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Quartz Obsession — Softboys — Card 1
The TikTok era has ushered in a wave of new terms for teen identities, like VSCO girls and e-girls and e-boys. But perhaps the most culturally significant teen trend to emerge in recent years is the rise of the softboy (or softboi, as some choose to stylize the word).
What is a softboy? Aesthetically, as Lauren Strapagiel writes for BuzzFeed News, he’s “someone who subverts the expectations of masculinity … Think pastels, fluffy sweaters, florals, chilling with foliage, and generally being a lil’ cutie.” He’s sweet-natured, in touch with his feelings, and feels no shame about crying when Beth dies in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. Perhaps he even stars in Little Women, as is the case with uber-softboy Timothée Chalamet, the actor who dabbles in fuchsia womenswear and launched a thousand floral suits.
In some respects, the softboy is just a new twist on a familiar type: the manicure-loving “metrosexuals” of the early 2000s, or the alternative slackers played by Ethan Hawke in Gen X classics like Reality Bites and Before Sunrise. But the softboy trend—and its parallel, the softgirl—is notable because it reflects Gen Z’s ease with the concept of gender fluidity, and the ways in which this generation is already challenging the traditional divides between masculinity and femininity.
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The word “softboy” didn’t always have positive connotations. When it first became common parlance, circa 2015, it was often used to refer to the kind of guy who was outwardly sensitive but emotionally manipulative and inconsiderate in practice. “Women are largely instruments to [the softboy], tools to prop up his self-esteem, rather than individuals with feelings as tender and as worthy of consideration as his own,” author Adelle Waldman told BuzzFeed. The concept caught on everywhere from France to the Philippines.
At the same time, however, the term began to be applied to a particular fashion style—one that, like many modern-day trends, from dewy skin to the reigning sounds of Top 40 radio, can be traced back to Korean pop culture. In South Korea, boy bands like BTS and EXO took the so-called “flowerboy” aesthetic mainstream, showing that gentle, wholesome demeanors and pastel color palettes could enrich, rather than detract from, one’s masculinity. The global K-pop explosion soon propelled this trend to the realm of Western celebrity style and streetwear fashion.
As men began to claim the label as their own, the definition shifted. Softboys are now largely perceived as genuinely vulnerable, rather than adopting a pose for misogynistic purposes. At the same time, it’s not a binding identity: The TikTok challenge #softszn last year highlighted people of all genders changing their looks in the blink of an eye. It’s a reminder that for open-minded members of Gen Z, gender identity is fluid and amorphous. Boys can be authentically soft, but they’re not stuck that way.
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Feeling slightly flummoxed by Gen Z categories? Here’s a quick breakdown of other reigning aesthetics among the non-softboy set.
📷 VSCO girl: The VSCO girl gets her name from a photo-editing app popular among today’s teens. This aesthetic has an eco-friendly, vaguely Californian vibe; trademarks of VSCO-girl style include scrunchies, oversized sweatshirts, and a Hydro Flask water bottle.
🕶 e-girls and e-boys: If the VSCO girl is all about sunshine and days at the beach, e-girls and e-boys are their indoorsy counterparts. Drawing inspiration from goth and skater styles as well as anime, e-boys boast floppy middle-parted hair and brooding gazes, while e-girls often have pink or green hair and winged eyeliner.
👟 Hypebeast: The hypebeast isn’t new, but this sneaker- and streetwear-loving breed is still very much alive. As with the term softboy, this word had initially insulting connotations, but has been reclaimed by those who are unashamed of their love of labels.
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“There isn’t a specific notion, or jean size, or muscle shirt, or affectation, or eyebrow raise, or dissolution, or drug use that you have to take part in to be masculine. It’s exciting. It’s a brave new world.”
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Quartz Obsession — Softboys — Card 6
Aug. 2015: The term “softboy” enters pop-culture consciousness thanks to Alan Hanson’s Medium essay, “Have You Encountered the Softboy?”
Sept. 2017: Harry Styles wears a diverse array of floral suits while on tour to promote his debut album, Harry Styles.
Nov. 2017: Timothée Chalamet stars in Call Me By Your Name, a romantic drama directed by Luca Guadagnino that introduces hordes of moviegoers to the softboy appeal.
March 2018: Vogue declares the influence of softboy style, “sweet with bookish, beatnik undertones,” on new designer menswear collections.
May 2018: Iona Erskine launches the Instagram account Beam Me Up Softboi, a user-submitted compilation of messages that exemplify the more ridiculous aspects of the persona.
April 2019: TikTok users declare spring #softszn, creating a meme in which people shed their edgy aesthetics for gentler looks.
June 2019: Cosmopolitan announces a new era of “softboy” contestants on ABC reality-TV juggernaut The Bachelorette.
Dec. 2019: French fashion house Celine features TikTok star and notable softboy Noen Eubanks in a new campaign.
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Quartz Obsession — Softboys — Card 7
Adolescence is a fairly recent cultural invention—and along with it came an influx of teenage subcultures, from the greasers and beatniks of the 1950s to the hippies and punks who came later. A look at the etymology of these subcultures over the past 70 years reveals that many of their names derive from the experiences of marginalized groups—a reflection of the way that youth subcultures seek to rebel against the dominant ideologies of their day.
“While the term ‘greaser’ was applied to the white working-class subculture as a result of their affinity for greased-back hair, Mexican-American working-class young men were already familiar with the term for another reason … The term had long been used as a derogatory name for young Mexican Americans who were subjected to jobs greasing the axles of carts in the mid-19th century.” —Lucia Torres, KCET (2017)
“Beat to his socks which was once the black’s most total and despairing image of poverty, was transformed into a thing called the Beat Generation, which phenomenon was, largely, composed of uptight, middle-class white people, imitating poverty, trying to get down, to get with it.” —James Baldwin, The New York Times (1979)
“As might be guessed, the word hippie is derived from the word hip, which conveys being up-to-date and fashionable. This meaning of hip is thought to have originated with African Americans during the Jive Era of the 1930s and ’40s.” —Mark Harris, The Atlantic (1967)
“Shakespeare was an early user of the word ‘punk,’ which originally meant ‘female prostitute’ … The word would go on to be used “as general description of contemptible or worthless people, petty criminals, cowards, weaklings, amateurs, apprentices and inexperienced youths in general.” —Zoë Wilcox, The British Library (2016)
“During World War I in the US, people who avoided the draft were known as ‘slackers.’ ‘Slacker Lists’ were printed in newspapers. Those who refused to purchase war bonds were publicly outed as ‘bond slackers.’” —David Kluft, Trademark & Copyright Law (2014)
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The unofficial emoticon for self-declared “soft girls” is UwU—a combination of letters meant to resemble a pair of closed eyes and a smiling face. The emoticon takes its inspiration from the way happy facial expressions are often depicted in anime and manga.
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Quartz Obsession — Softboys — Card 9
Children’s toys haven’t quite caught up with contemporary gender ideals, as this 2016 Saturday Night Live sketch points out. Featuring a faux advertisement for plastic toy wells for sensitive boys “to wish upon, confide in, and reflect by,” the sketch has great empathy for little boys who have zero interest in squirt guns and foam footballs. “Some boys live unexamined lives,” the narrator explains, “but this one’s heart is full of questions.”
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Quartz Obsession — Softboys — Card 10
Celebrities like Chalamet and Styles are the media’s favorite go-to examples of the softboy persona. But the label has also been applied to some more unexpected characters. Here’s a brief list of men who’ve been deemed softboys, including one that will make you see video games in a whole new way.