The S/S 21 menswear shows have come to a close, the Barbican's landmark Masculinities exhibition has re-opened and the world is rousing from an emotionally trying lockdown. As such, conversations surrounding masculinity and mental health have peaked, posing the question: what does masculinity look like today?
There is a particular division of men that have become the subject of merciless lampooning of late: the softboi. Call them a brotherhood if you will, minus any covert handshakes or candlelit rituals (that we know of). Unlike the Illuminati however, they aren’t at all anxious to hide their identity. Whilst the softboi may appear in various aesthetic guises, they do share common visual motifs that make them identifiable. Famously, he can be found at any major art gallery, the Saatchi and Tate Modern being the common choices. At first glance, you’ll note his nonchalant stance and thoughtful expression as he surveys a Warhol – his brow wrinkled in ardent concentration as though decoding a hidden anagrammatic cipher. You might then take into consideration the Benson & Hedges packet strategically peeking from the upper left hand pocket of his loose fit shirt – the perfect understated accessory. He will also typically be adorned with a recycled hemp tote bag from his favourite charity shop and a Leica M4, public testaments of his affinity to nature, philanthropy and the arts. A softboi’s outward symbols speak of his inner sensitive sensibility. This sensitivity is at the heart of his psyche, both a strength but perhaps also his downfall.
Whilst an ordinarily admirable trait, the softboi’s apparent emotional transparency has been used by some unscrupulous types as a tool of sexual manipulation. At the worst end of the softboi scale, he might 'butter a girl up by appealing to her emotions and showing a “sensitive” side long enough for her to sleep with him’, as defined by the Urban Dictionary. This breed of softboi is also a serial mansplainer and will share his self-perceived fountain of staggering cultural intellect, usually without being asked. Adhering to this stinging definition, dishonourable softboi behavior has been flagged by the Instagram account @beam_me_up_softboi. This page contains screenshots of real messages sent by softbois via dating apps and social media, including: ‘I won’t shag anyone unless they have basic intelligence. I need someone who enjoys talking about Yeats, Tolstoy and The Simpsons. Does your intellect stretch to this?’
However, other messages featured on @beam_me_up_softboi are not laced with murky intentions or patronising jibes and, instead, reflect the other category of softboi – the hopeless romantic who rejects toxic masculinity and has an open door policy on his emotions. The type of correspondence one might receive from one of these lads is, whilst yes, cringy, something more along the lines of, ‘I went on an evening walk and read Keats poems out loud in a beech wood’ (a real message) rather than an invitation to ‘VHS and fuck’. Despite their apparently well-meaning intentions however, these true softbois have been tarred with the same brush as their rakish counterparts. Whether naïve, pretentious or emotionally manipulative, the softboi phenomenon is widespread enough to warrant the existence of said Instagram account, which is populated by reader submissions: in the two years since the account was founded, it has shared over 500 posts and attracted 378,000 followers, indicating the softboi is not a niche but a widely recognisable character.
While manipulators may deserve to have their own peculiar brand of sleaziness called out, ridiculing a willingness to share feelings or interests contrary to traditional masculinity (i.e. hard-nut physical strength) raises serious issues surrounding our treatment of the male experience. Indeed, another definition of the softboi to be found on the Urban Dictionary is, ‘a less masculine boy who is described as "cute" based on their soft or gentle characteristics.' Whilst the Urban Dictionary certainly isn’t the font of all knowledge, it is an indicator of certain social perceptions, with ‘less masculine’ being apparently one of them in regards to the softboi. Does society really see softness and openness in men as something inherently opposite to masculinity?
The possible effect that ridiculing emotional openness can have on men's mental health is concerning, given the 'silent crisis' amongst men, as identified by William S. Pollack in his groundbreaking 1998 book Real Boys. With research conducted over a span of 20 years at Harvard Medical School, Pollack describes how little boys are taught to toughen up throughout childhood, through techniques that attach shame to feelings, particularly those of vulnerability and fear. He investigates the so-called ‘Boy Code’–the mask of toughness or confidence hiding true feelings of sadness or loneliness–calling this ‘a gender straitjacket’, ‘eventually making [men] strangers to ourselves and to one another.' A boy is told that 'big boys don't cry.' These feelings, Pollack argues, follow through to adulthood, which may make it much harder for some men to openly discuss or seek help with their mental health. It has been widely reported how serious the problem of male mental health is: suicide represents the largest cause of death for men under 50.
Creator of @beam_me_up_softboi Iona even posted a public letter explaining the danger of the softboi label, in which she wrote: ‘I am beginning to wonder whether the laughs we get from softbois are worth the potential harm towards men's mental health.’ She explains, ‘I don’t want to be responsible for a page that causes men to worry about whether being seen as “soft” is a bad thing – we are already in an epidemic of male depression and suicide. We don’t need any further proof that we have hurt men with our questioning of their need to be vulnerable and open.’
When we are surrounded by questionable attitudes towards masculinity and mental health–from obsessive gym culture, to the contestants on Love Island, Too Hot to Handle and Love is Blind demonstrating how not to 'crack on' with women, to social media shaming–there's a danger that, in mocking those who choose emotional transparency and vulnerability, we uphold the restrictive and harmful behavioural patterns of toxic masculinity.
Ultimately, despite the surface level farce surrounding the softboi, they are one of the most divisive and complex figures to emerge from the digital generation. Love him or hate him, you’d be hard pressed to avoid him nowadays –while their usual haunts of art galleries, skate parks, vintage shops, spoken word nights and King Krule concerts are largely off-limits for now, softbois are making the most of dating apps, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok.
Nevertheless, it is the definition of ‘softboi’ that perhaps needs reconsidering. Is it simply an insult used against that tactical playboy who’s ghosting you? Or, could it be a compliment geared towards a progressive mindset, somebody who’s open about their mental health, is respectful and emotionally supportive, who’s able to explore their emotions and channel them creatively? If the latter, we should celebrate this person instead of mocking them. If the former, we need to acknowledge the social mechanisms driving them to use an emotionally manipulative facade. Of course, it takes time for society to adapt and totally eradicate toxic behavioural patterns – so let's hurry the fuck up! The more masculinity is discussed in relation to so-called ‘softness’ and vulnerability, the more this is normalised and widens the discourse surrounding men's mental health.
So, to all the true softbois out there (male or otherwise): keep painting, keep writing, keep listening to Mac DeMarco and wearing baggy jeans. Keep engaging with your emotions - responsibly. Hell, keep reading Keats out loud in a bluebell wood, if that’s what gets you going. But most importantly – it really is ok to just stop sometimes and cry. Wave your softboi flag proudly!