One guileless author. Eight friends. Lots of reckoning for softboi
The problem with writing about softbois is that more often than not, it’s the same old stuff. Pointed yet smarmy critiques of faux-vulnerability. A token reference to glorious Instagram-Tinder archivist Beam Me Up Softboi. Something, something, Rex Orange County. There’s…a formula to this stuff. And quite frankly, I don’t have anything new to say on the subject, at least on my own.
And yet, if there’s one common thread that ties together Vice’s, Urban Dictionary [sic]’s and the Daily Mail’s various litanies and studies of the softboi, it is this: self-absorption. This then got me thinking: rather than try, most likely in vain, as a cisgender, early 20s, straight male to define what softbois and by extension, “softboi-hood” is—why not try and contextualize the phenomenon by extending outside the self and by asking others to define the term for themselves? What could be less self-absorbed than asking, say, eight friends, split fairly evenly between those male and those female, to talk about their experiences with softbois, highlight common threads and go from there? I must say, the answers, while not always so neat, did surprise me.
Consider then the documentation of these responses a chronicling of sorts, of softboi-hood in its many layers, from definition, to mystique, to “cure” if such is the need. After all, the value of understanding the softboi. Softboi-hood in all its pseudo-quirky, malicious splendor, lies in our ability to combat such behaviors in ourselves and those we care for.
“I think the defining trait of softboi-hood is projecting a sense of emotionality and vulnerability, whether that is actually emotionality and vulnerability or simply a false outward projection that isn't relevant.” (Jed, 22, student)
“To me, softboi-hood is a composite of many traits of toxic masculinity. This article, released 2015, which has pretty much crystallized modern culture's idea of the softboi, hits the nail on the head. There is no single defining trait for softboi-hood. Rather, softboi-hood is just one way misogyny is expressed. It just happens to have an interesting-looking package.” (Andro, 26, writer)
“A softboi is basically a fuccboi in sheep's clothing. He doesn't exhibit the slick behavior typical of the fuccboi. People let their guard down to them, however, they are emotionally unavailable. Moreover, not really suited to be in a relationship.” (Andie, 23, community volunteer)
Understanding the Softboi Mystique
“A softboi is someone who gains your affection thru touching on your emotions and gaining your sympathy to his “good boyness” or “victim self” and once he gets you attracted, won’t commit to you.” (Justine, 23, operations associate)
“I honestly think a big chunk of why people would want to assume softboi-esque traits is due to the rising popularity of the “men are trash” and “toxic masculinity” concepts. These softbois try to portray themselves as the complete opposite of what women are fighting against. They hope that women will see them differently and date them. Knowing that it could escalate into something further.” (Derrick, 21, graduate student)
“Within the DNA of this softboi are genetic sequences [so-to-speak] inherited from his fuccboi ancestors. His sincerity may not appear legitimate as to some. He is a copy of a template strand scattered all over Instagram. Some would even argue that the softness of a softbois is just a facade, concealing the asshole within.
