Ah, softbois – my eternal muse. Despite running an Instagram account devoted to them, I find softbois very difficult to define. As such, I have always gone to great lengths to avoid doing so when asked, staying wilfully evasive about it, dodging the question, always moving, never static, never explicitly giving a definition, taking on the dexterity and niftiness of Tinkerbell/a man who is asked the question, ‘What are we?’ by the person he’s been sleeping with three times a week for the last year.
Now, however, we are literally inside the ‘definition of a softboi’ part of the book that I have written about softbois, and, basically, enough pissing about:
A softboi is a man (a ‘boi’, if you will) who portrays himself as ‘not like the other men’. He is more ‘alternative’ in how he presents himself, in his opinions, his ‘emotional intelligence’, his tastes, his interests, his philosophical beliefs, his GCSE choices, his vinyl collection, his choice of hairdresser, etc., etc. A true king of culture, the softboi is not inherently a bad person (this is a critical point to remember as we move through the book), but some softbois, as we will find out, are just the absolute fucking worst. Just by existing, they give all softbois a bad name. This is largely because of the way they view and treat their sexual or romantic partners.
So, you see, the word ‘softboi’ means many things, and the majority of them are completely harmless to wider society. The term casts a very wide net. If he wears, or has ever worn, Dr. Martens, he is a softboi. If he likes The Cure, he is a softboi. If he has read any part of Nietzsche’s Wikipedia page, he is a softboi. If he quotes Daphne du Maurier at you, before telling you that if you sleep with him, you will actually be empowering yourself on a spiritual level and thus furthering the historical women’s sexual rights movement, so you should have sex with him, but only because feminism – he is a softboi. If we are being fluid with gender labels (as we all should be), then I would call myself a softboi – to write a book centred around the theme of softbois is arguably the most softboi thing a person could do. There are, however, a few different, distinguishable types of softboi, some of which we will learn more about here.
The Wholesome Softboi
We absolutely fucking stan wholesome softbois. A wholesome softboi is what everyone should aspire to be. The gold standard of softbois, they are humble, they are honest, they are pure and they have good intentions. Obviously, it is not possible for everyone to be perfect all the time – the wholesome softboi knows this (without taking advantage), but also does not produce any red flags (maybe a couple of yellow or light-orange flags, at best). Although on some days it may not seem like it, wholesome softbois are all around us.
They are in the YouTube comment section of a Talking Heads live recording, carefully typing out, ‘This takes me straight back to the day me and my wife met. Still going strong after 36 years!’ They are in all your lovely, well-intentioned softboi friends, who, yes, fuck up sometimes, but are willing to learn from it. They are the friendly barista at a coffee shop wearing a Joy Division T-shirt under his apron, who gives you your drink for free before you can protest, then turns around and disappears forever into the buzz of the coffee machine, seeking no reward for his kindness. They are in the crinkled smile of the beautiful sales assistant at Urban Outfitters. They are in every action Robert Pattinson has ever taken/will ever take. They don’t pop up very frequently in this book, though, or on the @beam_me_up_softboi account, because the account exists for one primary reason: to take the piss out of softbois behaving questionably. If I were to start taking the piss out of impeccably behaved softbois as well, then the whole comedic structure of the thing would crumble. Plus, people are mean on the internet, and we would hate to see people being mean to a wholesome softboi.
If you find a true, authentic, wholesome softboi while on your travels through the dating wasteland, then you should hold onto them tightly and never let them go.
The Self-awareness-as-a-Weapon Softboi
That was nice, wasn’t it, that last section, where we saw, briefly, a ray of wholesome sunshine burst through the clouds of male-based despair. Here’s the thing, though: we are not living inside an episode of Gilmore Girls. I want you to take that internal glimmer of hope and I want you to squash it. Put it out. There is, of course, a time and a place for Gilmore Girls – a time and a place for dreaming about the happily-ever-after you will one day find with the corduroy-clad love of your life – but now is not that time. Love is war, and we’re in the fucking trenches, here. See Fig. 1:
Fig. 1: The Self-awareness-as-a-Weapon Softboi. Photo: Courtesy of Iona David
My goodness, goodness me. So many long words, so much childhood neglect manifesting itself in what are potentially the most malevolent placements of ‘x’ that @beam_me_up_softboi has ever seen.
Something about this screenshot really grinds my gears. It makes me mad. As I read through the above image, I can smell with vivid clarity the bedroom from which these messages were sent. Flowing through the low tones of the scent is tobacco; the rich, fruity smell of cigarettes smoked in-room, which seeps through the walls, twisted among the musty smell of the small, nearly-dried-up piles of Golden Virginia that adorn every surface.
