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From Seth Cohen to the Hot Priest: A Cultural History of the Softboi

From Willoughby in 'Sense and Sensibility', through Seth Cohen and Aziz Ansari in 'Master of None', the softboi has always been there – it's just that he only recently got his name.

by Morwenna Ferrier
04 September 2019, 5:16am

Background: Pixabay; messages via @beam_me_up_softboi

You're in the kitchen at a party and you start talking to a guy. You don't look at him and think, 'I could die a thousand deaths in your eyes,' but he pays you attention and laughs at your jokes and knows his Proust or his Palace, or whatever it is that's culturally important to you.

Leaning against the hob, some large, looming adult son grabs your bum as they walk past. "Men are animals," he says, glaring at the perpetrator. You smile, and quietly clock the gesture. He gets it. He gets you. There's a connection. You go home separately. By the next morning he's following you on Instagram.

You meet for coffee, which becomes an early dinner, then drinks, and then, somehow, you're on your way home together. In the bedroom, he starts to exhibit some anxiety. He's not that kind of guy, he says, deftly peeling off your top. But he's rather taken with you, he whispers, getting into your bed. That night, there it is: the connection. Dawn breaks, but the anxiety is still there. You make him a coffee but he says he has to go. He's got life stuff going on. An ex – you remember the ex? He "deffo" mentioned her – has been in touch. It's complicated. You smile and nod and ignore the knot in your stomach. But he'll definitely be in touch, sometime. "You're really something," he says, moving the pin on his Uber with the finger that was inside you an hour ago.

Two days later you get a long, elaborate, angst-ridden email. He hopes he didn't lead you on. He's just so confused. You're wicked. He's terrible. It's his loss! He's very, very sorry. You never hear from him again.

The man you've just encountered is called a softboi – or has been for the last three or four years. As archetypes go, the softboi has drifted somewhat of late, but I was reminded of him earlier this year when Fleabag came to a close with a bus stop, a martyred heart and the priest who, over the course of six elegant episodes, gradually revealed himself to be a model softboi. Just swap "ex" for "God" and the yo-yo fuckery is the same. Sorry to ruin your head porn.

The romantic landscape we find ourselves in right now is littered with these types. On any given Friday night you could encounter a fuckboy (fucks you, doesn't care); a fuccboi (trying so hard to be more than basic); an alt-lit bro (drinks small, expensive beers, likes Bon Iver and Jonathan Franzen); a lumbersexual (wears plaid, spends time in woods); a spornosexual (sport + porn + metrosexual); or just about anyone else with a set of characteristics, habits and failings common enough to be neatly packaged up into yet another person who will let you down and hurt you.

The softboi is really a younger cousin of the fuckboy, only less genuine, someone who weaponises his ability to appropriate the right kind of emotional language and some thoughtful references to Sartre and Camus to get what he wants – which is you, into his bed, and then out of it.

He is not confined solely to house party kitchens, mediocre bars, BBC sitcoms or dating apps. At times, it can feel as though he is everywhere and has been for a while now. He was there, for instance, in the warming, punch-the-air, aren't women amazing speech Louis CK gave in his HBO special way back in 2013, and in the subsequent sexual misconduct allegations lodged against him by five women, two of whom said he'd jerked off at them. The softboi was also there in the emotional fury of US Supreme Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh last October, who, when cornered over sexual assault allegations, tearfully invoked the existence of his "close female friends", as if that had anything to do with the abhorrent behaviour he was accused of exhibiting as a high school student.

The softboi is there, too, in the duplicitous response to #MeToo from figures like Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who went out of his way to write a comment piece lauding "this extraordinary feminist movement" less than a month after yet another tabloid infidelity scandal prefaced the news that he and his wife of 25 years were divorcing. Johnson is a man who often seems repulsed by the very notion of fidelity, yet the moral demands of public office force even him to adopt a gossamer-thin pose of contrition from time to time, rendering him a kind of fuckboy in softboi's clothing. Or maybe that's just what a softboi is, full stop; an alleged serial adulterer bigging up #MeToo, or a horny bloke in liturgical garments crying because God won't let him shag you.

The softboi is a totem of the world we live in, in which emotional connections are easy to make, hard to bear and easy to break, in which PR is king and even bad, sometimes abusive men – not to mention governments and corporations – know they need to speak the emotional, inclusive language of the day in order to get away with what they do.

The performance of being a woke ally is a hallmark of the softboi. He gets it – he totally gets it. He just doesn't want to go from getting it intellectually to acting on it.

Last year, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations, the barrister and British GQ commentator Rupert Myers was the subject of a litany of complaints from an array of women. Myers took a hot minute to ponder them and then wrote an article for the Evening Standard, including reflections such as, "On one level I am grateful for how this event has forced me to ask questions about myself." To add another layer of insult, the headline – and one of the main thrusts of the article – focused on how hard it had been for him to deal with being called out. The softboi does not expect to have to actually answer for what he's done, or to be made to really look in the mirror. He is a good guy. The idea that he might not be is an affront.

