Softboys in the age of Millennial Masculinity
Keywords:Softboy, #MeToo, Masculinity, Gay men, Women, Film and television
The last decade has witnessed the rise of a new type of Hollywood film star: the softboy. Actors including Timothée Chalamet and Harry Styles all appeal to the stereotypical characteristics of this type—young, skinny, fashionable, clean-shaven, quirky, gentle and emotionally intelligent. By analysing a sample of mainstream media articles on the softboy published between 2015 and 2023, the following paper seeks to deepen our understanding of this influential internet type and the dominant stereotype of masculinity he undermines—what R. W. Connell termed hegemonic masculinity. More specifically, this paper explores the extent to which the softboy can be understood as the product of an overlapping matrix of demand from gay male and straight female film and television audiences. Within this matrix, the softboy emerges as the result of a delicate balancing act in which he avoids presenting either as too straight, too gay or too masculine. He achieves this balance through a range of strategies involving clothing choices, film role choices, choices about sharing his personal life with the public and a carefully curated public persona. Considering the softboy from a cultural materialist perspective, this paper argues that the affected personality traits and designed sexual ambivalence of the softboy can be understood as a response not of men themselves but of the entertainment industry to both the increased demand for this type from straight female audiences in the wake of the #MeToo movement and the increasingly recognised demand for this type from gay male audiences. For straight women, the softboy appears to have superseded the stereotype of the muscled, bearded, deep-voiced or emotionally unavailable man in the hierarchy of desire precisely because he resists being easily framed as an aggressor. Meanwhile, either by playing gay roles in films or pandering to a stereotypically gay aesthetic or set of behaviours, these actors appeal simultaneously to the gay male audience. This analysis therefore attempts to construe contemporary changes in the nature of masculinity as it is represented by the rise of the softboy film star in terms of fundamental changes in the market of desire.
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