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The rise of the Soft Boy

Words by Rachael Akhidenor

Art-throb.

There’s a new man in town. And he’s sensitive, intelligent, creative and, well… soft. Of course, I’m talking about the Soft Boy. The Soft Boy is the new decade’s response to toxic masculinity and the #MeToo world.

You don’t have to take my word for it, but there is a serious amount of very scientific evidence to back me up.

Think Harry Styles in a sheer ruffle blouse and a pearl earring at the Met Gala. Think Timothée Chalamet in a floral hand-painted suit on the red carpet. Think Donald Glover in a bright red satin button-down with a floral arrangement in his lapel. What we once would have shunned as ‘too feminine’, ‘strange’ and ‘eccentric’ is now being embraced by pop culture as cool, alluring and downright sexy.

The Soft Boy is the heartthrob who cares, who listens, who waxes lyrical about philosophy and poetry and feminism. He is the one who orders a fruity cocktail at a bar because he’s so comfortable with his masculinity.

The Soft Boy is not an entirely new phenomenon. He has been lurking in artsy cafes, dark bars, and dusty libraries for decades past. The Soft Boy was Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character in 500 Days of Summer. He was Seth Cohen in The OC. He has been a staple in K-Pop for years. The boy bands who were too feminine to be of the classically masculine type were branded as soft, emotional, sensitive.

While the ’00s yielded this particular brand of Soft Boy (mostly white, straight, cis-gender men with a propensity for melodrama and a taste for Manic Pixie Dream Girls), there is something quite different about this decade’s heartthrob (or should we say art-throb?). The Soft Boy of the 2020s is the man who intentionally subverts gender norms. He physically displays his soft and gentle nature through clothing, jewellery, haircuts and shoes. The new and improved Soft Boy is more risk-taking and gender-defying than ever before.

Last decade, ‘toxic masculinity’ burst into the mainstream consciousness. The #MeToo movement did much to bring to the fore the ways in which our previous ideals of the ‘tough man’ negatively impacted society and the people in it. In an instant, the ‘macho’, stoic, non-emotional man of the past appeared dangerous and outdated.  it was only a matter of time before the new rendition of masculinity took hold of the hearts and loins of teenage girls and boys everywhere.

The increased awareness around mental health may also have aided in the Soft Boy’s rise. Statistics show suicide rates are three times higher in males than in females. An increasing number of men in sport and the media opened up about their struggles with depression and anxiety. The concept of suppressing one’s emotions in the name of being a ‘man’ has become increasingly troublesome. While there is still much work to do in this area, men are now more encouraged than ever to open up and speak out.

The rise of feminism may also provide an explanation as to this sudden shift in the qualities that make the man of the moment. As women evolved to take on more masculine roles in society, ones where they earn their own money and run their own companies, men and their traditional roles have been required to evolve. And in the last five years, the whole gender spectrum and our understanding of the concept has radically evolved.

Isabelle Truman and Grace O’Neill of the podcast After Work Drinks even suggest this reflective in the fashion of the time. Female-identifying people have turned to menswear as a display of the effortless, sexy and chic. Navy or grey power suits, leather loafers, and oversized dress shirts.

As such, it’s only inevitable that males are beginning to walk red carpets in classically female apparel – pink satin blouses, pussy bows, florals and jewellery. Gender lines are blurring, bending, wavering. In the home, in the office, and now, in the wardrobe. In an infamous interview with L’Officiel in 2018, Harry Styles touted: “We no longer need to be this or that. I think now, people are just trying to be good. In fashion and other fields, these parameters are no longer as strict as before, and it gives rise to great freedom. It’s stimulating.”

In any case, I believe the rise of the Soft Boy is a positive one. Men have, for too long, been told to idolise a single and damaging ideal of masculinity. The man who shows power through violence and champions hardness as a strength is to be left in the last decade.

While the men in our lives may not be running out to purchase a satin ruffle blouse or a pearl-drop earring any time soon, there will be an undeniable shift in their attitude. The 2020s is the decade where male sensitivity is to be championed and vulnerability is sexy.

Here’s to the men of the new age. You are a welcome change.

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