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Softboys, fuckboys, and everything in between are the new archetypes of masculinity. Gone are the days of Humphrey Bogart, slick cigarette and steely stare, smoke curling into greased back hair. The new heirs to the throne of masculinity are more suited to high chairs. As with most things these days, toxic masculinity is to blame. Only this time, it’s the push back against it that has led to these softboys and fuckboys, and they are even more toxic than what came before.
They may seem like a welcome diversion from more classic, American masculinity, what we now think of as toxic. A toxically masculine guy might call a woman a sweetheart, mansplain, catcall, hold the door for you, think you need help with luggage or heavy packages. A softboy knows better than to help women with anything, he knows that even the offer is unwelcome. Believing in the power of women means knowing they don’t need or want men for anything at all.
The contemporary softboy is derived from those non-threatening K-Pop icons, like the boys in BTS, Super Junior, and iKon. Soft, sweet, totally non-rapey, these guys, gals, and gender non-binaries often wear pastels and do cute things on TikTok. The downside of the softboy is that for all his soft sweetness, he turns to fluff when it’s time to actually stand up and take responsibility for being a viable partner.
Fuckboys are similar to softboys in that they are just as non threatening, but they’ve figured out that there’s no reason to make the woman they’re fucking happy more than intermittently. In fact, it’s to their advantage to keep her guessing on hey they feel about her because it leaves her no time to realize just how much of a fuckboy they are, or how little she’s getting from the interactions. The more irregular his affections, the more she will want them.
We used to call these guys jugglers. Dudes who could strum Indigo Girls songs on their acoustic guitars, who liked to hacky sack, and who, in every case, could juggle. They thought they were cute, but mostly they were non-threatening. They were expert at turning a declared cuddle sesh into sex. It was an effective game, but slightly skeevy, a little dishonest, and able to happen without any real amorous entanglements, or even as a prelude to it. They might talk about their shyness, they might like The Cure, and they definitely have exes with strings attached because they never properly broke up in the first place.
Back in the 1990s I went out with a boy who lived in an NYU dorm room with three other guys. We sat on his bed and ate hash brownies before a night out, as his roommate slipped into jammies and an actual sleeping cap. He tuned his guitar. As we were leaving, a girl came in wearing jammies, slippers, clutching a teddy bear. The whole scene seemed so innocent. “I’m here for story hour,” she said. He held up a copy of Dr. Seuss’ “Oh the Places You’ll Go,” and she giggled. Today this guy would be a some kind of cross between softboy and fuckboy. Those guys can probably juggle, too.
Humphrey Bogart, Jack Lemon, Robert Redford, and even Dick Van Dyke were swashbuckling tough guys with hearts of gold that represented the classic, American male archetype.
They did the right thing for the right reasons, and sometimes the wrong thing for the right reasons, but they were guided by innate principles of not fucking people over. Women and society at large have pushed back against these classic male roles, tearing them down for their chivalry and lack of emotional expression.
In their stead have arisen gentlemen who come over for a fuck but can’t even send a reasonably enthusiastic text the next day. Men who slouch so hard they seem shorter than any of the women they’re vaguely but not really courting who they want to want to sleep with them. We’re creating a society of man babies only to discover that what society needs are committed partners, not grown children who need endless attention and placating.
The social justice-led pushback against toxic masculinity has led to a decline in any kind of respect or appreciation for the male archetype that came before. What were we expecting from the new archetype of manhood? A guy who is in touch with his emotions and knows what his partner is feeling and has a good job that he’s passionate about that doesn’t run on fossil fuels and has him home in time to help with the kids’ homework and cook dinner and make love with a smile? That guy is as much a fantasy as the masculine tough guy with a heart of gold. Or the strong but silent type, or the distinguished gray, the hero, the joker.
These new manboys do not make good archetypes. These are guys that do not take charge of their lives or chart their own course. They sit back and let things happen, they are not active participants. We need men who are intentionally living their lives, guys who do. Instead, culture has pushed the aggression, straight-forward ambition, and competitive spirit right out of what we expect from masculinity. What we have are a bunch of boys too afraid to be men, too unwilling to step into the light and pursue something, anything.
With the ousting of toxic masculinity goes the swashbuckling heroes who swoop in and save the day, rescue damsels in distress, and fight losing battles simply to uphold their own principles of rectitude. That’s okay though, because no one wants those guys anymore anyway. We must want what we’ve gotten.
Toxic masculinity may have gotten a bad rap, but I think we’d all rather see a guy own himself, and his choices, a guy who assumes he’s got weight and matter in the world, is confident that he’s more worthwhile, and let’s you know it. Masculinity being toxic is problematic. Softboys and fuckboys do not present a picture of hotness. Classic masculinity, with all it’s brashness and bravado, is way hotter than a juggling asshole with a Dr. Seuss collection.