This particular softboi uses Sure Man deodorant – his mum, obviously, has bought him many, many Lynx sets over the years, but he stopped using them around Year 9 when he realised just how mainstream they were. So now he uses Sure Man as an act of defiance – but, even at the big age of twenty, he still hasn’t quite mastered the ratio of how much deodorant to put on versus how much odour his body produces, so even though we can definitely smell the Sure Man in this room, it is mingled inextricably with the faint, unmasked smell of sweat. Finally, as we near the end of our inhalation, we are hit by the top note of the scent: acidic, tangy and hoppy – it is of course the aroma of seven to nine two-thirds-empty cans of Stella, varying in age from six months to two days, as they are balanced precariously atop the fibres of his carpet.
It is not a pleasant smell; that is one thing of which we are absolutely certain. Taking in the overall vibe of the room, we almost feel sorry for he who resides in it – something inside his soul is broken.
Many of us feel this way. Many of us feel broken and spend whole swathes of time bathing in self-pity – but only a small percentage of us turn this self-hatred inside out with such vicious resolve and spray it straight into the digital faces of their Tinder matches.
This screenshot perfectly exemplifies a softboi trend that has been growing slowly, steadily and very concerningly over the last few years. The ‘self-aware’ softboi – he represents ‘brutal honesty’. Self-awareness is generally a good thing – if we have self-awareness, it means that we are more aware of things we do that might negatively affect ourselves or others, and this means we can actively work towards not doing these things.
It all starts to go horribly wrong, though, when people (softbois) start thinking that self-awareness on its own is enough to absolve them of all their evils. This trait manifests itself in many different forms. Some are lightweight, like when someone says, ‘Ugh, I guess I just make bad decisions – I’m a jerk who doesn’t deserve love 🙄’ (saying things like this, in my opinion, is usually more a sign of immaturity than it is of anything truly nefarious).
However, if we take this self-awareness-as-a-get-out-of-jail-free-card characteristic as far as it can go, down the bleak and scary road of emotional manipulation and through the dark woods of Just Being a Shit Person Generally, we end up here, at Fig. 1, on the receiving end of these messages from our vile, Golden Virginia-scented softboi.
He paints a rich, rich picture. In this unnecessarily eloquent future scenario, he describes treating the message recipient really, really badly over the course of an imagined four-year relationship, throws in a few Gen-Z buzzwords for good measure, and then signs off with an ‘I fancy you’ – clearly, these three words are enough to win anyone’s heart.
What makes this man a softboi? Well, it comes back to one of his core beliefs, which I discussed when I defined the word earlier on: the softboi believes that he is more ‘alternative’ in his ‘emotional intelligence’ than other men. Now, make no mistake: some softbois genuinely are very emotionally aware, and are nicer people because of it. Not so for the softboi in Fig. 1. What he is doing is presenting a front of faux emotional intelligence in the form of self-awareness. Most people can see very clearly that the man in the screenshot is literally just an arrogant tapeworm who has, in some freak mythological twist of fate, gained the ability to communicate with humans. However, some people – for whatever reason – will not see this.
It is rare that I will actively try to inject some actual important meaning into the softboi account or my writing, but I do want to speak about the people who may not see through the tricks of the Tapeworm, as the man in Fig. 1 shall now be referred to. I have been through some dark periods in my life, particularly when I was younger – still a teenager. During these times, I interacted with some unbelievably fucking shady guys. I was, overall, a mess, which put me in a vulnerable position – the exact kind of position where I would have fallen for the Tapeworm’s slimy, slimy manipulation, especially if he owned any clothing made by Dickies and/ or had a presence of pretty much any size on SoundCloud.
You may now be thinking, This man literally explains in the message that he is an emotional manipulator. What kind of self-respecting person would ever go anywhere near him? That is exactly the point: sometimes – for whatever reason, adolescent mess or not – people find themselves lost and confused, running low on self-respect and willing to make up any excuse to ignore the millions of red flags someone is showing. This does not mean that person deserves to be manipulated or emotionally abused.
The @beam_me_up_softboi Instagram account has always been, and will always be, centred around laughter (because if we cannot laugh in the face of bleakness, my sweetest, sweetest peas, then what else can we do?), but sometimes the screenshots also show some very grim realities of bad relationships. I hope that the account’s continued presence – alongside the excellent work of similar accounts like @sheratesdogs and @swipes4daddy – can help make more people aware that this kind of behaviour is just not acceptable.
