Unpacking the guy that’s not like other guys

By Jackie Houston, Opinion Editor
February 20, 2018

If you ask someone what a “softboy” is, they either know exactly what you mean, or they have no idea.

When I asked Dylan Adamson, U2 Cultural Studies, to define the term, he rattled off a list of weirdly specific, seemingly unrelated qualities.

“He talks about feminism a lot,” Adamson said. “He’ll recommend you bands. He’s an active SoundCloud user. He doesn’t say movie, he always says film.”

Yet I found myself nodding along to each example, because I know that guy. He’s in my philosophy class. He was on my floor in residence. He’s such a softboy.

I felt the same way reading the Medium piece, “Have You Encountered the Softboy?” by Alan Hanson. Sparse yet laser-specific, it describes a young guy who is similar to the better-known “fuckboy,” but not quite identical. He “is Nice yet Complicated,” “orders cheap beer backed with bottom-shelf whiskey,” and “may be named Tom. Or Phillip.” Again, I know that guy. Yes, I have encountered the softboy.

When I reached out to Anthony Synnott, sociology and anthropology professor at Concordia University and author of Rethinking Men: Heroes, Victims, Villains, to ask about the term, he’d never heard of it, so I forwarded Hanson’s piece to him. When we spoke on the phone, he couldn’t help but laugh about the article.

“What was it, ‘fuckboy’ and ‘softboy’? Oh man, I didn’t think that was very credible,” Synott admitted. “Do you know if one of them prefers latte[s], or espresso?”

(“Softboys don’t drink coffee, they drink Americanos,” Adamson pointed out.)

Flustered and embarrassed, I tried to articulate a more concrete definition. I was at a loss as to how to pin down this guy that I know so well—when speaking to Synnott, but also to my friends, my mom, and my therapist.

Discussing the term with Natalie Vineberg, McGill BA’17, she expressed similar frustrations.

“We give people these labels because it’s easier [...] or something,” Vineberg said. “But then when you actually start to try and think of [...] how they exist outside of a certain example, [...] it’s really hard to define the limits of it. You feel like you know it when you see it.”

I turned to more authoritative sources. According to Urban Dictionary, a softboy “will butter a girl up by appealing to her emotions and showing a ‘sensitive’ side long enough for her to sleep with him, whether or not he actually cares about her [....] Then, like the fuckboy, he can't [or] won't commit.”

Again, that sounds about right. It definitely aligns with the slew of headlines that a “softboy” Google search pulls up: “Why You Should be Wary of the Seemingly Innocent Softboy,” or “9 Reasons You Should NEVER Have Sex With a Softboy.” And it definitely matches my own—and countless female friends’— experiences navigating today’s hook-up culture: A guy seems different, and looking for more than just a one-night-stand. But suddenly he isn’t, and you feel like you’ve been duped and you aren’t allowed to be angry about it. Somehow, it hurts worse than being burned by the explicit fuckboy or player—it feels like you’ve been deceived.

“It’s like a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ kind of situation,” Adamson said. “It’s kind of the bro-y type who’s like [...] preaching the feminism, but is actually just using that to have sex with girls. And he’ll cheat on his girlfriend but then be like, ‘No, we’re polyamorous.’”

Isaac Berman, U3 Computer Engineering, however, thinks that’s not all there is to it.

“I think a lot of men are shit,” Berman said. “But it just depends on what [...] you’ve experienced and what interactions you’ve had. I think there are a lot of shitty softboys. [….] There are a lot of nice ones too, nice guys. I feel like generalizing the softboy [as] bad is detrimental.”

What about a guy who just happens to play the guitar and be in touch with his emotions, or just happens to be named Tom or Phillip? Are they all “softboys,” too, in the sense that they all eventually reveal themselves to be heartbreakingly disappointing?

“I’m torn between wanting to acknowledge that men have interiority, and can be complex, and can have feelings, and it’s not black and white, and then also being like, no, fuck them all,” Vineberg said.

While a relatively new term, “softboy” already seems to operate the way many catchy labels do. In theory, it refers to a specific kind of person or behaviour; in practice, it’s often used as a catch-all, throwaway term to describe any guy wearing Doc Martens and an annoyingly small beanie. If he lives in Montreal, he most likely spends his time roaming the streets of the Mile End.

