophie Hunter.
So another one bites the dust and now we are left with very meagre pickings to lust after at the flicks. But first, let's look at each of these individually, before analysing this crisis as a whole.
The most recent casualty of love, Mr Cumberbatch, announced his engagement last week in typically quaint style via an old-fashioned announcement in The Times. Perhaps he did it in such an understated way to avoid a tabloid feeding frenzy, but nevertheless the social media went into overdrive from the moment the news filtered through.
In fact, his engagement proved to be such a blow to his hot-blooded female fans that it swelled the ranks of an online support group called the "Cumberbitches", where followers compare notes about their broken hearts and share advice about coping strategies.
Apparently, the majority of his female fans loved him because of - and not in spite of - his utterly impeccable Englishness. For years, ever since Hugh Grant blotted his copybook in a hire car on Sunset Strip, there had been a gap in the market for a quaintly quintessential English chap. But Benedict benevolently filled that gap and then claimed a million British hearts in the process.
Foppish looks? Check. Awkward eccentricities? Check. Posh accent? Check. Oxbridge education? Check. Heck, this guy was the entire cast of Brideshead Revisited rolled into one.
But his biggest selling-point (I think) was his combination of a little-boy-lost appearance coupled with his coveted single status. Women wanted to mother him and ravish him at the same time. (Er, or was that just me?)
But then he ruined the fantasy by getting engaged and from that moment on the thinking woman's crumpet became toast.
With Brad, although he's been with Ange for ages, we'd been clinging on to a glimmer of hope that he might bail out under pressure. After all, when you're living with (arguably) the most desirable woman in the world, the strain has got to be intense.
Add to that the responsibility of a brood of assorted children, plus all his own work commitments, fame and fortune to deal with - it's got to be incredibly challenging. However, he rose to his responsibilities, excelled in every area, proving himself to be the perfect dad, partner and now husband. Dammit! No sooner than he'd said "I do" to the Jolie femme, he went from being a favourite fantasy to utterly unreachable and way beyond hope.
As for George Clooney, his reputation as a serial dater was known the world over. But, as every relationship began and ended in the full public glare of the tabloids, we told ourselves that he still hadn't found what he was looking for. Could it be one of us? Could it hell. And yet, deep down, we could still but dream - until he blew it completely, that is, and went and got hitched.
So where does that leave us - the women (and gay men) of the Western world who go to the cinema to drool into our popcorn and imagine that we are the one he just kissed in the closing scene?
Even though megastars rarely even glance at ordinary women - let alone date, or marry, them - that doesn't stop us from fantasising.
While they were still single, we knew that they were still searching for "The One", which only served to fuel our fantasies further. But everyone knows that marriage is the ultimate passion killer - and this applies just as well in imaginary relationships, too. For some reason, it doesn't quite work to be lusting after a guy who we know in real life is head over heels with someone else, even if they aren't, never have been and never could be ours. So, with the untimely loss of the world's most eligible fantasy figures, three new vacancies have appeared.
Ladies, to save you time and effort searching for substitutes, I have three suggestions of my own.
Instead of Brad, I give you another steely-eyed Aryan type - the very delectable Ryan Gosling. Try replacing brooding George Clooney with the deliciously dark James Franco. And as for Benedict Cumberbatch, might I suggest you switch from foppish to refined with the hugely versatile, yet droolingly handsome, Tom Hardy?
Fionola Meredith: 'For many fans, Benedict stands for bitter disappointment in their own flawed men'
I understand the power of a massive crush on a celebrity when you're 13. But when you're 23? Or 33? That's a little harder to grasp.
Teenage fantasy, the bittersweet pain of anonymous - and inevitably unrequited - adoration for a distant love object is a normal part of growing up, especially for girls.
It's like having stabilisers on your bike: they keep you steady while you're learning, then when you've managed to negotiate a few tight corners, and build up a bit of experience and momentum, you cast them away and wobble off on a new adventure of your own.
In the same way, you eventually stop kissing the poster of your fantasy-man goodnight and move on to real relationships. Or that's how it's supposed to work.
So what kind of arrested development keeps grown women in a state of perpetual infatuation? Take the case of the "Cumberbitches". This posse of rabid fans worship their god - Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch - with a mania bordering on addiction.
They refer to themselves - some, I suspect, with more self-awareness and irony than others - as "the most glorious and elusive society for the appreciation of the high-cheekboned, blue-eyed sexbomb that is Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch". The name alone tells you all you need to know. The Cumberbitches are effectively rolling around on the floor with their tongues lolling out, such is their passion for the big dog.
They're rabid. They're wild for him, even though they've never met him.
Barking-mad female hysteria follows him wherever he goes.
As the writer Caitlin Moran observed, it all started back in 2010: "Sherlock began broadcasting at 9pm. By 9.20pm, his name was trending worldwide on Twitter. A trending fuelled by a mass outbreak of spontaneous hysteria - the fandom was instant and visceral."
And it's going stronger than ever. Cumberbatch gets chased down the street. When he made an appearance on a relatively obscure Radio 4 comedy show, 200 tickets were available to attend the recording: 22,000 fans applied for them.
This is tame compared to the excesses of fandom online, which seems to make Cumberbatch himself fairly creeped-out, understandably enough. In a recent interview he said that, "There's a load of fan fiction which has me and John Watson (his co-star in Sherlock) floating in space on a bed handcuffed to one another." And that's before you even start on the "erotic" Sherlock-inspired fan art.
