"Remember a week ago when Tom Hiddleston could do no wrong?": Tumblr reactions to the loss of an internet boyfriend

Daisy Pignetti

University of Wisconsin–Stout, Menomonie, Wisconsin, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Tumblr's uniquely featured blogging platform provided the space Hiddleston fans needed to react and subsequently analyze his unexpected relationship with Taylor Swift.

[0.2] Keywords—Blog; Celebrity relationships; Fandom; Hiddlestoners; Hiddleswift; Taylor Swift

Pignetti, Daisy. 2018. "'Remember a Week Ago When Tom Hiddleston Could Do No Wrong?': Tumblr Reactions to the Loss of an Internet Boyfriend." In "Tumblr and Fandom," edited by Lori Morimoto and Louisa Ellen Stein, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 27.

1. Introduction

[1.1] On June 15, 2016, I sat down to my husband's birthday dinner. We were early to the restaurant, so I checked my phone to see if any of our friends had contacted me about not being able to join us since it was a rainy night. No texts, so I figured a quick glance at Facebook wouldn't hurt.

[1.2] Imagine my surprise at seeing fifteen "World Exclusive" photos of Tom Hiddleston kissing Taylor Swift on the rocky beach outside of her Rhode Island home. The Sun's headline piece on June 28, 2016, "Tinker, Taylor Snogs a Spy," made a clever nod to Tom's starring role in a recent BBC miniseries adaptation of John Le Carré's The Night Manager (2016) and would be shared multiple times on various Hiddlestoner Facebook fan group pages. Overnight, the coupling became every entertainment media site's trending topic and even the subject of Stephen Colbert's June 16, 2016, monologue (figure 1).

Stephen Colbert with smaller images of Taylor Swift and Tom Hiddleston in the bottom left corner, and the words "Yaaas" and "Hiddleswift" superimposed.

Figure 1. Screenshot from celebrity gossip blogger Perez Hilton's June 17, 2016, post titled "Stephen Colbert Gushes over Tom Hiddleston & Taylor Swift's New Romance… And Even Wants To Join Their Power Couple As 'Colbiddleswift.'" The post also includes video of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert's monologue entitled "Forget 'Hiddleswift,' Make Way for Power Trio 'Colbiddleswift.'"

[1.3] Why were fans like myself, the mainstream media, and pretty much anyone you asked so surprised by the pairing? First, news of Swift and DJ Calvin Harris ending their fifteen-month relationship had broken only two weeks prior; however, Taylor's reputation as a serial dater whose breakup songs had created a "relationships-as-performance art persona" (Finn 2016a) was what Hiddlestoners found most worrisome. Although there had been rumors of Tom dating various costars over the years (Kat Dennings, Jessica Chastain, Elizabeth Olsen), he had remained single, focused on his work, and out of the gossip columns. In other words, since his 2011 cinematic turn as Loki in Thor, he had "unwittingly entered into a committed relationship with the Internet" (Finn 2016b).

2. Internet boyfriends

[2.1] Defined by The Cut, an internet boyfriend is "a man in his early or mid-30s, old enough that a teenager will find him refreshingly mature and a grown-up can lust after him with impunity" (Misra 2016). Most important to this discussion of Hiddleston, he is "someone surrounded by an aura of authenticity" (Misra 2016).

[2.2] Tom's fans have had their own reasons for considering him "a paragon of enlightened masculinity" (Misra 2016), but few are immune to his charms. Reporters have described "Meeting Hiddleston [as] almost as good as YouTubing him" (Yuan 2016), and his director on Kong: Skull Island (2017), Jordan Vogt-Roberts, has stated: "Tom is really frustrating to be around because he's tall and handsome and knows a lot about everything…He might care too much at times, but you have no choice but to like completely love him" (quoted in Klassen 2017).

[2.3] Repeated instances of Tom's politeness and appreciation for the craft of acting together with "his intellectualism: a degree in Classics from Cambridge, as well as a tendency to quote liberally from Shakespeare and T. S. Eliot" (Lenker 2016) all support the aforementioned key traits of being an internet boyfriend: "refreshingly mature" and with "an aura of authenticity." So when this man, who had previously stated, "some things have to remain sacred" (quoted in Yuan 2016) when asked about his personal life, was suddenly front and center in the spectacle that was "Hiddleswift," a three-month relationship that had paparazzi following him to "three different continents, four different countries, and three different [US] states" (Woodward 2016) in the first twenty-three days alone, it is no surprise that fans took to social media to respond.