“It makes you think twice about putting on the tiny hat in the morning,” Adamson joked, acknowledging that he dresses like a softboy. “[There are] certain times when I’m, like, in Blackadder library […] and I’ll look around and there’ll be like eight of me, spread out across the library.”

“I’m torn between wanting to acknowledge that men have interiority, and can be complex, and can have feelings, and it’s not black and white, and then also being like, no, fuck them all,” Vineberg said.

Yet the softboy’s rise in prominence is symptomatic of the evolving ways we define young men, and how we navigate and use gendered tropes in intimate relationships today.

Men and women are both subject to gendered labels: There are jocks and players, there are cute girls and sluts. Our vernacular of slang to construct these labels has evolved over time, just as our ideas about gender relations have. Now there are fuckboys and softboys, chill girls and thirsty girls. Synnott has not encountered the softboy, but he does recognize a broader redefinition of popular masculinity for young men today.

“The John Wayne masculinity is out, I think,” Synott observed, when I asked him whether he thinks traditional dominant masculinity is still around. “You know, laconic, no display of emotion, forceful, leadership, strong, that sort of thing.”

With the decline of this iconic masculinity, and the rise of more and more varied ways of being a man, there’s no single archetypal male role model for men growing up today.

“I asked my students the same question, what iconic males [are there today], excluding your parents, or your father,” Synott said. “Of course, half of them wrote down their father, they just don’t listen, but there was no consensus at all.”

Softboy isn’t the first popular label to suggest a possible departure from classic masculinity. The early 2010s saw the rise of the equally weirdly-specific “Sensitive New Age Guy”—the SNAG, colloquially—who is in touch with his feelings, and very into yoga. In contemporary television and movies, Nice Guys and Socially-Awkward Heroes are everywhere, from 500 Days of Summer to Master of None. Jocks or Bad Boys seem primitive in comparison.

“I imagine [the shift] comes out of the critique of the John Wayne [model], and that, really, that iconic masculinity is totally inappropriate in the new age [of gender equality],” Synnott said.

Articles outlining various typologies, and reasons why women should avoid dating the seemingly innocent SNAG are remarkably similar to articles about softboys today. In the shifting landscape of what it means to be a man—or at least to be labelled as such—Synnott sees young men as having an identity crisis.

“On the one hand, yes, [masculinity] is being redefined right now, as you cannot be sexually assertive or aggressive,” Synott said. “So that’s going to create a different type of masculinity. On the other hand, [...] you’ve just got to be a competent, caring individual. But not a ‘sensitive new age guy’ [....] That’s going to be a path to negotiate.”

But perhaps terms like SNAG and softboy aren’t criticizing sensitivity, per se—and perhaps as new ways of being a man emerge, old forms of masculinity are also perpetuated. Stefanie Duguay, assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Concordia, researches LGBTQ sexual identity expression on social media platforms. To Duguay, traditional, dominant masculinity is still around, albeit in different forms.

“I mean, we live in [a] patriarchy,” Duguay said. “And there’s these sort of dominant forms of masculinity. And, of course, they change, and they transition over time, so that they’re expressed in different ways. But I think that a sort of ‘fuckboy’ persona, where you’re not caring as much, you’re supposed to be the one in control of the relationship with women, you’re supposed to have all these women fawning over you, that is one of the more recent expressions of dominant masculinity. So it’s just old gender tropes and stereotypes, repackaged as something that is supposedly new humour.”

Duguay speculated that the softboy, insofar as the term refers to men who use their apparent sensitivity to manipulate or deceive women in sexual relationships, is actually not so different from the fuckboy.

“I think it’s a spin-off of ‘fuckboy,’ as [...] another form of masculinity that’s maybe not seen as bad, or as abrasively, as ‘fuckboy,’ but still kind of all under that ‘player’ subset,” Duguay said. “Where as much as we say it’s not OK, it’s not OK to be deceptive or pressuring about sexual activity, there still seems to be some sort of [...] letting guys off the hook, when it comes to that sort of sexual activity.”

