People magazine has, once again, failed to name me the sexiest man alive. 

This streak of outrages now runs to some 33 years (the annual designation has a 36-year history, but I concede it would have been indecent of them to give me the title before I turned 18). Media people are really so petty. I mean, they gave it to George Clooney twice.

But from my position as an outsider I’m in an ideal position to reflect on the meaning of this year’s choice, the comic actor Paul Rudd, at this particular point in history. His selection reminded me immediately of the magazine Lisa is seen leafing through in The Simpsons: “Non-Threatening Boys.” Every heart-throb featured in it is named Corey. 

Admittedly Rudd’s name is not Corey, but it absolutely should be. He is undoubtedly good looking — “gorgeous” according to one female friend, if at the same time “generic and conventional” looking. The point, however, is that Rudd’s special appeal is his kind, funny, unassuming demeanour. He is the one America was friends with in high school, but wouldn’t date, but now has aged so well, and America is bummed it married the captain of the football team, who was always a bit of a jackass but is now also fat, combs his hair over his bald spot, and has never really learned to get along with America’s mother.

‘It’s PTSD,’ my wife told me, and she is on to something. After Trump and the pandemic, we are all ready for safe sex

After tossing off a series of effortless, self-deprecating jokes, Rudd told People in his coronation interview that “I think of myself as a husband and a father . . . I just hang out with my family when I’m not working.” Imagine Johnny Depp saying that. 

“It’s PTSD,” my wife told me, and she is surely on to something. After Trump and the pandemic, we are all ready for safe sex, in the emotional if not the venereal sense. What was needed was the heart-throb analogue to the Biden presidency. A 52-year-old man of middling height, the father of two teenagers, did nicely. Rudd does play a superhero in the Marvel Universe, but his superpower is — it’s almost too perfect — becoming very, very small. Non-threatening boys!

(Whether People always picks a man who fits the times so well is not clear. Did the waning days of the cold war, with its threat of nuclear war, call for Mel Gibson in particular? Why did the 9/11 attacks leave us longing for Pierce Brosnan? Was Hugh Jackman the man to pull us out of the financial doldrums of 2008? If there is a consistent code here, I’m not sure I can crack it). 

The fact that men think being nice is easy goes a long way to explaining why so many of us are jerks

I am sure revanchist male commentators of the back-when-men-were-men school of Americana will greet the gentle Rudd’s ascent with dismay. They will worry that it won’t be long before the sexiest man alive is a woman, or some similar outrage. But for the armies of middle-aged men who fall into Rudd’s broad category — humorous, diligent, obviously domesticated, beta rather than alpha, intellectual rather than athletic — Rudd’s victory is ours, surely. We are out of the friend zone. Ant-Man has defeated Thor.

Alas, gentlemen, this is not how glossy magazine ideals work (as any woman can tell you). If you found Chris Hemsworth’s biceps or Depp’s smouldering glances impossible to reproduce, wait till you try on Rudd’s warmth and aw-shucks demeanour. You will find them equally difficult to emulate, and all the more infuriating because they seem like they should be within reach. 

Kindness is an endless project, like six-pack abs or good hair, and if you slack off, you revert quickly to being a grouchy, self-absorbed middle-aged man. The fact that men think being nice is easy goes a long way to explaining why so many of us are jerks.

Value, sexual or otherwise, is almost always about scarcity, it turns out. If this was meant to be Rudd’s year, it’s because what he has in abundance — humanity — is in particularly short supply just now. If we all had more of it, Rudd would be pointless. 

Despite this, I retain high hopes that I will get the call in 2022.

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