3. Tumblr: Anger

[3.1] Reactions from the British actor's fandom across all social media platforms ranged from confused to disappointed to vehemently ruthless, such as the hashtags #hiddlestunt, #tiddlesbanging, and #famewhoreTom. More can be said about the roles of Facebook and Twitter when it comes to Hiddleswift, particularly as the relationship progressed; yet for this issue of Transformative Works and Cultures, I will focus on Tumblr and argue that it, as a blog platform with unique features, provided the space that fans needed to react to the initial news.

[3.2] For example, Tumblr blogs that had previously been dedicated to praising Hiddleston's every move soon became the echo chambers that Paul Booth describes: fan sites devoted to reinforcing a "particular viewpoint at the expense of a variety of other types" (2017, 236). And what was that viewpoint? Best put by E! News:

[3.3] The Internet is taking this one hard. And that must have to do with Hiddleston's choice of partner and the fact that he's along for some sort of ride, romantic or otherwise, none of them befitting a man of his quirky-crush stature. He hung out with the squad, for Pete's sake! (Finn 2016b)

[3.4] Leaving aside the entertainment news and gossip sites' theories that the relationship was a public relations stunt, what follows is a brief analysis of two of the many Tumblr posts that reacted to this apparent 180-degree shift in Tom's persona. In the post that inspired the title of this essay, "Remember a week ago when Tom Hiddleston could do no wrong?," lareinedenfer (2016) writes,

[3.5] The bubble burst.

[3.6] The image that Hiddleston and his PR rep, Luke Windsor, had carefully cultivated for so long, shattered as fans everywhere went, "what the fuck?"

[3.7] In short, Thomas, we expected better of you.

[3.8] By speaking directly to Hiddleston, lareinedenfer is taking full advantage of the public stage that blogging platforms like Tumblr provide. Although it is highly unlikely Hiddleston will ever see it, this post is what blog scholar Jill Walker Rettberg (2008) describes as one "deliberately written to be shared … written with care and wit" (11). In fact, it received over 300 notes, which in Tumblr terms translates into likes or reblogs from fellow Tumblr users. lareinedenfer wrote several posts in this vein, but this first one dated June 20, 2016, references the split s/he already sees happening within the fandom and clearly sides with those who are "becoming, more and more disappointed out by [his] recent behavior." As the post continues, lareinedenfer's tone escalates, closing with the following forewarning:

[3.9] Looking ahead, you have become Taynted—see what I did there?—because from now on, every photo spread, every role you get, every award you win, every interview, every everything in the everywhere of all time—will have Taylor's shadow all over it. You are no longer Tom Hiddleston, respected theater actor and blossoming A-lister with an Oscar nom in your near future. No. You're just Taylor's new boyfriend. And soon you will be Taylor's newest ex-boyfriend. And your public persona will forever be tied to hers because you were either too eager for fame or too stupid to realize what you were getting into.

[3.10] Nothing you ever do will be yours. Ever again. Have a cup of tea with that, Thomas.

[3.11] As the post title suggests, before news of this relationship hit, Hiddlestoners were united, but now the community was becoming what Booth would describe as "not formalized through the participants themselves, but rather organized by the topics generated by the community" (2017, 235). In this case, the aforementioned 300 notes illustrate agreement among those fans who believed that this was not the Tom they (thought they) knew. And realizing that they were not alone in this opinion only fueled their Tumblr usage, with some bloggers tagging other Tumblr users to extend the discussion.

4. Tumblr: Dialogue

[4.1] While Booth notes that Tumblr's nature is to place "emphasis on the image rather than the written word" (2017, 238) through the reblogging of GIFs, videos, fan art, and static images, the spectacle that was tagged #Hiddleswift inspired posts that often ranged between 600 and 2,100 words. For instance, The Haven of Fiction Tumblr blog became an "Anonymous Ask" space, a feature that Tumblr added in 2010 (note 1). Haven's post of over 1,000 words from July 4, 2016, "Just a Man," begins with the ask she received (which actually isn't a question) and an explanation why she chose to answer it:

[4.2] "I'm never letting myself get this enchanted or inspired by a public person ever again. The disappointment, whether people think it's unfounded or not, it's not worth it."

[4.3] Hi, little gray face.

[4.4] I debated with myself about replying to this, because I'm trying to keep this blog relatively drama-free. Over the last couple of weeks, I've replied privately to Asks that were not anonymous and I've simply deleted anonymous ones that seemed inflammatory to me. I decided to answer yours because it seems to be sincere and sad.

[4.5] And the best that I can come up with is I'm sorry. I'm sorry that you feel disappointed. Unfounded or not, as you say, the fact is that it is real for a lot of people here.

[4.6] By noting the desire to keep things "drama-free," Haven sets up the post as one where she will take the fan's disappointment seriously and attempt to understand it alongside him/her. Haven further establishes her ethos by admitting, "I understand what it's like to be enchanted and inspired by this man. I've never been either of things to such a degree with anyone as I am by him." She then offers the link to her "personal journey" post from January 15, 2016, which details, beginning in 2008, how she "got into Hiddleston-fandom." (This post is also known as "My Hiddleston Rabbit Hole Story" on the "HALP! (FAQ or Userguide)" tab of her page).

