As a lover of all things media- and art-related, I have a lot of hyper-fixations. On a daily basis, I think about things like “Percy Jackson and the Olympians,” when the next season of “Stranger Things” will come out and which one of my many romance novels is up next for its annual reread. Topics like these (no matter how niche they may sound) quite literally live in my head rent-free. No matter where I am, or what I’m doing, I just think about them all the time.
If this sounds strange to you, I get it, but even if you’re not someone who spends their time thinking about fictional characters or a favorite book series, there’s likely at least a handful of random topics that pop into your head from time to time — keeping you awake at night and helping you to daydream in class. Maybe it’s a random childhood memory so deeply ingrained in your subconscious that you can’t shake it, or a historical event that fascinates you to no end. Regardless, everyone has those few topics we spend just a tad more time dwelling on than others. It’s normal. It’s human. At our core, we are driven by our interests and curiosities.
What, however, do straight men spend their time thinking about?
I know it’s a dumb question — one that has a whole lot of equally dumb, mildly inappropriate answers. The funny thing about it is that — up until a couple of months ago — I would have told you it doesn’t have a simple answer. Like anyone else in the world, what straight men hyper-fixate on is totally dependent on where their interests lie — what they love and what they hate. The world is packed full of diverse, varied individuals, and if we’ve learned anything over the past several decades, it’s that trying to stuff people into neat, tiny boxes never works out for the better.
Yet, social media would beg to differ. According to TikTok, the online world may just have men all figured out.
It all started with a question: How often do you think about the Roman Empire? The inquiry was posed by a young woman to her boyfriend after a Roman reenactor by the name of Artur Hulu asked his followers the same thing on Instagram and encouraged them to ask the men in their lives. Her boyfriend’s response? At least once a week. Days later, what started with one slightly viral video exploded into a trend with millions upon millions of views. Girls and women from every corner of TikTok began picking up their phones and filming their boyfriends and husbands asking them this very question. The responses were startlingly homogenous. Most of the men gladly admitted that they thought about the Roman Empire often, anywhere from once a month to several times a day. Female viewers like myself were left dumbfounded, further than ever from making sense of the straight male mind.
One must beg the titular question: Why the Roman Empire? On the surface, it seems like a very strange, violent time period to hyper-fixate on. However, when you take a step back from the ridiculousness of the trend itself and do some gentle psychoanalysis, the correlation is not too unclear. The Roman Empire’s legacy is deeply entrenched in our modern-day politics, architecture, language, education and more. Men’s fascination with the time period seems to be at least partially rooted in these parallels — many expressed admiration for the era’s many accomplishments on TikTok — but for these men specifically, the obsession seems to go beyond just a subtle appreciation for all the time period has to offer. For those who claim to think about it several times a day, it almost seems like a safe haven for some kind of “macho fantasy” these men may be harboring.
While this compulsion may sound strange, it is somewhat understandable. I mean, who doesn’t associate the Roman Empire with ripped soldiers and gruesome battles? For those looking to assert their masculinity, it may just be the perfect outlet for doing so. This is helped along by the many Roman Empire-inspired movies and TV shows that exist today. Now, men everywhere can turn on their TV and swiftly imagine themselves running into battle. At its core, the obsession seems to serve as an ego boost, allowing men to step outside of the 21st century and momentarily imagine themselves as a buff soldier ready to save the world. We’ve seen this play out over and over again on TikTok, with men going on long tangents about their love of the Roman Empire, and why their girlfriends and wives should, too. One guy even took his obsession a step further, showing off to the camera a replica of the colosseum he had taken the time to construct on Minecraft. It seems to be a kind of “mental man cave” for these “bros,” one that viewers get a temporary glimpse into each time they click on a video.
The Roman Empire is not unique as an outlet for hypermasculinity. Men have always found avenues for doing exactly this. World War II is a particularly well-known (if not mildly concerning) example. There is a long-recorded history of young boys and men who love to learn and talk about World War II, an obsession that has left quite a digital footprint. Don’t take my word for it, though. Spend just a few minutes on YouTube, TikTok or Reddit, and you’ll find troves of content ranging from “Facts about World War II” all the way to recorded videos of Live Action Role Play. However concerning this may sound, its correlation is not unclear. This time period aligns itself with many historically “masculine” areas of interest — planes, cars, tanks, boats — and like the Roman Empire, it acts as the perfect outlet for a guy who wants to live out that “macho fantasy” inside of his head.