The origins of the moniker itself are opaque. A lab technician from a small town in New York state claims she coined it in 2014, but "softboi" really entered popular culture in 2015, when American writer Alan Hanson wrote a piece on Medium called "Have you encountered the softboy?" A slice of poetic comedy, it went viral, outlining the guy who is "nice but complicated".

A while ago I asked Hanson – who is not a softboi – to explain the type of man he was writing about. "I think socially that archetype, or variations of it, wants mainly to broadcast self-awareness and sensitivity," he told me over email. In other words, real sensitivity is possible for the softboi, but that is incidental to the performance of it. There are worse men out there, but those worse men are beginning to realise that they too can deploy the emotional weaponry of the softboi.

Outside of politics and the media, popular culture has also done its bit to keep the softboi mode bubbling away at the surface. Softboy ancestors such as The OC's Seth Cohen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 500 Days of Summer have found their niche sensitivity weaponised in more recent and dubious incarnations that include narcissistic, pasta-making serial dater Aziz Ansari in Master of None, Johnny Flynn in Lovesick and Kumail Nanjiani in The Big Sick. Every Ryan Gosling character ever was a softboi, as are many Benedict Cumberbatch ones. Even Joseph in The Little Drummer Girl turns into one in order to get Charlie into bed and then into Palestine (spoiler, it works).

And they continue to come thick and fast, with TV parcelling up a few more softbois-in-training: Asa Butterfield's character in Sex Education, James (Dylan Llewellyn) from Derry Girls and Josh O'Connor's interpretation of Marius in Les Miserables, skulking around like a French Romeo. Let's not forget either James Bond battling modern masculinity. Prince Harry nesting. David Beckham now and then. Ryan Adams, as the softboi's darkest incarnation, and his ex musician Phoebe Bridgers, whose song "Motion Sickness" could be viewed as a descriptor of his tireless work towards the cause.

If the softboi archetype has been with us for a while, then the events of the last 18 months have pulled him into sharper focus. "Right now especially, a lot of men are trying very hard to show that they're tuned in – whether it be to progressive-leaning politics, trends in fashion and art, or even just going down on people," says Hanson. If misogynists like Trump are leading the free world, women are looking for the sort of liberal Obama embodied – the kind of guy who'd send the drones in, but would feel a bit bad about it.

Little wonder that Fleabag, who wanks to an Obama speech about democracy, is suckered by the priest. "This so-called awareness can be used for evil," asserts Hanson. "I'm not saying every young man on the path to semi-wokeness is taking calculated, nefarious steps, but it's a nice sheep's fur to wear if doing so."

At this point, you're probably wondering if my focus on the softboi is born out of terrible personal experience. I have, I admit, encountered one. About five years ago, following a two-month "thing" with someone I'd known for a good decade, things ended with the requisite guilt-ridden email. It's funny now, but what was so glaringly galling is that it was all so obvious – I just didn't have the vocabulary; softboi is really a fun name for something that has existed for a long time. In writing his essay, Hanson simply named the beast.

American author Adelle Waldman agrees: "For too long, women haven't had a name for this kind of behaviour. We've had little in our highbrow culture to offset these narratives by men in which their bad behaviour toward women is valorised. I think these names fill a very real need."

And Waldman should know. Around the same time that Hanson wrote his seminal piece, she wrote a brilliant novel called The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, told from the perspective of Nate, a 30-something Brooklyn novelist, intellectual and beta male, once invisible to women, now suddenly not and navigating this shift irresponsibly. "Treading on weakness is… what dating felt like," Waldman writes / Nate says. And yet, he forges ahead, in classic softboi fashion.

Of course, neither Nate P nor Ansari are the actual first softbois. As Waldman explains, the outward trappings of their behaviour may change with the times, "but the fundamental tendencies are nothing new". She cites Willoughby from Jane Austen's 1811 novel Sense and Sensibility and "the Phillip Roth phase in which the misogyny remained but the hyper-masculinity was largely replaced by self-conscious intellect". When plain-speaking Felix Holt, in George Eliot's 1866 novel Felix Holt, the Radical, berates Esther for being "too into Byron", he is criticising her for falling foul of that type: "[who] says the right things politically [but] is romantically unreliable".

There is, as Waldman explains, usually a victim in all of this. "Women are largely instruments to [the softboi], tools to prop up his self-esteem, rather than individuals with feelings as tender and as worthy of consideration as his own."

For a long time, I blamed myself for what happened that summer with my own softboi, but while one cannot exist without the other, exactly how complicit the woman is is up for debate. Luckily, there is a trend term for that, too – the moth girl, who bangs into the hot lamp again and again.

It might seem lazy or petty to pigeonhole men to this degree – #NotAllMen, right? – but as both Bogan and Waldman point out, women have been reduced to stereotypes their whole lives. There is no male equivalent for the word "slut", and no sentiment quite as cutting. There's a reason female softbois don’t exist: as Waldman says, this is a function of a heterosexual romantic arena in which "women are seen as desperate for boyfriends and men are admired for being free and single".

The hope is that in identifying the softboi, marking his tracks in this new and changing world, these traditional images of masculinity will shift. Flagging this dynamic can render the trend-boy – whatever the hot priest's Church might be – powerless. And that's why it's good that now, at least, the beast has been given a name.

@morwennastar

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.