With toxic masculinity under a long-overdue microscope, the time is ripe for a gentler, kinder sort of man.
Enter the softboy, also known as the softboi. The softboy is part identity, part aesthetic. He’s nonthreatening, nontoxic, and knows how to wear a pastel. At least, that’s the dream.
But the softboy has a longer history than his current form. To some, he’s also the fuckboy’s deceptive brother. For trans boys and men, he’s an identity to be claimed with pride by those who don’t fit a particular mold. Even the most recent softboy wouldn’t exist without the growing influence of K-pop.
In all cases, “softboy” indicates a more tender man, someone who subverts the expectations of masculinity and claims traits that are traditionally coded as feminine. But he’s not always as he appears.
Come with me on a softboy journey as we explore this many-faced fellow in all his forms. We’ll start with the latest addition.
As spring rolled in to 2019 and the weather warmed, softbois began to blossom all over TikTok.
The typical meme is a boy dressed in a recently popular “eboy” style who magically transforms into a softboy. Think pastels, fluffy sweaters, florals, chilling with foliage, and generally being a lil’ cutie.
Basically, think of what a typical male Urban Outfitters shopper might look like.
Like other softboys, it’s an embrace of a look and traits that are more often coded as female. Given that these boys are typically cisgender, it’s also a message that dressing this way doesn’t threaten their sexuality or gender identity.
It’s all part of a larger trend known as #softszn, or soft season.
As such, both women and men have been using the #softboi tag.
You could argue that it’s just the influence of typical spring style, but there’s a big elephant in the room: K-pop. It would be impossible to talk about the rise of softboys and soft season as a look without examining the rise of K-pop influence in Western culture.
Biju Belinky is a freelance writer and K-pop fan in London who writes a weekly column about the genre for Noisey. As she explains, the whole softboy look is more prevalent among K-pop idols.
“It’s an aesthetic that’s a little more kind of established in the K-pop world,” she told BuzzFeed News.
Groups may, for example, take on a softer look or have a personality in the group more suited to a soft look.
“I would say to have a softboy comeback would be definitely more [like] the ‘boyfriend’ look. Wearing more pastel, more muted colors, having hairstyles that are not very wild,” she said. “Very ‘I could meet your mom tomorrow.’"
Good examples of that softer K-pop boyfriend aesthetic is EXO's "Universe" or SHINee's "Sing Your Song," said Belinky.
Even K-pop groups that don't fit that specific concept, such as BTS in their latest music video, still have a softer look than Western music fans may be used to.
In South Korea, said Belinky, “It’s more accessible for people to see boys enjoying fashion and looks and changing their hair without it being a gimmick or something like that.” But in the US, for example, it’s hard to get away with that without having a label forced on you. Perhaps that’s why “softboy” seems to be very specific to Western men and boys, but the K-pop influence is also very apparent.
“I think there’s so many ways that K-pop is going to influence the West, and already is, visually and in how people treat their perception of what music is,” she said.
“You see [how] all these Instagram hypebeasts dressing like K-idols have been dressing for months.”
No matter where it’s coming from, each incarnation represents an eschewing of traditional masculinity. The results may be mixed, but the intentions line up.
“There’s a rejection of the traditional toxic masculinity by the younger generation, which I think is worldwide, but that has to do with why this aesthetic is so appealing,” said Belinky.
This is not the first time the phrase "softboy" has entered our culture. It has also in the past been used to describe a close relative of the fuckboy, someone who goes out of his way to prove to you he’s not a fuckboy, even though he most definitely is.
Maybe you meet him at a hip dive bar. Maybe he’s sitting alone, reading a poetry anthology, and wearing a fluffy sweater. Maybe his Tinder bio uses the word “sapiosexual” and quotes Audre Lorde because he had to read about her one time for a women’s studies course. He seems intelligent, woke, like you knew he went to the last Women’s March even before he tells you 15 times. On your first date he orders a fruity cocktail (“So-called girly drinks just taste better, you know?”) and tells you he thinks the Fifty Shades series represents unethical BDSM.
Finally, he gets you back to his apartment, which consists of a twin mattress on the floor next to a dirty bong and a pile of old skin mags he refers to as “vintage.” After a night of mediocre sex he fails to text you back for two weeks before finally sending you an overwrought yet vague message about his creative process at 2 a.m. along with a request for nudes.
He is, and always was, a fuckboy. The only difference is that he had a soft exterior and just enough of a hint of depth that you got tricked.
This fuckboy "softboy" is almost always cisgender and straight and universally loathed by the twentysomething single women who date them. Of all the softboys, they’ve gotten the most press. We here at BuzzFeed even have a quiz called “Are You More of a Fuckboy or a Softboy?” from 2016.
More recently, the softboy has been highlighted on the Instagram account @beam_me_up_softboi. Run by a woman in the UK, it’s full of chef's kiss–perfect examples of softboy fuckery.
“[It’s] a combination of funny things that harmless — if sometimes patronizing — indie boys have said, and then slightly darker ones where the same softboi tactic is used in quite a weird way, basically as an excuse for being a bit of a twat,” Iona, who created the account, told Dazed Digital.
Popular culture is full of softboy examples too. Think of Seth Cohen, the perpetually whiny protagonist from The OC who had a boner for Bright Eyes. Or Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character in 500 Days of Summer, who never deserved Summer. Or, more darkly, Joe from You, who works in a bookstore but is literally a stalker and murderer. Or, very specifically, that time Jughead talked about how weird his dumb hat is on Riverdale.
Among trans men and boys, “softboy” has a different meaning entirely. In that community, it’s an identity often enthusiastically embraced by trans boys who don’t feel they fit a strict mold of masculinity, but are masculine nonetheless.
Kovu Kingsrød, 17, is a YouTuber in Norway who’s been vlogging about his transition for years. At one time, when he was 15, he identified with the word "softboy."
“It used to be something I claimed as an identity, because I felt when you were a transgender guy you had to fill these stereotypes or criteria or whatever a man is,” he told BuzzFeed News.
Essentially, claiming the “softboy” identity is a way for trans boys to say that although they may not be hypermasculine, they are still men, and are still valid. That can come through in mannerisms, or with having a softer voice, or by dressing cutely, or any number of things. It varies by person, but in any case it’s a declaration that manhood looks different for everyone.
While Kingsrød knows the term is still a source of empowerment and validation for other trans men, he’s personally stopped using it for himself.
“What it has become now, at least to me, it’s a term that’s sort of patronizing in a sense, like you’re softer than all other guys, or separating trans guys from cis guys in a sense,” he said.
Like with the more popularized, straight kind of softboy, part of the point seems to be to separate manhood from toxic masculinity, and things like aggression, violence, misogyny, and an anti-gay attitude. At this point, Kingsrød wants to embrace a less-toxic masculinity without having to claim the softboy identity.
“As I mentioned earlier, I’m not the most stereotypically masculine of guys out there, and it’s reaffirming to know there’s more than one way to be a guy,” he said.
“That’s another reason I don’t feel the need to claim that term anymore. I feel much more comfortable in my masculinity now.”