The Gatekeeping Softboi
Fig. 2: The Gatekeeping Softboi. Photo: Courtesy of Iona David
This is an example of another classic and very common softboi-ism, which is to gatekeep a cultural phenomenon (e.g. a musician, a song or a film) based on his own apparent understanding of/emotional connection to it. Gatekeeping and softbois are like two precious peas in a tiny, reclaimed-vintage-Urban-Outfitters-clad pod. Without the man who has spent so many hours in the depths of the Cocteau Twins’ (or, in this case, Mac DeMarco’s) discography that he genuinely believes he is the only one who knows how to properly listen to them, there would be no softboi.
At the time of writing, the term ‘gatekeep’ is seen most frequently on social media, as part of the phrase ‘Gaslight, Gatekeep, Girlboss’ – an iconic meme, with classic ‘live, laugh, love’ roots. I thought it would be appropriate, in this section, to home in a little bit more on what the phrase is really about.
If we were to put our Brothers Grimm/Knights of the Round Table hats on, when we looked at the word ‘gatekeeping’ we would of course imagine a scenario involving some kind of mythical troll-creature standing beside a rickety wooden gate – possibly near or under a bridge, possibly holding a magical staff. ‘You can’t get through!’ he’d scream at us, his voice somehow both gravelly and screechy, the moles on his chin quivering with each word that passes his lips. ‘The gate stays closed!’
‘It’s okay, scary troll-gatekeeper,’ we’d say. ‘We don’t need to get through, anyway – what we need to do is find a more current and relevant definition of gatekeeping.’
In the field of communications studies, gatekeeping refers to large amounts of information being filtered for distribution via the mass media – so, we have an infinite amount of information in the world, and only a tiny amount of it makes it through to our newspapers, TV news programmes, radio broadcasts, etc. (the ‘mass media’). The people who decide what information reaches the audience and what doesn’t are, in this context, the ‘gatekeepers’ – these people are almost exactly like the screechy troll-creature that we met in the story, except these modern-day ones almost definitely have the surname Murdoch and/or have a really unsettling greasy comb-over. This subject is actually really interesting, and loops back round to the whole ‘one small group of ultrarich people deciding what the rest of the world’s population can and can’t do’ thing that we’ve touched upon in previous chapters, but it’s still not quite the type of gatekeeping we’re looking at in the screenshot.
The word has evolved over the years, but what we can see happening in Fig. 2 is actually best described by Urban Dictionary:
Gatekeeping is a word used to describe when someone sets a standard/limit on what someone must do to call themselves a ‘true fan’ of something/someone.
In today’s society, we see this happen all the time. It is not behaviour restricted to softbois. Once, when I was 12, I heard Rihanna’s song ‘Only Girl (In the World)’ played for the first time ever on Radio 1. This is great! I thought to myself. The song makes perfect sense in terms of RiRi’s evolution as an artist – a bold move, sure, moving to a Eurodance sound after the moody, rock-inspired tones we heard on Rated R, but at the end of the day, you just can’t beat a good dance-pop melody. I became obsessed with the song, listening to it at every opportunity. Because I was 12, and pretty stupid, I thought that me hearing the song on the radio meant that I had ‘discovered’ it – I felt like I had personally dug it out of its niche, underground state, and kept it, just for me and my headphones. My tiny, tiny brain didn’t compute that because the song was by Rihanna – the then-undisputed Princess of Pop – it would obviously go on to be a number-one hit. I thought I was the ‘only girl in the world’ who knew about this song – then, a few days later, to my shock and horror, it was everywhere. Instead of being happy that other people got to bask in the song’s pink glow, though, I was absolutely fucking raging.
‘Yeah,’ I would say, flicking my Schwarzkopf-dyed dark-red Rihanna-style pixie cut out of my eyes while my friends played the song off their phones at school, ‘I actually heard this song ages ago. Used to like it, but it’s a bit overplayed now.’ I was in a state of pop-distress. These people singing this song in the playground, these people playing it in their cars – didn’t they realise that because I had (possibly) heard it before they did, I owned the full rights to the song’s enjoyment?
Now, with the benefit of hindsight, we can all see that by attempting to gatekeep Rihanna, all my 12-year-old self was doing was driving herself and everyone around her into a dark pit of frustration. This, I feel, is what the softboi in Fig. 2 is doing – whether he realises it or not.
There’s a phrase doing the rounds on social media – and in Gen-Z/Millennial culture in general – at the moment: ‘Let people enjoy things.’ I have my own issues with the phrase, but as I look at this screenshot, it is circling around my head. This, to me, is what the phrase is all about – it does not, as some people seem to think, mean ‘fully absolve yourself of critical thinking’, but rather ‘don’t let the fact that you have some kind of deep personal connection to, say, a musical artist make you angry that other people also enjoy their music – even if they only enjoy it casually’.