Cumberbatch, ever the gentleman - he is an Old Harrovian, after all - is also unhappy about the collective name his fans have given themselves.
"It's not even politeness," he said. "I won't allow you to be my bitches. I think it sets feminism back so many notches. You are ... Cumberpeople." After that, there was a flurry of Cumberbabes, Cumberbunnies and even the impeccably politically correct Cumber Collective, which appears to have the imprimatur of the lordly top dog himself, but the diehard Cumberbitches refuse to go away.
There have even been personal sites set up in opposition to the fans' antics, with one angrily decrying "the Sherlock/Benedict Cumberbatch fandom" as the "most insane, downright appalling, self righteous fandoms I've ever come into contact with".
In a way, it doesn't matter what Cumberbatch, or anyone else, thinks of the Cumberbitches. Because, funnily enough, none of this is really about the man himself: it's about the women who worship him.
They could have chosen to fixate, en masse, on any famous bloke, but for reasons unknown - though one fan-site dreamily cites "his eyes … and his legs … and his hands … and his cheekbones" - they chose him. Whether he likes it or not, Cumberbatch is providing his "bitches" with a satisfying alternative to adult reality and all the weighty and tedious responsibilities that come with it.
He's offering them the chance to be 13 again, feeling their hearts go all fluttery and their brains go all giddy over a man they don't know and will never know.
He stands for missed opportunities and old regrets and bitter disappointment that their own flawed men, with their rancid socks or unfortunate ears, can never match up to those first adolescent dreams.
Calling yourself a Cumberbitch, however jokily, isn't the act of a mature woman. It's the act of a teenage girl, giggling hysterically in her bedroom with her friends.
Yes, it's self-abasing. Yes, it's infantile. Yes, it's slightly pathetic. But you can't blame them for wanting, sometimes, to escape.
What other women think
With his pale skin, auburn hair, lanky physique and unusual features, Benedict Cumberbatch is the antithesis of the Hollywood ideal. He doesn't possess the pretty-boy looks of Zac Efron, or the mature sex appeal of George Clooney, yet last week's announcement of his engagement to girlfriend Sophie Hunter shattered millions of female hearts.
So, what is it about the unconventional sex symbol that makes grown women go weak at the knees? We talk to six local women to find out if they, too, have been swept up in the Cumberbatch craze:
Bronagh Waugh (32), from Coleraine, lives in Surrey. She is an actress and star of BBC2 thriller The Fall. She says:
"I absolutely get the fascination with Benedict Cumberbatch. I love him, he is awesome. I'm a huge fan of the television show Sherlock and think he's just amazing in it.
There's just something about him. I don't really go for conventional good looks, anyway. I like someone who's a bit different.
I must admit, when I heard he'd got engaged, I did look up his girlfriend on Google. I was waiting to go into a meeting and thought, 'Who is this Sophie Hunter one?' So I had a wee nosey."
Emma Fitzpatrick (37) is a Cool FM DJ and presenter and lives in Belfast. She says:
"I've never watched Sherlock, but I have seen Cumberbatch in a few other things and I have to say I just don't get the whole sex appeal thing at all. I don't find him in the least bit attractive.
And I certainly don't understand why all these women are devastated about his engagement. They're grown-up women and they're acting like teenagers. It's okay to behave like that if you're 14 and have just heard that Take That are splitting up, but for grown-up women to get on like that is just sad."
Jayne Wisener (27), is an actress from Coleraine, and lives in London. She says:
For me, as an actress, the appeal is very much the fact that he's ridiculously talented. He is so versatile and manages to change his look for every part he plays.
I have seen him in lots of things as I've followed his career, but, for me, he's most attractive as Sherlock, with his dark curly hair. He also comes across as very intelligent in the show and in real life, which makes him attractive.
I do understand a bit why some women were so heartbroken when Cumberbatch announced his engagement. Most people feel that way at some time in their lives - I was absolutely devastated when Gareth Gates got married.
Denise Watson (43), a UTV sports journalist, lives in Lisburn with her husband, David Scott, and their two children. She says:
"I'm not a fan of Benedict Cumberbatch at all. Every time I see him I say, 'I must have missed the meeting about him', because I just don't get the appeal.
He's just an odd-looking man, a weird-looking alien who resembles ET, with his eyes so wide apart. Some men can be unusual looking and attractive, like Gerard Depardieu, but not Cumberbatch."
Emma-Louise Johnston (37), a broadcaster and journalist, lives in Maghera with her husband, Jonathan Crawford, and children, Emily (3) and JJ (1). She says:
"I'm sure Benedict Cumberbatch is a lovely fella, but I think, looks-wise, he's rotten. I just don't get it at all. Sometimes, I find quirky looks attractive, like in the case of Dave Grohl, the Foo Fighters frontman. Cumberbatch is tall and slim and he's got that going for him, but from the neck up - no way. He has weird eyes and looks a bit like the alien from the TV series American Dad.
The fact that so many are breaking their hearts over his engagement is just baffling to me."
Rebecca Maguire (23) lives in Belfast, she is a model with CMPR and a former Miss Ireland. She says:
"I totally get why women find Benedict Cumberbatch sexy. I saw him in Star Trek and he was brilliant in it. He played a baddie and he did it so well. There's something quite cool and calculated about him, or maybe that was just the role he was playing. But I do think he's attractive.
I understand why women were gutted when he announced his engagement, although I was more devastated when I heard the actor Tom Hardy was taken, not that our paths will cross, though."
Interviews: Maureen Coleman