Do I resonate with it? No. Will I ever? Probably not, but this is not the first, and won’t be the last, time the internet is subjected to a gendered trend that blows the mind of those outside of its target audience. Whether it’s men’s musings about the Roman Empire or a mildly disturbing factoid about World War II, many of the women who subject themselves to the tortures of social media are going to be left dumbfounded, and I guess that’s how it is supposed to be. There are few things the internet is better at than connecting its users through common interests, especially when those interests exist on strict, gendered lines that are easy to understand and adhere to. Social media, like the rest of the world, enjoys slipping back into its comfortable, easy-to-understand binaries. The question is: Is this a good thing?
It is helpful to consider that this phenomenon is not unique to men and “The Roman Empire” trend. Girls and women across TikTok and other social media apps have had countless trends that have led to the same result. In fact, it seems that the word “girl” and the experience of girlhood have been turned from just a vague idea into a full-on social media movement, connecting women across the world over the little things that men could just never understand. Whether it’s needing five hours to get ready, basking in our daily 3 p.m. naps or worshiping the ground Taylor Swift walks on, the idea of girlhood has become an intrinsic part of our social media feeds. Though there is hardly a singular definition for what constitutes womanhood, the sheer diversity of TikTok has allowed for the definition of “girlhood” to be varied and far-reaching. It has touched the screens and hearts of people across the app who likely define womanhood completely differently yet have still found some connection to the “girl” side of TikTok. It even seems that the word “girl” has turned from a noun into an adjective. We do “girl math,” eat “girl dinner” and have “hot girl summers.” It’s beautiful and chaotic all at once and is just another example of how social media always manages to give birth to the most perfect niches possible.
We’ve even taken this “social media girlhood” movement a step further, turning the Roman Empire trend on its head and asking ourselves what our “Roman Empire” is. In other words: What do women spend their free time thinking about? The internet has spoken, and the answers are varied, to say the least. Some revolve around general life experiences, like a first love, while others are far more specific — The Titanic, The Eras Tour, Princess Diana or your most emotionally exhausting ex-best friend are a few that have come to mind and seem to have wide-reaching relatability. As a collective female population of social media users, we’ve “girlified” a trend made about men, showing just how widespread and downright impressive the gender divide on social media is.
Of course, it’s true that gendered trends — The Roman Empire, “girl math” and many others — may be cause for some reasonable concern. The idea of “girl trends” and “boy trends” doesn’t fit with more progressive understandings of gender identity and expression, and the existence of these trends could serve to perpetuate some not-so-nice stereotypes about women and men alike. Trends like “girl math” have already received mounds of criticism from sexist commentators who have chosen to interpret the trend as “proof” that women are inferior to men, and the Roman Empire trend could definitely open the gateway for a type of harmful hypermasculinity. As for gender-nonconforming social media users, trends like these can be hard to navigate. Much of the time, the “girl trends” and “boy trends” in question are presented as a set of extremely specific gender experiences we are all supposed to sit back and accept as universal, regardless of our own experience. While jokingly playing into a trend like “girl math” might not be too damaging in the short-term, it’s important to recognize that “girlhood,” “boyhood” and everything in-between rarely looks the same for two people, and that stuffing an entire population of people into a box is going to lead to some vast overgeneralizations. I mean, is it really that likely that every straight man on the face of the earth thinks about the Roman Empire at least once a month? It’s far more plausible that there is a whole population of men sitting behind their screens somewhere wondering why social media has branded the Roman Empire as some kind of universal male hyper-fixation when that couldn’t be further from the truth.
It’s only right that we proceed with caution, recognizing the possible repercussions that these trends could have, while still celebrating their vast appeal to a wide audience and sheer power to connect huge masses of people. While social media can always be a breeding ground for hate, once in a while, there comes a time to celebrate its pure chaos and the beautiful things born from it, one weird trend at a time.
Maybe that’s my Roman Empire.
Daily Arts Writer Rebecca Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.