[4.7] What continues in "Just a Man" is a thoughtful reflection upon celebrity and social media that reinforces Booth's point that "Tumblr revalues emotional activity" (2017, 239):

[4.8] This being a "fan" business is rather odd, isn't it? The internet and social media have made it such a constant, instantly accessible pastime. Gone are the days of living off of a couple of magazine articles per month and plastering our walls with pinups. Now we live in the days of an abundance of print and visual media that most of us carry around on a little device in our pocket. Celebrities are more present than they ever have been. We feel like we know them in a way that previous generations didn't know the celebrities of their times. That sense of a virtual intimacy makes the possibility of disappointment more prominent.

[4.9] Based on how that Person has chosen to publicly present himself in the past and the act of trust that a fan gives a celebrity in taking what they say and do to be an accurate representation of their true self, I can understand how people are experiencing disappointment due to their interpretation of the Person's current choices as being contrary to the image that they had constructed of that Person.

[4.10] I'm not interested in debating that at its core. I'm not interested in arguing and telling people that they don't really know him and that they should separate the actor from the person and that their feelings are wrong, etc. What we've seen publicly of him over the last few weeks is unprecedented and terming it as such isn't an opinion or a judgment, it's a fact. Unprecedented behavior is inherently odd. People are going to react to that oddness in a variety of ways, some of them extreme. If [sic] then becomes your responsibility to handle yourself in a healthy way.

[4.11] The final lines of this lengthy excerpt emphasize the self-care that Haven feels this asker, and fans like him/her, should practice during emotional times; however, at the heart of it Haven reveals she too is a fan confused by Tom's behavior as indicated by her use of the words "unprecedented," "contrary," and "odd." It echoes lareindenfer's disappointment, but rather than chastising him directly, Haven chooses to close her post with the simple truth that, unlike the idealized internet boyfriend: "He is just a man. That is all. Just a man. Flesh and blood. Triumphs and failures. Wise choices and foolish choices. He isn't perfect." Finally, reminding us of Hiddleston's profession, she writes, "He is someone who owes me nothing more than a performance" and then concludes with the counsel, "Please let the positive effect outweigh current disappointment. <3" Not all of Hiddleston's fans were as level-headed as Haven, and some eventually chose to leave the fandom all together. Still, their taking to Tumblr throughout the relationship, soon after it ended, and even now two years later reiterates Booth's idea that it can become a site of critical discourse (2017, 240) (note 2).

5. Conclusion

[5.1] Extended Tumblr posts like those analyzed here waned after the relationship ended in September of 2016. Throughout 2017, if you searched Tumblr for #Hiddleswift posts, there were reblogs of photos from their time together, some with snarky captions and others wishing they had never broken up. Excitement ensued in early August when Tom was announced to play Hamlet at a fundraiser for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Brown 2017), and Taylor wiped all her social media accounts in preparation for her latest album release (Kaiser 2017). Hiddlestoners hoped that this meant both were moving on professionally and personally, particularly since Taylor was already dating another British actor, Joe Alwyn.

[5.2] Then the video for Taylor's newest single, "Look What You Made Me Do," premiered at MTV's Video Music Awards on August 27, 2017. While some entertainment sites have interpreted the entire video as a satirical self-reflection of the media treatment she receives, others have referred to it as "an aural burn book of all of Swift's past (and current) critics" (Chen 2017), namely Katy Perry, Kanye West, and Kim Kardashian. Lyrically, there is no mention of romantic relationships, but halfway through the video, Taylor appears in front of a line of dancers who, at the snap of her fingers, open their jackets to reveal "I <3 TS" tank tops (figure 2).

Taylor Swift in front of a row of dancers, all wearing a black version of the I Heart TS T-shirt.

Figure 2. Lead image from Teen Vogue's August 28, 2017, article, "What Taylor Swift's New Music Video Says about Her Love Life," which is further subtitled, "It's all about the 'I Love TS' tees."

[5.3] In brief, lareinedenfer's prediction of Tom's public persona becoming "Taynted" has come true. For nearly two years, every news item that has mentioned either celebrity has always included the other, although those stories typically rehashed details from their short-lived relationship. But here Taylor was calling attention to the shirt that Tom, not she, had been endlessly mocked about on the Fourth of July (figure 3), and, to enrage Hiddlestoners further, she began selling the version from the video on her website at $50 each. In a post dated August 28, 2017, Tumblr user maevecurrywrites reacts:

[5.4] There's only one reason why anyone even knows who the "TS" is in that particular context … Tom Hiddleston wearing the tank top. And every time someone sees another person wearing one of those T-shirts, they'll think of him. Wearing that tank top. She's opted TO MONETIZE THAT SHIT above and beyond of the cost of a song or an album. Surprising? Fuck no.

