The days of aggression and rage being the only socially acceptable emotions men are allowed to express are now numbered. Increasingly, women are looking for something more delicate, and young men are obliging—showing emotional vulnerability, publicly crying, going to therapy, and being the little spoon.
To whom can we attribute this change of character in men? While household brands are starting to promote awareness about toxic masculinity, and a range of public figures are challenging hyper-masculine stereotypes, we must also give credit to the film industry, which is doing yeoman’s work in showcasing soft, emotionally vulnerable young men.
Leading this pop-culture phenomenon is, of course, Timothée Chalamet, the 23-year-old American star of movies including Beautiful Boy and Call Me By Your Name. The first time I saw him play a more rugged role was in 2019, when I binged Netflix’s The King. Despite pulling off some culturally masculine scenes, including killing an opponent in a sword fight and leading an army to battle, Henry V, Chalamet’s character, was still familiarly gentle. Maybe it was the idea that Henry IV had refused to appoint him as king of England because of his frail frame and love of partying, regarding him as not man enough for the throne, or maybe it’s because Chalamet’s history of tender fictional roles has ingrained him in my mind as a Hollywood softboy.
The softboy revolution
Pop culture’s love for softboys is clearly demonstrated in the popularity of contemporary entertainers like Chalamet, Cole Sprouse, Harry Styles, and Luka Sabbat. Softboys might dabble in womanly apparel, challenging traditional masculinity and explicitly bathing in femininity. They display vulnerability on their social media platforms and in interviews and take on unconventional roles, while simultaneously rebranding a new image for the young male heartthrob—and the public can’t get enough of it.
Chalamet’s bankability speaks to the softboy range. His breakout role as Elio in 2017’s Call Me By Your Name, a film about a queer teen’s sexual awakening, drew in a diverse fanbase, and earned more than $41 million in worldwide box office. For the first time, I witnessed many of my straight female friends falling head over heels for a character whose interest lied in men. Part of the attraction can no doubt be linked to Chalamet’s Adonis-like facial features, but I’d wager most of it can be attributed to his softboy nature on the screen and his real-life comfort in playing a queer role.
Chalamet’s resume of soft and atypical performances has redefined the Hollywood male sex symbol as a cisgender guy coded in stereotypically female characteristics. The cultural impact has been immense and immediate for the modern non-fictional dude and those who seek him.
The softboy gets a rebrand
The term softboy was coined in 2015 by writer Alan Hanson in a Medium article exploring the concept. Often depicted as the opposite of a fuckboy, or the straight version of a gay male best friend (think about it), softboys were originally a label for men who shied away from stereotypical masculine traits and used their femininity and emotional vulnerability to draw in women—basically just sensitive, well-read, non-threatening fuckboys in sheep’s (or pastel) clothing.
Now that the term is being tied to real celebrities, the concept has been redefined, dropping the whole idea that softboys are just disguised fuckboys. Instead they’ve been reclassified as guys with good intentions and a lucid understanding of their emotions. It’s perhaps tempting to label any slender guy with soft skin, big eyes, and a small jawline as a softboy, based on his looks alone, but the character of the softboy transcends physicality and can appear in anyone.
The modern man is getting softer
The acceptance of the softboy look and softboy behavior has huge benefits, like combating toxic masculinity. It comes as no surprise, as a study from 2015 observed, that mindful men—who perceive their emotions without having to react to them, and who have mastered the work of finding the words to describe their feelings—strongly attract women. Another study, from 2017, found that only 7.4% of men rated athleticism and physical perfection to be very important and 14.4% rated it as unimportant. The same survey found that the traits most valued among men were dependability, reliability, honesty, and loyalty, suggesting a cultural change from the alpha-male ideals of past generations.
Since Chalamet began making waves at the box office, a plethora of successful Netflix films and TV shows on various networks featuring softboys in the leading-man roles have debuted. To name a few, there’s Noah Centineo in To All The Boys I Loved Before, the aforementioned Sprouse in Riverdale, Asa Butterfield in Sex Education, and Alex Lawther in The End of the F***ing World all fall into the softboy genre, and while all these characters have notably differing issues, movie lovers idolize them for their sensitivity—just look at the ratings.
Society has a long history of teaching men that manhood is mastered through power, strength, athleticism, and heterosexual prowess, but the new lead characters in Hollywood, who women are still going crazy for, do not share these goals.