Whether it’s the fuckboy or the softboy, male stereotypes applaud sexual activity—especially when it’s casual, and even sometimes when it’s disrespectful. Female stereotypes, in contrast, persistently shame women for pursuing casual sexual encounters.

Still, contemporary misogynistic or disrespectful male behaviour often isn’t “as bad,” or at least as explicit, as that of, say, John Wayne or Don Draper. The language that women use to identify such behaviour has evolved accordingly.

“Terms like ‘fuckboy’ and ‘softboy’ give women recourse to say, this is what that is, and call that behaviour out,” Duguay said. “I think in a way those terms can be useful, as labelling a behaviour and saying, ‘This is not acceptable.’”

Vineberg agreed, based on experiences that most students know too well.

“You’re telling your friends about this guy who treated you in a way you didn’t like, or was a dick to you, and you’re upset, and they’re like ‘no he’s a dick, he’s a softboy,’” Vineberg said. “[…It’s] this sense of catharsis [ the person hearing it] in terms of validation, in terms of ‘yeah they get it.’”

“Terms like ‘fuckboy’ and ‘softboy’ give women recourse to say, this is what that is, and call that behaviour out,” Duguay said. “I think in a way those terms can be useful, as labelling a behaviour and saying, ‘This is not acceptable.’”

Vineberg also remarked on the softboy’s relationship to feminism. The softboy cares about women, and rejects the explicit sexism of his fuckboy counterpart. But Vineberg questioned the difference between what the softboy says and what he does, when it comes to pervasive sexism.

“Are you just self-congratulatory that you’re aware, are you just so proud of yourself that you know what’s going on, or are you doing something about it?” Vineberg wondered. “Are you asking girls around you how they feel about something? [...] Are you trying to engage, and trying to understand, and trying to be open-minded? Or did you read one article, [...] and think that you’re not part of the problem, because you’re aware?”

As a tool for calling out problematic male behaviour where it does occur, even under the guise of sensitivity, or niceness, or feminism, labels like “softboy” have value. Still, Berman worried about them being used too generally, and the discouraging effect that their negative connotation could have on guys who really are just sensitive, or emotional—traits that are already up against the persistent influence of traditional masculinity.

Vineberg speculated about how being called “soft,” in any context, has uniquely negative connotations for a guy.

“Calling a guy a softboy [implies] more feminine qualities, and might be seen as more of an insult,” Vineberg said. “Because not only am I saying that you’re a jerk to girls, but you’re not even a man about it.”

Duguay was also wary of overuse of the term, at the risk of over-generalizing the issue. She recommends a more nuanced approach to the widespread use of labels in popular culture.

“I think there’s a negative impact when something blows up kind of in the media [...] and then people kind of start to use it in their own lives without being critical about it,” Duguay said. “Do I know anybody that I would characterize as a fuckboy, or a softboy? [...] Probably not, [...] because, you know, in general, I guess I like to believe most people are ethical people. These tropes are kind of exaggerated online, [...] and also by media columnists who want to comment on the state of dating these days. And so I think that can be damaging, when we don’t critique that.”

Duguay suggested that stereotypical labels are not the most effective way to criticize behaviour we view as harmful to women or to the progression of gender equality. By normalizing these labels, we run the risk of normalizing the very behaviour they denounce.

“What is the actual behaviour that we’re critiquing here?” Duguay mused. “If it’s calling out sexism and misogyny, which so often these days masquerades as jokes or irony, then [...] sometimes it can be more powerful to call it out as what it is, rather than use a label.”

Popular masculinity looks different today than it did before, and so do our ways of labelling it. The fact is, everyone uses labels to navigate intimate relationships, and social life in general. They help us define what is acceptable, and what is not.

These labels are inevitably gendered: ‘Softboy’ is a way of being a man who hurts women, even if it’s hard to see, or doesn’t look like it on the surface. As with any stereotype, when these labels become widely and more compulsively used, their original meaning is inevitably generalized. We should use them pointedly, but critically.

As for the guy in my philosophy class who I called a softboy, he kept interrupting our female professor the other day. I don’t think he’s named Tom, or Phillip. Maybe he’s still a softboy. Or maybe he just has a lot to say, and doesn’t realize the space he’s taking up, even with such a tiny hat.