Vaguely ethnic and generically masculine, Freddie Prinze Jr. is the reigning king of Hollywood teen flicks. He’s so synonymous with the genre — Down to You, Head Over Heels, Boys and Girls, She‘s All That, I Know What You Did Every Summer of Your Life — that even movies he’s in that aren‘t officially “teen fare,” like Wing Commander, become Teen Beat Cinema simply by virtue of his being in them. He’s that much of a boy, and the latest in a long tradition of non-threatening, essentially asexual teenage idols whose personas whisper softly of sex but contain no proof that they can actually follow through. Except that Prinze doesn‘t even have the whisper. At a moment when 7-year-old girls emulate the virgin-ho’ chic of Britney Spears as they shriek for NSYNC‘s bump and grind, when adolescents drink, drug and fuck like First World sailors docked in Third World ports (or assume the burdens of the world with bottomless despair), Prinze, actor and sanitized emblem of today’s teen, is a complete blank, one whose permanently dimpled smile and pretty-boy jock outlines suggest he‘s never even been remotely aware of what real struggle, sexual or otherwise, means.
The absence of offensiveness, or even the possibility that he might one day offend, makes him appealing to the industry because it makes him a safe commodity. But it also means he’s incapable of either stoking fantasies or sustaining those that are projected onto him, and that‘s the problem. Movie stars don’t have to know how to act or have the most savory of personalities; they don‘t even have to be conventionally beautiful; but they do have to connect with our dreams of the world and ourselves. What makes a “bad” actor like Keanu Reeves (to whom Prinze bears a faint resemblance) resonate, sometimes powerfully, is a sexual vibrancy that spills over category confines of manwoman, gaystraight. You either want to fuck him or be him — or both. Reeves, as with all real stars, strokes our libido because he taps into longings at our core. Prinze doesn’t spill and he doesn‘t penetrate. Resolutely male and unwaveringly hetero yet absent that ineluctable spark of the true star, he rests lightly on the surface of possibility and desire like a piece of tasteful costume jewelry.
As it turns out, Prinze’s best performance to date hasn‘t been on the big screen, but on television. A year ago, he hosted Saturday Night Live and did a withering parody of Enrique Iglesias, complete with the singer’s silly hand gestures (wildly splayed fingers, dramatically extended arms) and overblown “smoldering” eyes. It was an ethnic cipher satirizing a cultural cliche, and it was stingingly funny. It was also interesting because the sketch raised the ghost of Prinze‘s late father by evoking not just his work but his demons as well. Prinze Sr. committed suicide at the age of 22, when his son was 10 months old. According to his friends, the father was conflicted about his identity (he was of Puerto Rican and Hungarian Jewish parentage). Some have even suggested that he wanted to be white. It’s ironic, then, that the man who was the great brown hope for many sired a son whose career is based on just how whitebread he is. Even more than those gorgeous dark eyes, a de-ethnicizing all-access pass (the stuff of assimilationist wet dreams) seems to be the most significant gift the father bequeathed to the son.
America‘s race problem, of course, remains not one of blackness or brownness but whiteness, which, hip-hop resilience and Latino music crazes be damned, continues to be the standard of beauty, desirability, viability. J. Lo shares peroxide with Lil’ Kim, Shakira and Beyonce, and they all blow da fuck up. (Prinze, by the way, sports blond hair in the a upcoming Scooby Doo flick, a career misstep whose cartoon dimensions might well be a natural fit for the actor‘s limited talents.) The current advertising and music-video fetish for mulatto bodies — warmly honeyed skin and naturally crimped (not kinky) hair — isn’t a celebration of diversity but a way to locate whiteness in the stew of merging races. It‘s a way to soothe us all, not just white folk, who, as any random rap video on BET’s playlist proves, aren‘t alone in needing reassurance.
Prinze is just ethnic enough to have flava (poco picante), but not so much that he doesn’t blend effortlessly into the airless films in which he‘s starred. (In his latest, Summer Catch, he plays an aspiring baseball player.) They’re movies in which the whitest of white folk (Claire Forlani, Monica Potter, the ubiquitous Julia Stiles) are at the center, with quirky white folk as secondary characters and people-of-notable-color as tokens. The world depicted in these films marks a victory for lip-service progressiveness, comatose consciousness — it‘s what “multiculturalism” has become in practice. In order for his films — and by extension, Prinze himself — to serve as testaments to colorblind art and existence, they must remain aggressively bland, unremarkable. Prinze’s career, built on his mediocre-at-best craft and zip personality, reveals as much, if not more, about the state of Hollywood — and, by extension, America itself — than a host of incendiary movies or nationalistic rap records. He‘s a shining example of the American success formula: bleach, blend, prosper.