It was on one of those endless fabulous afternoons of the past, when we were walking down a crowded canal path after lunch, that my friend first introduced me to the concept of a “softboi”. She was single at the time and painfully gorgeous – watching her talk, my skin would prickle as if sunburned. She had amassed a sophisticated understanding of the available dating apps and was able to answer questions about their differences, their clientele, their various ways to hurt you, much like a black cab driver having studied the Knowledge. She could tell you the fastest route to a bad decision both in and out of rush hour.
There was a type of man that she seemed to attract, and it was on this leisurely walk (I picture it now through pandemic lenses, the sky a Technicolor turquoise, the smell of strangers’ cigarette smoke like expensive perfume, a dolphin leaping up the lock) that she tried to describe him. At first glance, he was decent. Interesting. Interested. He was in touch with his feelings. His bio was carefully littered with cultural detritus, an author’s name here, a song lyric there. He’d read all the Jonathans, from Franzen to Livingston Seagull. When he respectfully entered her Instagram DMs with a question about her thoughts on such topics as post-feminist marketing or the gentrification of the internet, he was halfway home. It was in the medium of the private message where the softboi could relax. This was his stage, his canvas: an “I’m typing” ellipsis showed the artist was present.
Within 24 hours (less if he was at his parents’) he would have mentioned a film that he understood in an extremely deep and unique way, or sent an uninvited statement of allyship, or given a compliment about her looks that creamily Oreo-ed an insult within it. These men would shoot philosophies at her like small darts and test her on her knowledge of music.
They were performatively emotional, often confiding their mental health status before the paint had dried on her first hello. They were different to the other guys. She could tell by their record collections, their T-shirts, their poetry, and also because they told her so. Some would fade away politely. Others would attempt to subtly destroy her, using their forced emotional connection to undermine and sneer. It would not end well. She and others found it helpful to name this type of man – partly as a warning to others, mainly as a warning to themselves.
I have been thinking about the softboi again recently, because, like Deliveroo and toilet paper, his has been one of the Covid success stories. The reason they’re thriving right now is because they don’t need to leave their room to begin, maintain, or even end a relationship. The softboi’s skills in creating whole narratives, whole romantic story arcs where he is the troubled antihero, transfer very well to lockdown. These boys are words, not action. Many, many words, some, admittedly, copied and pasted from online “famous quote” sites, but others simply wrung from the flannel of his mind. As a fantasy boyfriend perhaps he’ll do, while the world is still closed, but I predict trouble once the trains are running again.
Despite his insistence that he’s unique, the softboi is now mainstream. See celebrities like Harry Styles and Timothée Chalamet, or Barack Obama, who recently admitted his strategy for picking up women at Harvard was to quote Foucault. Their dark side is illustrated by the men in Carey Mulligan’s new film, Promising Young Woman – : it begins with Adam Brody’s character helping her up when she appears blackout drunk. He wants to get her home safely, because he’s not like the other guys, who might take advantage. He’s gentle, sensitive. He gets her a cab. But then, well.
On Instagram, an account called “Beam Me Up Softboi” continues to document real men’s efforts at manipulation. “I will never be with a girl like you. I’m too ugly,” began a recent screengrabbed message. When the woman replied kindly, he added, “Send nudes.” Another: “I’m literally addicted to you, like morphine for my soul, it’s so weird because I know you’re not conventionally attractive but you have such a transcendent quality that compels me to keep coming back, like a Tolstoy novel or the Smiths on vinyl aha’.” Last one: “I’m really good at reading people. You feel a lot of guilt and you suffer from depression. And all the friends you had didn’t truly care about you. But you cared about them a lot.” He ends, “Guess I don’t know you though… right?” I screamed.
We are all older now, my friends and I, and our hearts, like our bodies, are larger and looser. Isn’t it a relief, I said in the group chat, gazing out at the rain, that we’ve aged out of the softboi bracket? What kind of messages do you get these days, I asked. Well, there was one from a man keen to discuss how the pain of his divorce had made him “emotionally superior”, and another from a 55-year-old looking for a young woman to listen to Radiohead with and… “Eva,” one friend interrupted. “You’ve heard of the softdad, right?”