Welcome to Elements of Story, a biweekly column about narrative tropes, what they mean, and why they just won’t go away.
If you’ve been on Twitter lately, odds are you’ve seen some commentary about “himbos.” Coined by Rita Kemply in a 1988 Washington Post article, a himbo refers to an attractive man more chiseled than the statue of David who has very little going on between his ears. Paragons of himboism include Kronk from The Emperor’s New Groove, the titular character of George of the Jungle, early-career Matthew McConaughey, and, depending on the Marvel movie in question, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor.
The word itself masculinizes the word “bimbo,” a dismissive term for an attractive, unintelligent woman who is often very sexualized yet naive. “Bimbo” itself actually initially referred to men –specifically dumb, brutish men — until the 1920s or so, when it suddenly shifted to its current meaning for reasons unknown.
The use of himbo in 2020 has diverged a bit from Kemply’s original description. In her article, she identifies two subspecies. The first is Himbo erectus, “less a character than a hormone,” a beefcake lacking the emotional bandwidth for a relationship that goes beyond scratching an itch. Most characters played by Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Chuck Norris are prime examples of this subtype. The second is the Himbeau sapien, the natural yang to the yin of second wave pantsuit feminist figure. He’s a hunk with limited intellect who doesn’t mind taking orders because that’s a whole lot easier than having to figure things out for himself.
While the term himbo is making a comeback, Kemply’s original definitions are quite specific to the particular pop culture moment of the late 1980s. The himbo of 2020 is still hunky and not very bright, but now the key appeal is his earnest sweetness: he’s a golden retriever in human form.
A quick Google Trends search indicates himbo appreciation has been on the rise since last year, but in recent weeks a particularly wild Tweet destined to go down as a milestone in “Worst Twitter Takes” history thrust himbos into the spotlight. The post, which attempted to decry the term as “ableist” and “predatory” in “fetishizing someone’s supposed lack of intelligence,” even comparing himbo love to pedophilia, has ironically enough only inspired a major outpouring of himbo love and support for himbo lovers.
Some of the many himbo appreciation posts that have cropped up since see the “Himbo Renaissance” (Himbonaissance?) as a sort of counterpoint or backlash to the prevalence of the “Smart Asshole”: bad boy and antihero types who will steal your heart and then stab you in the back without missing a beat. There is definite merit to this observation, but, if anything, it actually undersells the connection between the himbo’s limited intellect and his heartthrob allure.
Himbo appreciation posts often list his status as a safe, non-threatening option as a cornerstone of his appeal. What this commentary usually fails to address is exactly why we all seem to be in agreement that himbos are so harmless. After all, the standard himbo is built like a brick house, and having cotton fluff for brains factors in very little when it comes to one’s ability to, say, throw a punch.
The himbo’s harmlessness also represents the most unique aspect of his appeal, a sharp contrast to most other swoon-worthy masculine archetypes who exude a sense of danger. This column has previously discussed the old-as-dirt allure of the darkly tempting “demon lover” and his most popular variant, the Byronic hero. The himbo ultimately feels safe not because he’s dumb so much as because he’s not smart, and intelligence, as can be seen in other seductive archetypes, is correlated with danger. The reasoning goes like this: smart (and sexy) is dangerous, therefore not smart is not dangerous, i.e. safe. Technically, this argument is logically fallacious — it’s known as denying the antecedent — but that doesn’t stop it from being a very pervasive pattern of thought.
In a sense, the himbo stands as the antithesis of the demon lover. Byronic heroes brood, and being so stuck in your own head necessitates something going on up there. They might be notorious for making terrible choices (see: Heathcliff, Ross Poldark, Kylo Ren), but their stupidity is the sort one finds in people who are technically clever, just all the dumber for it because they mistakenly presume their intellect is beyond the influence of their various mental health issues and not the other way around. Come to think of it, “clever” might be a strong word. Let’s just call Byronic heroes and company cerebral and leave it at that. The point is they do a lot of thinking and brooding and stewing in misery. It’s worth noting that this dumb sexy is safe versus smart sexy is dangerous contrast is even more pronounced in feminine archetypes — a key difference between the guileless bimbo and the treacherous femme fatale.
A wide range of tales falls into the pattern of depicting the dangers of seduction in terms of knowledge and trickery. Lust might be listed as one of the seven deadly sins, but the original sin was being seduced by the promise of knowledge. In the Biblical story of the fall of man, the snake seduces Eve into eating the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Greek mythology is full of trickster tales of gods seducing mortals and fellow deities alike under false pretenses, often leading to unpleasant consequences for the seduced. The list goes on.
The himbo is endearing because being a one-thought-at-a-time kinda guy means he can’t have ulterior motives. If you’re getting romanced by a himbo, you know it’s for real. He’s inherently innocent. Kronk, a himbo par excellence if there ever was one, comes across as affable and utterly blameless despite being the villainous Yzma’s henchman in The Emperor’s New Groove.
The danger of seduction, whether as depicted in folklore or film noir, is the danger of falling for false pretenses, of your desire being used against you to lure you into a trap. The appeal of the himbo is unmarred by the prospect of danger lurking beneath the surface because he does not have the depth necessary to present such a threat. In being attractive while lacking the cunning to weaponize his assets, the himbo stands out as the most easily lovable of romanticized masculine archetypes.