Perhaps there exists a cycle. A heavily simplified version would be: Softboi exists, woman falls for soft exterior, softboi reveals inner asshole, woman develops distrust for nice guys, guys are hesitant to be soft/sensitive because “it doesn’t have an appeal anyway.” (Althea, 21, graduate student)
Experiencing the Softboi
“He messaged me every day, replied fast and seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say. Made comments about how interested he was in me, but isn’t looking for anything serious yet. After three dates in, he gave some lame excuse to bow out. A whole “it’s not you, it’s me.” I figured once he realized he couldn’t get what he wanted, he pulled that card.” (Justine)
“I basically got strung along into a relationship with someone who refused to define the relationship but also demanded boyfriend benefits/treatment. I broke it off and never spoke to him again. It sucked but I learned a lot about respecting myself.” (Andie)
“I was a softboi in my young adult years. Friends have called me out on this. But when I was acting the way I was acting, juvenile and toxic, the term “softboi” wasn't a thing yet. And then it became a thing, and I saw myself in the way the thing was described, and I told myself that I urgently, absolutely had to change my behavior or else I'd just be incorrigible forever. More than anything, I just wanted to be a good person, and I realized that part of pursuing that goal means unlearning a lot of toxically masculine tendencies and misogynist behaviors. I think I was very lucky as well, to have had female friends who called me out on my bullshit.” (Andro)
Common Pitfalls to Avoid When Dealing With Softbois
“It's hard to tell if someone's a softboi initially because the way they let people in seems to be very genuine since they try to draw out your emotions; I guess only time will tell re: how they treat other people.” (Erika, 21, marketing manager)
“That we [men] [can’t] have the capacity (to be them). Being a softboi is the path of least resistance. At least fuccbois have the balls to act out their indiscretions. Softbois play it safe.” (Francis, 23, consultant)
“They’re smart and they know your weakness. They already have an ulterior motive and they know how to achieve it. They’ll say the right words and the appropriate actions—for you to think they’re a gentleman and are “different” from fuccbois.” (Justine)
“I don't think it's so much a problem about softbois, but men in general. When you like someone new. More likely you will not see the signs or ignore them. Softboi, fuckboy, nice guy—if a guy doesn't treat you with respect, move on.” (Andie)
“Again, these are all stereotypes. If the softboi is in fact just another guy exploring his identity by adapting characteristics he sees in social media. Well, he should be free to do so. That's all part of the natural process of identity formation anyway. At the end of the day, what's important is that you're not an asshole.” (Iya)
Advice for the Budding And/Or Actual Softbois in Our Lives
“If I could give advice to a softboi, it's just to [actually] embrace vulnerability, embrace feeling things. Don't do it to get laid. Do it because being soft is also being good to yourself.” (Jed)
“Don't use your [vulnerability to manipulate others]. Lying to a person or leading someone on about your commitment to them will cloud your own thinking about what you want in a woman.” (Francis)
“Be honest about what you're looking for. If you're only looking for something casual, say it and act like it. Are you looking for a relationship? if not AT LEAST 90% sure that you will add positive value to the life of whoever it is you are interested in, stay away and work on yourself.” (Andie)
“If you’re just looking for validation in the number of women you can acquire through your seemingly emotion-valued, non-committal mindset, please rethink your decisions. Your lack of respect for person's time and effort can damage a person’s self-esteem.” (Justine)
“Sometimes [change] involves recognizing certain habits and breaking them, whether that habit is a drug or chasing the dopamine rush of texting an ex. Sometimes the change is as simple and obvious as treating women with more respect.
I think I was very lucky to have had female friends who called me out on my bullshit. When your female friends call you out, fucking listen.” (Andro)
I can’t help but recall that famous Carol Hanisch quote in her 1969 article “The Personal is Political.” That “there are no personal solutions…only collective action.” That to transcend the weaponized vulnerability of the softboi and his ilk is found not in the boycott of Marvins Room by Drake or the sharing of “shitty Instagram poetry” or even the ability to [sic] quote seminal feminist texts with some verve.
Rather, the softboi’s malice starts and ends with the self, and his lack of openness to embracing the self for what the self is: neither god nor doormat, neither hunter nor hunted, neither villain nor hero. We tend to distill the softboi, for better or worse, for what he consumes and therefore embodies in our material world. Maybe one that ought to, as Andro would put it, “fucking listen,” but frankly, that’s all quite normal.
I think the softboi is often demonized and monstrous because he is often encouraged to be Solitary. Left Alone to consume, to “conquer” and to maim. To combat the softboi is to socialize him—to use community to peel away at his solitude. Pierce the facade, say his name, and you will find the thing that is often left in us after the thorough evisceration of our material egos: a human.
And the human—regardless of where he stands with respect to all that defines a softboi—is redeemable.
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Words Jedd Ong
Art Matthew Ian Fetalver