Soap operas went from 30 minutes to 60 in 1975, when the genre’s audience was largest, and most ravenous. According to a Time-magazine article titled “Sex and Suffering in the Afternoon,” everyone was watching them: from the critic Renata Adler, who, after falling ill with laryngitis, fell for the series Another World; to the Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, who tuned in to Days of Our Lives each afternoon; to a quarter of Princeton’s student body, who took to their dorms at midday to watch The Young and the Restless. There was “a separate nation of more than 20 million Americans who weekly follow, or rather participate in, the soaps.”
Today only four soap operas remain on the air, their viewership steadily declining. But the spirit of the soap lives on—on TikTok. Clocking in at three minutes or less and available morning, noon, and night, TikTok’s miniature melodramas have some advantages over the traditional soap.
In these P.O.V. videos, which I’ve come to call “Fantasy Boyfriend TikToks,” the TikToker addresses the viewer directly and enacts a specific scenario while playing a particular character. (Not all P.O.V.’s are soapy; sometimes they are humorous character studies of annoying archetypes, such as “POV: the girl who thinks she’s ‘one of the guys’ comes to the bathroom with you.”)
Such a Fantasy Boyfriend might be the coolest guy in school, with whom you, a not quite as popular girl, are sneaking around. Or, as in the case of one viral video, he’s your best friend, who, upon discovering your abusive relationship with a boyfriend that you mentioned at the beginning of the video, becomes a savior and, thus, definitely boyfriend material.
The scenarios outlined in Fantasy Boyfriend TikTok can be bizarrely elaborate. In a video made by Victor Goldstein—who, like seemingly all men on TikTok, wears a dangly cross earring in the style of George Michael—a bad-boy boyfriend pretends to be your legal guardian in order to get you out of detention.
In another video, from TikToker Seth Shyrock, who has 640,600 followers on the app (and also wears a cross earring), the viewer plays multiple roles, philandering girlfriend among them. The script is subtitled on-screen and includes both his and your dialogue. (The text color changes to indicate that you are now a new character.)
It begins with his telling you, a friend, that he’s going to his girlfriend’s concert later that night. In the next scene, he meets you, a boy who is sleeping with his girlfriend, at the concert, before catching you, now the cheating girlfriend, red-handed backstage. The revelation causes Seth to go into cardiac arrest and, presumably, die.
The scenarios outlined in Fantasy Boyfriend TikTok can be bizarrely elaborate.
Like network soap operas, Fantasy Boyfriend TikTok has its conventions. According to one, your boyfriend is pushed up against a wall, his hands behind his back. He’s being arrested, but right before he’s dragged off to jail, he shoots a pouty, passionate gaze directly into the camera and mouths, “I love you.”
Thanks to duet videos—split-screen TikToks that allow you to record yourself alongside a video, which in the case of P.O.V. Fantasy Boyfriend TikTok, means playing the part of the girlfriend or love interest—the audience for this genre has expanded to include ironic viewers. As one TikToker, Mr. Gatsbyy, whose real name is Collin, put it, “Honestly, hate brings more attention.”
Collin is known for his “morning videos.” These TikToks begin with him in bed, speaking into his phone, placed at a distance where, presumably, a girl might be. In one, you tell him you aren’t feeling well, which is fortuitous because Mr. Gatsbyy has already texted his boss for the day off to spend it in bed cuddling with you. He leans into his phone for a kiss. Scene.
In another, he wakes up to find out that you’ve gotten your period overnight and graciously offers to buy tampons and bring you food. For his most recent video, you both have the coronavirus, and it ends as the morning videos typically do: with his offering breakfast, cuddles, and a kiss.
Unlike other Fantasy Boyfriends, Collin has neither a cross earring nor sponsorships. “I had a lot of advertising deals that I could have gone through,” he tells me. “I wanted to do it on my own.” A self-made social-media star, Mr. Gatsbyy isn’t motivated by money but by his fans—he works in real estate when he isn’t making TikToks—and he wants to give his audience the gift of more quotidian contentments.
Collin’s scripts may feature commonplace scenarios, but, like soap operas, his videos speak to the longings of restless romantics and lonely hearts. The Time article from 1975 reported that CBS decided to eliminate poor characters from their daytime content because fans were sending in care packages.
The line between fantasy and reality may also be blurring for the TikTok genre’s fevered fans. One Mr. Gatsbyy follower, Liz, a 24-year-old from Indiana, has Mr. Gatsbyy tattooed in script across her wrist. “In moments of weakness,” she tells me, “I look at the tattoo, and it just reminds me that I can always look up to him, and can look to him for comfort and support.”
Clementine Ford is a New York–based writer