Taylor Swift and Tom Hiddleston surrounded by a group of friends at the beach; Tom is wearing a T-shirt with the logo "I Heart TS."

Figure 3. Instagram photo posted July 6, 2016, by Taylor Swift's friend, Abigail Lauren, which features Tom wearing the "I Heart TS" tank top, Taylor, and "the squad" in Rhode Island on the Fourth of July. In February 2017, Tom stated to GQ that he "was surprised that it got so much attention. The tank top became an emblem of this thing" (quoted in Brodesser-Akner 2017).

[5.5] Of course, no one outside of Tom and Taylor knows exactly how their relationship ended or whether she consulted him before using the shirt in this video. Nonetheless, it is clear that Tom's fans will continue to take to Tumblr to react to media content produced by Taylor even though they would prefer the two never had connected. Indeed, this spectacle has caused me to question my own status as a Hiddlestoner. Like Haven, I appreciate Tom's work as an actor, and I never thought the relationship was a public relations move, but the excessive pictures countered everything he previously claimed about privacy. In fact, in the midst of the short-lived relationship Hiddleston stated the following about being in the public eye: "As long as you know why you've done something and you've committed to it with authenticity, then you're okay" (quoted in McCluskey 2016). While he owed us nothing, this, to me, is a problematic statement. If he had used his own social media to comment on the relationship, even just once, rather than let the press, and now Taylor, construct the narrative, perhaps he could have reclaimed the genuine image that so many fans ascribed to him.

[5.6] Or was this his way of breaking up with the internet?

6. Notes

1. As described by Mashable, the Ask feature "is sure to be a boon to Tumblr bloggers, who already have a built-in community on the platform. Now, in addition to getting feedback in the form of comments, reblogs and 'likes,' users will be able to have actual dialogues with readers" (Ehrlich 2010).

2. The so-called Summer of Hiddleswift went on to include many moments that divided the fandom further, all of which are worthy of separate discussions: paparazzi photos of Taylor and Tom with his mother and young niece walking on a beach in England, a cringeworthy GQ interview Tom did in February 2017 that waxed nostalgic about "a relationship in the limelight" and "how you have to fight for love" (quoted in Brodesser-Akner 2017), and, most recently, Tom's appearances at Avengers: Infinity War events where he is donning glasses and a beard and not smiling.

7. References

Booth, Paul. 2017. Digital Fandom 2.0: New Media Studies. New York: Peter Lang.

Brodesser-Akner, Taffy. 2017. "Tom Hiddleston on Taylor Swift, Heartbreak, and Great Bolognese." GQ, February 14, 2017.

Brown, Mark. 2017. "Tom Hiddleston to Star in Branagh's Hamlet—For Three Weeks Only." Guardian, August 1, 2017.

Chen, Joyce. 2017. "Taylor Swift's 'Look What You Made Me Do' Video Decoded: 13 Things You Missed." Rolling Stone, August 28, 2017.

Ehrlich, Brenna. 2010. "Ask Me, Ask Me: Tumblr Adds a New Query Feature." Mashable, January 7, 2010.

Finn, Natalie. 2016a. "Taylor Swift Is 26 and a Free Woman Yet She's Still Having Trouble Shaking Off that Serial-Dater Rap." E! Online, June 16, 2016.

Finn, Natalie. 2016b. "The Day Tom Hiddleston Dumped the Internet for Taylor Swift." E! Online, July 7, 2016.

Kaiser. 2017. "Taylor Swift Deleted Everything on All of Her Social Media Platforms, Huh." Celebitchy, August 20, 2017.

Klassen, Anna. 2017. "The Frustrating Perfection of Tom Hiddleston." Bustle, March 6, 2017.

Lenker, Maureen Lee. 2016. "Hiddleswift and Backlash in the Age of the Internet Boyfriend." Cuepoint, August 10, 2016.

McCluskey, Megan. 2016. "Tom Hiddleston: Actor Says Everything He Does Is 'Authentic.'" Time, July 25, 2016.

Misra, Sulagna. 2016. "How the Internet Picks Its Boyfriends." The Cut, January 6, 2016.

Walker Rettberg, Jill. 2008. Blogging. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Woodward, Ellie. 2016. "Tom Hiddleston Gave an Interview about Taylor Swift and It Was Awkward AF." BuzzFeed, July 11, 2016.

Yuan, Jada. 2016. "Tom Hiddleston Is More Than the Internet's Boyfriend." Vulture, April 20, 2016.