Make room for the people who accidentally leave their Spotify Radio feature on, and so hear a song by an artist they’ve never listened to before, and then add it to their playlist. They do not know the life story of the artist – or anything about them, really – but they like the song, and so they listen to it.
The ‘Radiohead? More Like Radi-BRO-head’-boi
Fig. 3: The 'Radiohead? More Like Radi-BRO-head’-boi. Photo: Courtesy of Iona David
The ‘Radiohead? More Like Radi-BRO-head’-boi pops up more often than you might think; it’s sad, yes, but that is the society in which we live. He is a softboi who assumes that his cultural tastes – which are, incidentally, usually quite mainstream – are too unique for anyone else (particularly womxn) to know of, appreciate or understand.
The man we see above us is, clearly, a robot. The only way I can imagine his response to the message being said out loud is if it was completely devoid of tone, no space for breath, the length of each syllable short and identical; just ‘I-have-nev-er-met-one-in-my-life’.
So, we are all in agreement that he is a robot – now, let’s unscrew him, and take a closer look at the mechanism that makes him tick. We hear the acidic clink of screws being unscrung as we remove the metal plate that gives us access to the robot-boi’s brain; and, as we look closer at his fuel tank, we discover that he is fuelled not by petrol or diesel, but – lo and behold – by pure, unfiltered misogyny!
‘Misogyny.’ The word gets thrown around a fair amount in this book, and I thought it would be appropriate to take a brief recess to check that we are all on the same page about what it means. Let me be very clear: this recess is not me taking on the role of your feminist theory teacher, because I actually know very little about the word’s background. (I think) I know it when I see it, but I don’t know much about it. So, let’s learn together:
Webster’s Dictionary defines misogyny as a ‘hatred of, aversion to, or prejudice against women [/womxn]’. I found another fun detail about misogyny on the word’s Wikipedia page, too, which is that it also includes the rejection of ‘feminine qualities’. Misogyny holds in contempt institutions, work, hobbies or habits associated with womxn.
Here at @beam_me_up_softboi we see a lot of different types of misogyny on a regular basis. ‘Hatred’, as we see in the Webster’s definition, is a very strong word. I do not think that every softboi posted on the page hates womxn. I do, however, think that some of them have a lot of work to do on unpacking their deeply, deeply ingrained misogyny – whether they are aware that it exists or not.
So, now that’s cleared up: we observe the misogyny in Fig. 3, as it runs through the smudged pixels of the screenshot like blood through veins. We think, naturally, about Radiohead. Good tunes – yes. The best tunes? Quite possibly. Excellent, excellent stuff from Thom and the gang. We can’t get caught up in a Radiohead Appreciation Paragraph here, though – we must pause the funereal melodies that are drifting through our head, and focus on the task at hand, which is figuring out how to live on the same planet as this man; this man who simply cannot wrap his head around the fact that non-male Radiohead fans exist.
The most obvious solution, of course, would be to eradicate all male Radiohead fans from the population. This option – while sometimes tempting – would, I feel, be unnecessarily cruel. No, today we are not choosing violence. Let’s try to find a more compassionate method of coexistence.
If you want to take a fun, interactive approach to dealing with these ‘Radiohead? More Like Radi-BRO-head’-bois, then you could try the method of pretending that you have genuinely never heard of any of the bands that they bring up in conversation. Benefits of this method include: it is quite funny to do. Drawbacks include: the reason it is funny is because of how readily the softboi will believe that you have never heard of, say, The Killers. ‘Ya, they’re pretty underground, so I’m not surprised,’ he will say. This is amusing to begin with, but you will get bored quickly, and all you will be left with is a self-reinforced stereotype. Also, if you are trying to have sex with/start a romantic relationship with this type of softboi (and hey, if you are, there’s no judgement here – sometimes these boys are just undeniably, painfully hot, and this is simply something we have to come to terms with), then this semi-patronising method almost instantly guarantees that neither of those things will happen. Again, it’s got to be a no; this approach is unsustainable.
To survive alongside the Radi-BRO-head boi, we are going to have to strip things back to basics.
The point of music is to enjoy it. As I’m sure Thom Yorke would say, you cannot allow the presence of misogynistic irritants to ruin your favourite Radiohead album. The solution, here, is not to let yourself get caught up in the misogynist spider web – no matter how tempting it is – but instead to plug in your AirPods, lie upside-down on your bed and lose yourself in the 2021 re-issue of Kid A/Amnesiac.
There are so many different types of softboi that it’s near impossible to name them all. I’ve just skimmed the surface, here, by outlining three of them. Most softbois are fine; some are annoying. To all my softbois out there: stay golden, don’t stress yourself out too much and stop gatekeeping the concept of enjoying music.
Is This Love or Dopamine? is published by HarperCollins and is out today.